Instead of pushing for women’s sports to catch up with men’s, let’s redefine sports(wo)manship altogether.
We are living in inspiring times for women’s sports, particularly basketball. The most recent WNBA Players Agreement raised overall compensation by 53 percent, upgraded player travel packages and instituted a full-paid maternity leave. The new in-season tournament allows for performance-based bonuses and the formation of WNBA Changemakers—a collective of values-driven businesses—which has spurred multi-year sponsorships and marketing agreements with major corporations. Players also raised the visibility of Black Lives Matter and uplifted Democratic senatorial candidates in the 2020 election.
But look at the WNBA and NBA side by side and there is so much more work to do. The average pay for a male player this season is $7.7 million, while the top players for the WNBA can expect $225,000. NBA TV aired 107 live men’s games in 2021–22, compared with 35 women’s games. March Madness is upon us, yet basketball fans find it difficult to find a regularly updated NCAA women’s bracket, not to mention consistent media coverage.
On March 14, Congress sent a letter to the president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, opening with, “We write regarding the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) inadequate progress in addressing historically disparate treatment of men and women student athletes.” It’s worth reading.
As women’s sports make progress (however slow), it is imperative to examine the crucial problems characteristic of the industry and decide what equality can look like. Is the male model of sports really the standard worth striving for? What does a healthy sports culture look like and how can we foster that with the evolution of women’s sports?
Here are four reasons why men’s sports are not the gold standard—they’re the relic of a problematic past.
Profit Over People
In the NBA, athletes are treated as sources of capital. They may be paid well and reap celebrity status when they’re profitable, but performance in the short term supersedes long-term health. Just look at the cases of 315 former NFL players diagnosed with CTE. How about the NFL’s efforts to pull funding on concussion research or their use of race-based brain testing?
Coaches are forcing their institutions to build lavish, athlete-only facilities in order to enable them to recruit athlete teenagers so they can increase their own salaries.
Also, college sports revenues continue to increase, but only 20 to 25 of 2000 higher education athletic programs each year operate in the black. College athletic programs are generously subsidized by institutional general funds (student tuition) and mandatory student athletic fees, effectively operating on the backs of non-athlete students dealing with all-time highs in tuition and leaving school with $39,351 average annual student loan debts. College athletes in revenue sports, a majority of whom are Black, receive a softening of traditional academic standards and are typically asked to sacrifice their health and well-being to meet the insatiable time demands of a multi-million-dollar business.
Coaches are forcing their institutions to build lavish, athlete-only facilities in order to enable them to recruit athlete teenagers so they can increase their own salaries. Thankfully, there are multiple collegiate athletics reform bills before the U.S. Congress triggered by this exploitative NCAA system benefitting from over $130 billion in federal student loan support that is subsidizing athletic programs with little or no financial controls.
PR Over Justice
From the acquittal of O.J. Simpson to the insidious history of sexual assault at Baylor University and many other colleges, male sports culture shields perpetrators from criminal justice, particularly when it comes to violence against women. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, there were 18 allegations of sexual assault and 46 allegations of domestic violence across the NFL, MLB and NBA. Only one resulted in a conviction. PR concerns reign supreme.
Discouraging Free Speech
The supposed apolitical stance of professional sports is its own form of politics bent on silencing athletes with ideas and ideals. Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality, remains without a team.
Demonstrations have all but disappeared (with the WNBA and women’s soccer notable exceptions). The International Olympic Committee has banned athlete protests at the Olympics and NCAA athletes have gone silent following a brief period of post-George Floyd, COVID-19 and 2021 Women’s Final Four protests of gender inequality.
The message is clear: Values are not worth the dollars they cost. Leaders in the college and professional sports arena have the money, power and reach to take a stand against social problems that are deeply enmeshed in the culture of sport: human trafficking, domestic violence, racial discrimination, just to name a few. They should be allowed to use this power.
Homogenous Leadership and Inequitable Hiring Practices
While men’s sports may look diverse, the leadership in sport administration is dismally homogenous. Seventy-one percent of sports agents are male, 84 percent of general managers in the NFL are white, 92 percent of Division I athletic directors are white, 83 percent of sports editors are male—and so on.
The beauty of sport lies in its widespread appeal, with people of every imaginable identity engaged and interested. Such an impactful industry needs to examine its own power structures. Meanwhile, the racial diversity in the women’s college game has 12 Black women coaches in this year’s tournament (up from six last year).
As we fill out our March Madness brackets, let’s think about how we want the sports industry to change. Instead of brainstorming ways for women’s sports to “catch up” with men’s sports, let’s fight for the values women leaders are prioritizing like people, planet and purpose. Men’s sports is not the model by which we should measure ourselves.
What can you do? Support organizations that promote inclusivity and values-driven sports(wo)manship like the Athlete Ally, Champion Women, Positive Coaching Alliance, Women Leaders in College Sports, Women’s Sports Foundation and more.
I invite you to start saying “the Women’s Final Four” and “the Men’s Final Four” these next few weeks. Language matters. Women’s basketball can help all of us transcend toxic masculinity, embrace purpose and people, and drive equity. Who are you rooting for?