What John McEnroe & Others are Getting so Very Wrong

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If you haven’t heard by now, on Sunday while lauding Serena Williams as the best female tennis player of all time, legendary American player John McEnroe also said that if she had played on men’s circuit she’d probably only be “like 700 in the world.” This of course prompted an outcry from many who took issue with McEnroe creating rankings out of thin air and many who believe Williams’ talents would place her higher than 700. For her part, Williams remained a regal as ever and politely asked McEnroe to keep her name out of his mouth. Despite the clamor, we didn’t get an apology from McEnroe. Instead, he doubled down on his comments and suggested that rather than speculating about how men and women tennis players match up; players should start engaging in more battles of the sexes.

You might recall that in 1973 Bobby Riggs opined that the women’s tennis game was far inferior to the men’s game and that he, at the time a 55-year-old retiree, was still too much for the top women players of the time. These comments led to the famed Battle of the Sexes which pitted Riggs against Margaret Court, Riggs against Billie Jean King and, later in 1992, Jimmy Connors against Martina Navratilova. The matches were entertaining and proved that women produced quality sportsmanship. But the thing is, they never should have happened.

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Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs

Throughout sports history, women have always been compared to men. The comparisons initially and often had their source in men like Riggs who aimed to degrade the efforts of women. Their style of warfare against women was to compare the speed, size and strength of men and women. Because women would undoubtedly average slower times, display smaller frames and exude less strength; women’s sports would always be inferior to men’s (or so their rationale went). Those arguments continue today. Men use the same excuse not to watch women play basketball because the game they produce isn’t as fast as the men’s and doesn’t involve high-flying dunks and other theatrics. Women’s hockey and baseball (for instance) don’t receive support because they’re supposedly men’s games that women just can’t play as well.

Over time, in an effort to defend ourselves and earn equal pay, women have adopted the comparison model too. We fight long and hard to prove the sports product we produce is just as good as the men’s. In fact, the fight for equal pay in tennis, soccer and hockey are prime examples of women arguing that we should be paid equally to men because we we’re just as good. We win just as much (if not more), we bring in just as much (if not more) revenue and we work just as has hard (if not harder) as the men. In women’s basketball we’re constantly trying to prove that the WNBA provides quality basketball just like the men’s game and trying to convince the world not to be turned off by UConn’s dominance.

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But here’s the thing, there is no comparison. Men and women are different. We are different anatomically, physiologically and socially. We’re different for good reasons like procreation, diversity and good old fashioned excitement. These differences lead us to produce and express ourselves differently. Our differences mean that women are going to play sports and be athletic in ways that are different than men. Men will be able to do things women can’t do and women will be able to do things that men can’t do. And you know what, that is ok. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being different. Different doesn’t mean inferior or superior. It just means different.

Rather than appreciating and celebrating that men and women are not the same kind of athletes, men and women place too much energy into comparing apples to oranges. Men and women in sports have shown us greatness in their own rights. Serena Williams is great regardless of how many points she can win off Novak Djokovic. Britney Griner is a master at her craft even if she never dunks against on Russell Westbrook. And there’s nothing anyone can do to take away the legacy that is the US Women’s soccer team. Women play sports with our own form of power, grace, elegance, strength and strategy. How about we celebrate that instead of comparing us to something we’ll never be, men.

Oh, and in case you forgot…Serena is Queen. 😉

GENUINE PATRIOTISM

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If you read this blog with any sort of regularity, and by now you definitely should be, you know that I played sports for practically my entire childhood and until I graduated from college. I played tennis through college, ran track until I got to college and played soccer up until I got to high school. Last week, Megan Rapinoe, women from the Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury and other women in sports took knees during the National Anthem in protest of racial injustices in the United States. Watching these women and reading the comments sections (note to reader: never read the comments section) under articles about these women took me back to the days where my athletic prowess was on fleek. What dawned on me was that I don’t ever remember having the National Anthem played or flag raised at any of my events. Now maybe my 32-year-old mind is leaving out an occasional occurrence, but I can say with absolute certainty that it was nowhere near routine for the National Anthem to be played or flag to be acknowledged at the tennis matches, track meets or soccer games that I played in from my childhood to early adulthood.  But the way Americans have reacted to a handful of athletes kneeling for the Anthem suggests that reverence for Old Glory before sporting events is a time-honored, almost mandatory tradition.  So how was I robbed of such a large part of American culture for so long?

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Let’s Pray for Our Haters

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There are many things I’d like to be writing about.  I’d like to write about how No. 7 Washington upset No. 2 Maryland last night or how NFL great Randall Cunningham has a daughter who is absolutely murdering the competition in the high jump.  Instead of writing about those wonderful things, however, I’m pondering yet another response to some baseless, misogynistic comments that mischaracterize women and their role in sports.  This time the comments come from respected people in the tennis community.  When asked about the state of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, CA (“Indian Wells”) as it related to the WTA, recently resigned tournament co-founder and CEO Raymond Moore stated,

“…in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, (laughter) because they ride the coattails of the men.  They don’t make any of the decisions and they are lucky.  They are very, very lucky.  If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.  They really have.”

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HOW ERICA KINSMAN & AMBER ROSE WON THIS WEEK

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This week women have had some newsworthy victories.  On Monday, it was announced that Florida State University (FSU) would pay Erica Kinsman $950,000 and commit itself to sexual assault awareness, prevention and training programs in exchange for Kinsman dismissing her Title IX lawsuit against the school.  Yesterday, Amber Rose got a win for every woman who has been shamed because of her sexuality when she quite effortlessly dismissed her ranting ex, Kanye West, and his childish antics.  While these ladies, one a co-ed from a small town in Florida and the other one of the most recognizable models in the world, may seem eons apart, they and their victories really are quite closely related.  You see, Kinsman sued FSU for its mishandling of her claim that she was raped by former FSU quarterback, Jameis Winston[1].  In a legal sense, she sued FSU for sexual discrimination.  And Rose, well I’ll get back to Rose in a minute.  For now, let’s focus on Kinsman, FSU and Title IX. Continue reading

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER OUTING

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Last night SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam of Missouri, announced that he is gay.  Of course the media went hog wild after the 6’2”, 255lb defensive end who seems to be heading to the NFL put his personal preference on public display in an effort to silence rumors about his sexuality began that began to circulate at last month’s Senior Bowl.  To no one’s surprise questions and opinions are abound regarding, for instance, what affects the announcement may have his chances of being drafted and on potential future teammates.  I’m sure the questions and speculation will continue over the next several weeks until his NFL fate is announced, but what what’s really interesting to me is how dissimilar the experiences have become for male and female athletes who are “out” about their sexuality. 

If you recall, last year one of the biggest stars women’s basketball has seen in a while, Brittney Griner, formally announced that she was/is a lesbian.  I say formally, because I know there was little doubt about Griner’s sexuality prior to her making the announcement, so her announcement did not surprise many people.  She made the announcement and there was no general uproar or major discussion about how her sexuality would affect her career.  While openly gay men in the NFL or NBA may be an anomaly and cause for discussion, women’s sports are no stranger to having and embracing openly gay athletes.  To the contrary, many women, especially in basketball, find themselves fighting the assumption that they are lesbian or bisexual because they play sports.  Even in 2014, a strong, at times aggressive woman, has to be a lesbian, right? (Insert eye roll.) While announcements like Griner’s and Amelie Mauresmo’s and Abby Wambach’s don’t necessarily happen everyday, the frequency with which they have occurred and the underlying gender stereotypes about masculinity and sports seem to have made lesbian and bisexual athletes more accepted in society than their male counterparts, who are often forced to portray a masculine, heterosexual image. 

I think it’s great that women’s sports have embraced lesbian and bisexual athletes, but I think it would be even better if athletes could just…be.  It would be nice if a woman’s muscles had no bearing on her femininity or sexual preference.  It would be wonderful if it really didn’t matter who an athlete slept with when they went home at night.  It would be awesome if athletes didn’t feel compelled to “out” themselves because they were judged and admired for their skills and their skills alone. These things would be great, but as it stands now, they aren’t a reality. Female athletes are analyzed for their skills AND their femininity. People make assumptions about female athletes that have no bearing on their skill sets. Female athletes are called lesbians if they’re too muscular or don’t flaunt their sexuality. And they are subjected to criticism if they make money off of their good looks and curves.  I hope that one day female athletes can just be athletes, but for now, they battle sexual biases and stereotypes, as do males athletes, they just fight the battles a little differently.

Beyoncé on Sports Marketing

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Earlier this week the Beyhive and the whole internet was abuzz after the sagacious Queen Bey came off of her thrown and delivered a brief essay on equality.  With a focus on equal pay, Beyoncé encouraged both women and men to demand that women be treated as equals in the workplace.  I’m the first one to tell you that I’m no Beyoncé Stan and that she’s probably not one of the first celebrities I would look to for advice, but I admit that she was spot on with her assessment.  Women have never been treated equally in the workplace.  And that lack of equality in the workplace has translated to disparaging/disproportionate treatment in the marketplace.  Women have been force-fed products that align with archaic ideas of what it means to be a woman and producers have avoided making efforts to market “boy toys” to female consumers.  Women get sold vacuum cleaners and cookware, not Chevy’s and lawn mowers.  Unfortunately, the sports world is no different.  For years, major league sports have done little to market their sports and their products to women.  The NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR and NHL have all traditionally been boys clubs where women were only allowed as cheerleaders, wives or girlfriends.  Recent statistics show; however, that women have eased their way from being supporting cast members to legitimate fans.  The growth of female sports fans should definitely be cause for consideration for the marketing departments in major league sports. 

Here are a few quick facts that should encourage any sports market strategist to take heed to female consumers.  As Beyoncé correctly pointed out, women make up more than 50% of the population.  And according to various economic sources, women control about 80% of spending in the U.S.  At least 40% of the fan base in each league (NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR, NHL) are females.  These numbers mean that if major leagues are only focusing their attentions on the 50% of the population that is responsible for only 20% of spending decisions, they’re missing out on a large amount of revenue.  Women spend money on things for themselves, but they also spend on things for their families and friends.  They make decisions about date nights, family outings and girls’ trips, and they encourage other women to spend their money in the same ways that they spend money.  With all of these opportunities for women to make decisions about spending, major leagues are doing themselves a great disservice by not catering to female their consumers. 

While most of the major league organizations have not been aggressive in targeting their female fans, one has and its efforts have paid off handsomely.  The NFL, with its annual breast cancer awareness campaign and revamped clothing lines aimed at women, has seen a remarkable increase in revenue and female fan participation and satisfaction.  The more attractive the products are to women, the more women have been inclined to purchase products and attend games.  While the MLB made efforts by joining with Victoria Secret to create a line of women’s tops and the NBA made those horrible high heels, there is still more that can be done, much more.  For example, leagues (the NFL included) can target other women’s health issues, like heart disease, osteoporosis and autoimmune diseases (like lupus and diabetes); conduct more family-oriented activities; improve access to restrooms throughout stadiums and tailgating areas; and continue to increase variety in apparel.  The benefits (to the leagues and the fans) of considering the female fan’s interests far outweigh any initial costs and changes can be made without disrupting the male fan experience, what’s not to love.  

If someone would have told me that I was going to wake up this morning and use Beyoncé as a point of reference for a sports article, I would have laughed.  Beyoncé’s words; however, rang true and are relevant even in sports.  Female athletes, coaches and executives get paid less and are far less represented in the media than their male counterparts.  With so much inequality among the engineers of sports, it’s no wonder that marketers haven’t taken a more aggressive approach to improving upon the female fan experience.  As time progresses and women’s sports grow, I have a good feeling that women will be able to demand more.  More as athletes, more as coaches, more as execs, and more as fans.      

HATE THE SEC? I MAY HAVE SOME FUEL FOR YOUR FIRE

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On Monday night, much of America watched as the Florida State Seminoles took on the Auburn Tigers for the last BCS Championship game. In a game for the ages, FSU pulled out a 3-point victory in the last 5:00 minutes of the game, winning FSU its third BCS National Championship and putting an end to the SEC’s streak of winning national championships (7 in-a-row).  As I scrolled through various social media outlets during and after the game, I noticed one of two sentiments:  1) people supported the SEC and Auburn, and 2) people vehemently opposed the SEC.  Of the second group, many people didn’t really care which team in the country won the national championship as long as the team wasn’t from the SEC.  I briefly mentioned this to a SEC-supporting friend of mine and his response was, “Yeah.  Everyone hates the SEC.  We won too many straight.”  He’s probably right; the American way is capitalism without monopolies.  It’s ok to do extremely well, but don’t completely dominate. The SEC’s mastery of the football field had gotten to an unacceptable level for many. 

For those of you in the second group (to be clear, this South Carolina gal LOVES the SEC), I’m here to provide you with a little icing on your SEC-hater cake.  Last month the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota and the Alliance of Women Coaches revealed the results of their study, A Report on Head Coaches of Select NCAA Division-I FBS Teams, on the status of female college coaches at 76 of the biggest NCAA Division I programs.  The study assessed the number of female head coaches who were coaching female teams and revealed that the SEC (when compared with the ACC, Pac-12, Big East*, Big 12, Big 10 and AAC**), for the second straight year, had the worst showing.  The study gave grades from an A to an F based on the percentage of female coaches.***  A school was given an “A” if 70-100% of its coaches were female, a “B” if 55-69% were female, a “C” if 40-54% were female, a “D” if 25-39% were female, and an “F” if 0-24% were female.  Of the 14 SEC schools, 4 received Fs, 8 received Ds, 1 received a C, 1 received a B, and no one received an A.  *Cue the boos from the SEC-hater clan.* Yes, the SEC dominates in football, but is failing in hiring female coaches.

Unfortunately, the SEC is not alone in its dismal display of female coaches.  That’s right, here’s where I tell you that you can spread your disdain around on a more equitable basis.  Of the remaining conferences, only one conference (the AAC) had a school that received an “A” (Cincinnati), and the majority of the other schools received C’s and D’s.  So the lack of female coaches exists across the country, not just in the SEC.  In 1972 when Title IX was enacted, 90% of women’s teams had female coaches.  More than 40 years later, the percentage is down to a mere 39.6%.  This statistic is even more alarming when you consider that female participation in NCAA sports is at an all-time high. 

So what gives, why has there been such a significant decline in female coaches.  The study revealed a correlation between the prominence of head coaching positions and the number of female coaches.  The data shows that as head coaching positions became more and more prominent, garnering more money and respect, schools hired fewer numbers of female coaches.  This says two things to me: 1) male coaches did not care to coach women until they saw the benefit in it for themselves and male sports became too competitive; and 2) institutions supported gender stereotypes about leadership by replacing many female coaches with male coaches.  These two things have broadened the spectrum of possible positions for male coaches and made coaching for females more difficult.  While there is absolutely nothing wrong with men coaching women, this gradual phasing out of female coaches must stop.  Besides the fact that principles of equality say that talented, capable and willing women should be given the opportunity to occupy head coaching positions, the decline in female coaches is a hindrance to the development of women in general, female athletes and society as a whole.

The failure to place women in head coaching positions prohibits the expansion of female role models.  If women are allowed to reclaim these positions, young women are more likely to view coaching as viable profession, pursue coaching, and in turn expand the role of women in society and women’s sports.  Female coaches can provide insight and advice to female athletes that male coaches cannot match.  For athletes themselves, having a female coach can provide a more nurturing, relatable environment that helps athletes develop as women and not just as athletes.  For society as a whole, returning women to head coaching positions plays against and marginalizes stereotypes that women do not belong in and cannot handle positions of power and authority.  As women are successful in these positions, society is less likely to question females’ abilities to be leaders. 

None of this is to suggest that men stop coaching women.  I think coaches like Gino Auriemma have more than proven their worth to the success of women’s sports.  What it is meant to suggest is that (at least in Division-I) schools are doing their female athletes and society a disservice by failing to employ more female coaches.  Female coaches have the same abilities to coach female athletes as do their male counterparts, but their presence offers important intangible things that male coaches simply cannot offer.  Schools should be jumping at the opportunity to have staff that promote the growth of women’s sports and women’s places in society.  I hope that these results bring shame to these and other colleges and motivate and encourage them to change the way the staff their women’s teams. 

Click these links for more information on the Tucker Center, the Alliance of Women Coaches, and their studies. 

*The study did not report on Butler or Creighton.

**The study only reported on 6 schools in the AAC.

***Female coaches refers to the head female coaches who coach female sports.