On Saturday, at Wimbledon’s Centre Court, Serena and Venus Williams extended their generational dominance of women’s tennis in electric fashion. They went head to head for the twenty-first time and Serena took an 11-10 lead in their sibling rivalry. But amidst the drama of watching two of the finest athletes of their era clash, the specter of sexism haunted the All England Club. Early in the tournament officials blithely admitted that for women players “physical attractiveness is taken into consideration” when it comes to court assignments. As the Daily Mail explained, “While a succession of easy-on-the-eye unknowns have appeared in Wimbledon’s prime arena, the top women’s seeds have been relegated to lesser courts.”
Several players, including some of these “easy-on-the-eye unknowns,” were upset with the setup. But much of the media dismissed the story as unimportant. L.Z. Granderson, a normally sane voice in the ESPN archipelago, wrote a column in which he stated simply, “I don’t see the harm.” After conceding the obvious–that the policy is sexist–Granderson played devil’s advocate: “I actually find the Wimbledon officials’ honesty quite refreshing…. last I checked, gender equity in the workplace wasn’t a beer on tap at the Kit Kat Club. Sometimes people like what they like, and accepting that also requires a certain degree of tolerance.”
That would mean tolerance for sexism, an acceptance of the fact that no matter what their skills, women athletes should be prepared to be seen as objects first and athletes second. The fact that sportswriters don’t only ignore this practice but defend it is more than just annoying, upsetting or infuriating. It’s tired.
Women athletes find themselves in the same vise they have been in for a century: with sexism on one side and homophobia on the other. Accepting this sexist construct has become conventional wisdom for how to market and sell women’s sports: sex, and specifically hetero sex, sells.
As Granderson writes:
Organizers are trying to sell their sport and believe the casual, straight male fan is more apt to watch attractive women–because if they had a love of the game, they wouldn’t be casual fans, would they? In a sport in which Anna Kournikova, a player without a singles title, can become the most popular on tour, no one should be surprised by any of this.
While Granderson is entitled to his own opinion, that doesn’t mean he’s entitled to his own facts. We now have some definitive answers as to whether sex sells women’s sports or if it just sells sex. Dr. Mary Jo Kane, sports sociologist from the University of Minnesota, specializes in gender and sport for women and undertook a far-reaching study of images of women athletes putting their bodies on display for a wide-ranging focus group of both men and women. Kane found a very basic truth: sex may sell airport frat-porn like Maxim magazine, but it doesn’t sell women’s sports.
Kane believes these images “alienate the core of the fan base that’s already there. Women, age 18 to 55, are offended by these images. And older males, fathers with daughters, taking their daughters to sporting events to see their favorite female athletes, are deeply offended by these images.”
As for the young men excited to see their Women of the Olympics Playboy issue, Kane notes, “They want to buy the magazines but they didn’t want to consume the sports.”
This should be an earth-shaking revelation for every executive in the Women’s Tennis Association, the WNBA and the LPGA, who have for decades operated under the assumption that a little leg goes a long way.
But women’s sports, Kane argues, will need more than logic to move away from the abyss of abject objectification.
“This is deeper. This is also about what runs in the bone marrow of women’s sports, namely homophobia. They are very well-meaning but they also want to distance themselves from the lesbian label. How do you do that? You reassure the viewing audiences, the corporate sponsors, the TV networks, and the female athletes themselves, that, No, no, no–sports won’t make your daughter gay. Women’s sports will be more acceptable if you believe, even though it is stereotypical and inaccurate, that if you are pretty and feminine in a traditional sense then you are not gay.”
We like to think that women’s sports can be a avenue for liberation–a place where young girls can sweat, frolic, compete, get healthy and have the safe space to do anything but have to feel “ladylike.” I can’t help but remember the words of Martina Navratilova, who complimented the great Billie Jean King by saying she “embodied the crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock.” It’s long past time for a new generation of women athletes, coaches and sportswriters to grab the flag and say that having a zero-tolerance policy for sexism is at heart about asserting the humanity of each and every participant.