Civil rights laws have been around for over 50 years allowing women of color to find equal footing in the workplace. The Women’s Voting Right act has been around just shy of 100 years, giving women a voice in the political forum through the ballot box. The equal rights act that allows same sex couples to marry is now legal in the United States. In 1972, Title IX was passed prohibiting discrimination against girls and women in federally funded education, including in athletics programs.
Yet, as of 2015, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “In 2015, female full-time workers made only 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 21 percent.”This begs the question of the status of gender inequality for women in broader society, and specifically professional sports.
To see the disparate representation of women in and around the major sports leagues, one only has to look as far as football. It is still unthinkable to have women play football with men. According to Shape Magazine, as of 2015 1,600 women were playing high school football along with their male counterparts. But, as 2012-2013 statistics showed, there are 1,088,158 high school football players in America. That means that .001 percent of the high school football players in America are women. At the collegiate level, there are 10 female football players. And on the professional level, there are zero female football players in the NFL.
There are pundits who may argue the that football is not a safe sport for women to play. Think again. While football ranks as one of the most dangerous high school sports with 1.96 injuries per 100,000 players, cheerleading has an even worse injury record with 2.68 injuries per 100,000 competitors, according to Shape. The notion that football is unsafe for women is a valid, but a statistically inaccurate argument. But while women are still not permitted to play with the boys, the landscape is beginning to change to welcome more women in and around the game as referees, coaches and broadcasters and color commentators.
And it is not just football that is changing. The San Antonio Spurs of the NBA hired the first female assistant head coach in league history in 2014. The second female assistant head coach was hired in 2015. The league now has three female referees. The MLB is not far behind. Although there are no female coaches in the majors, the Oakland Athletics hired a female instructor to work in its 2015 instructional league.
The FOX Broadcasting Company debuted a series in September about a young pitcher who becomes the first woman to play Major League Baseball. Three of the most popular sports in America are leading the charge for women’s equality in professional sports, while the entertainment industry theorizes what breaking the gender barrier on the playing field might look like.
The state of women’s professional sports leaves much to be desired. Take, for example, the U.S. Women’s National Team. They were forced to play on a subpar field during a World Cup qualifying game. The event garnered national attention, and it even led to the serious injury of a star player. In another event, a pro women’s soccer team from the National Women’s Soccer League was forced to play on a pitch that was well below regulation size. If such an event can happen to a national team, what else is transpiring within women’s pro sports that the public is unaware of?
It is widely known that pro sports cheerleaders are not well paid. They have to work other jobs, are held to high—sometimes unrealistic—standards for their appearance, and work long hours. In fact, when the NFL cheerleaders tried to change some of these stringent rules, the move also got a lot of national attention. Some of the rules they had to follow include having to buy specific teeth-whitening gum on their own dime as directed by their supervisors, not sitting down unless being told to, being told how to eat soup, being told not to use words like “you all,” and being told how to use women’s sanitary products. It is hard to imagine a professional male football player being told how to wear protective gear for the groin, or what slang could not be used during a game. These are just two instances that were porous enough to get attention. One can only imagine what else goes on in women’s professional sports beyond the public eye.
As if being forced to play on subpar surfaces and follow insane rules are not enough, some women’s professional leagues go to lengths that can be seen as demoralizing to women. No better example exists than the Legends Football League, which began as TheLingerie Football League. In this league, women play in shoulder pads, helmets, and knee and elbow pads, and the women play in bras and panties. What kind of message does it send to young girls that to play an organized sport such as football, they have to seemingly degrade themselves by playing nearly naked?
All told, women have made tremendous progress in society and sports. From higher positions in business, to more recognition in the formation of pro leagues for women, things are looking up. However, the lack of women’s participation in male-dominated sports at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels is alarming. It shows just how far women have to go to gain gender equality in sports. In addition, the treatment of women on women’s professional sports teams is deplorable, and further illustrates just the path left to gender equality in pro sports. Despite all of this, the major sports leagues are slowly introducing initiatives to include women in their respective sports in other ways, mainly through coaching and refereeing. Although not a complete answer to equality, it is a starting point that generations may look back on as the tipping point for gender equality in pro sports. Until then, as Annie says, the sun will come out tomorrow. Let’s hope for brighter days ahead for women’s equality in society and see it reflected in youth, and especially professional sports.