Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Dec. 8, 2021

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Attitudes toward female athletes evolving

Micah Rice: Commentary

By , Columbian Sports Editor

Though it came across as a bit creepy, the older gentleman meant well.

Standing near the girls court at the high school basketball state tournament in Tacoma, I made small talk with the stranger.

He explained why he preferred women’s basketball to the men’s game. He enjoyed the less-frenetic pace. He lauded the off-ball movement and passing.

But those weren’t the main appeal.

“After all, I’d much rather watch a bunch of young women run around than young men,” he said.

Uh … nice talking to you. But I have a deadline coming up.

As long as sports have existed, some have paid as much attention to the bodies playing the game as the game itself.

It’s more blatant in women’s sports, where athletes who fit a certain model of beauty have historically gotten more attention and endorsements.

But a few recent events give me hope that we’re getting closer to leaving that behind.

As Serena Williams was blazing her way to her sixth Wimbledon title earlier this month, the New York Times published an article one could only hope was exhumed from a 1960s time capsule.

No such luck. In story under the headline “Tennis’s top women balance body image with ambition,” Williams’ muscular physique was contrasted against other players who, either by nature or nurture, have a more feminine appearance.

The story struck a nerve. Readers voiced their anger to the extent that Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a lengthy column on the backlash. She ultimately criticized the article as a “missed opportunity” to dispel outdated views on female athletes.

Sullivan’s column quoted Pat Griffin, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who has written on sports and discrimination.

“Sacrificing your femininity is a really old narrative in women’s sports,” Griffin said. “There is a whole new narrative breaking through — that women athletes come in all sizes, shapes and forms.”

Sullivan also quoted New York Times sports editor Jason Stallman, who defended the story by saying “In covering sports, we can’t not write about women’s bodies.”

Uh… yes you can. Just look at the coverage surrounding the United States Women’s World Cup team.

Before and during the tournament, the American players were never portrayed as pinup girls who could play. Instead, they played great soccer, kicked the world’s butt, drew record TV ratings and became the first all-female sports team to be feted with a Manhattan ticker-tape parade.

And speaking of kicking butt, UFC champion Ronda Rousey is making a case for being the biggest badass in sports. Last week, ESPN honored her as fighter of the year over Floyd Mayweather.

Football and men’s basketball dominate the sports landscape, and it’s easy to see why. Those games have the most physicality, speed and history, all of which make for great entertainment.

Women’s sports don’t have the same popular appeal. But it’s a sign of progress if female athletes are lauded for their strength, ability and accomplishments regardless of whether they fit a certain body type.

Sports, like the athletes who play them, come in all shapes and sizes.

And all are beautiful in their own right.