This week, I saw something on Instagram that prompted a steady flow of thoughts and feelings about a topic that I feel isn’t tackled (you’ll soon realize this is a hilarious pun) enough: females in athletics. The instagram post I’m alluding to highlights Sarah Thomas, the first female referee to officiate an NFL’s Superbowl Championship game (get it? Tackled… ha… anyways). At first, I thought, “Yay!” And then I thought, “Wait, it’s 2021.” It’s 2021, and we still live in a world where women and girls aren’t viewed as having the same place in athletics as men and boys.
Growing up, I adhered to the stereotype of being a little girl who did ballet. I was, and still am, completely okay with embodying this specific trope because I loved to dance, I was talented, and I worked hard. Even at 10 years old I knew, as a competitive dancer, I was as physically fit and had the same stamina, aligility, and discipline as the boys in my class who played hockey. I was a tough little girl, I was comfortable and confident enough to stand up to any boy in my class who said dance wasn’t a real sport… but I shouldn’t have had to be. My dance studio was filled with disciplined, strong females training, performing intense cardio workouts, perfecting their skills - doing hard work that shouldn’t have required explaining or defending, and yet it always felt it did.
Flash forward to high school, I decided to end my dance career in order to pursue other athletics. Switching gears and following in my older brother’s footsteps as best I could, I joined the girl’s flag football team and girl’s rugby team. In grade 12, our flag football team won almost every game and we were on our way to win the Georgian Bay regional championships… and then what? Nothing, our coach told us. While the boys’ football and rugby teams moved onto The Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) Championships, neither girls’ flag football nor girls’ rugby teams advanced past regional competition. Now, I recognize this as just another way in which female participation in sport is discredited, framed as unnatural or unnecessary. While flag football was no-contact, our team’s drive to play hard and win was fierce and in rugby, we tackled, got tackled, and wore our cleat-shaped bruises proudly, and we deserved as much validation and opportunity as our male peers.
Last year, the NFL Superbowl celebrated the participation of its first female coach, this year its first female officiate. While these are incredibly notable strides for women in the world of athletics, we still have a long way to go. It was only 2017 when Cam Newton, NFL quarterback and winner of the 2015 Most Valuable Player Award, responded to a female reporter by quipping: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about ‘routes.’” Pro tennis player, Serena Williams has been vocal about the sexism she faces as a female athlete, being called “hysterical” and facing extreme penalties for her expressions of frustration during gametime. Pro tennis player Alize Cornet received a code-violation penalty for adjusting her shirt during a match, while male players change their shirts as many as 11 times during a match with no consequence. Olympic runner Caster Semenya, whose body produces higher levels of testosterone than her opponents, has been subject to strict regulations by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to “adjust” her genetic advantages, while Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has been praised and celebrated for his disproportionally wide wingspan which helps him to succeed.
There is a societal understanding, one that is often not outrightly said but rather upheld through taught/learned behaviour and an array of institutional practices, that females don’t belong in the world of athletics and if we’re there, it’s to be in a much different way than males.
Girls and women are as capable and have the same capacity for dedication and hard work as any boy or man, time for everyone to start acting as such.