Women Stole the Show in 2015,” declared The New York Times at the end of the year. Other commentators agreed, pointing to the accomplishments of Serena Williams and the US Women’s soccer team, heptathlete and new mother Jessica Ennis-Hill, Australian jockey Michelle Payne, and other women in sports. But, as The New York Times piece acknowledged, there remain persistent obstacles facing female athletes as well as coaches, journalists, officials, and administrators. We gathered four women who follow sports as scholars and fans – sociologist Rachel Allison, cultural studies specialist Courtney Szto, and historians Amy Bass and Jean Williams – and asked their views on 2015.     

 

Some low-lights of 2015 for women in sport: player in the UK’s new Lingerie Football League; Twitter rant against MLB analyst Jessica Mendoza; Golf Digest’s cover photo of topless Lexi Thompson; Alejandra Ace, a character on the Miss Hits website, who wears a tiara because “I like to pretend I’m a princess while I play tennis.”

 

We should start by echoing the celebratory spirit of those commentators who called 2015 the year of women in sports. Was there one moment this past year when you felt you were seeing something remarkable, something that would have broader or lasting significance?

Jean Williams: For me the stand out moment of the year was Serena Williams’ cover as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. The cover itself reflected the athlete’s ability to move between sport and popular culture, as well as having regal aspects. Serena meets the gaze of the reader in an almost challenging way. Given SI’s depiction of women throughout its history and the fact that this was the first woman on the cover alone as Sportsperson of the Year in 32 years, it would be too soon to herald a new dawn in the magazine’s editorial approach. But it is at least a step in the right direction

There was an even more direct cover story on Williams in Rolling Stone, which called her “The Great One” and the most dominant figure in sport. The New York Times analysed “The Meaning of Serena,” putting her in the category of Ali, Pelé, Martina, Billie Jean, Ronaldo, and Beckham, sports stars who become signifiers of something larger than themselves. Williams’ achievements placed her in this small but stellar group in year when race relations in the US were repeatedly front-page news.

However, my favourite cover of 2015 was from New York Magazine. The photo showed how cut Serena is, with those amazing abs and the grace and poise of a gymnast. For someone who has endured cruel and sustained criticism of her body, this is a confident and strong pose. Analysts might debate the symbolic nature of what Serena represents, but sports is also about bodies and the visceral display of power and skill. That is what this image suggests to me. I can’t think of another athlete who has been able to turn the degree of criticism and surveillance she has had to endure and used it to her advantage.

Amy Bass: The Women’s World Cup marked a significant shift in how women are perceived as a national team. While I could not take my eyes off Serena, and agree wholeheartedly that she was the Sports Figure of the Year from every angle, the enthusiasm that the somewhat soccer-apathetic United States showed for the US Women’s National Team demonstrated how a women’s squad can drop the signifier of “women” and assume representation for the red, white, and blue. Just as Joe Louis stopped being a black boxer and became an American boxer in his matches against Max Schmeling, millions came out to cheer on the US women’s team for reasons of patriotism, all the while not forgetting that they were women, they were strong, they were skilled (yes, Carli Lloyd from midfield!), and some of them even ran to kiss their wives at the conclusion of a successful game.

Rachel Allison: I agree with Amy that the Women’s World Cup was a standout moment, but not for the reasons it has been celebrated in US media. Sure, the U.S. won, confirming the team’s excellence despite growing global competitiveness of the women’s game. And yes, the tournament garnered high levels of media attention and fan engagement. However, I think that the lasting legacy of this tournament will be as a platform for bringing visibility to gender inequality within sport organizing bodies.

Undoubtedly, the arrests of FIFA officials immediately prior to the tournament elevated scrutiny. But beyond charges of corruption, this scrutiny quickly turned to FIFA’s unequal treatment of women’s teams. Here, I am thinking of the turf controversy, discussion of pay disparities, and the lack of women in FIFA leadership. These conversations were novel and wide-reaching, and in many cases they were led by members of the women’s national team.

Although it remains to be seen how these conversations will impact how organizing bodies operate, I think there is evidence that the tournament has already sparked change. For instance, future Women’s World Cups will take place on grass, not on turf. The injustice of treating female players as inferior to men is increasingly recognized in soccer, particularly in the U.S., and organizations are having to respond.

Courtney Szto: It’s hard not to continue beating the drum for Serena, especially since tickets for the women’s US Open Final sold out before the men’s this year. I think that in itself was a bold statement that women’s sports should no longer accept being billeted as the side-show. A close second has to be fervour surrounding Ronda Rousey. Her appearance on the cover of Men’s Fitness was illustrative of her transcendence.

In a different vein, I was pleased to see Erica Schenk on the cover of Women’s Running this year. While Serena and Ronda try to carve out paths in the world of big-money sports, a body-positive cover like Schenk’s seemed to resonate widely with audiences as necessary diversity. I saw a conference presentation this summer arguing that, even though fellow athletes are often inspired by the likes of Serena and Ronda, “average Joes” can find these depictions intimidating and will instead find inspiration through people who remind them of themselves. Thus, I hope that images of athletes like Erica Schenk will become more normalized in the years to come.

 

Courtney, while you saw Erica Schenk’s magazine cover as a positive step, you also wrote last year about the continued use of not-so-positive images of women. I’ll ask you and everybody else what instances of media representation of women in sports you found particularly cringeworthy in 2015.

Courtney: Cringeworthy goes to Lexi Thompson’s topless cover for Golf Digest. Others might remember the Paulina Gretzky cover that also caused a stir in 2014, mostly because she isn’t even a golfer. That particular publication has a poor record for promoting female golfers, so when they use non-golfers like Gretzky and Kate Upton, and then follow them up with a topless cover featuring a professional female golfer, it’s apparent how far we are from achieving respect for women, in any arena.

I would also add FIFA’s use of models in black cocktail dresses at the trophy ceremony for the Women’s World Cup. That was an ironic display of progress vs. traditionalism, function vs. form, athlete vs. ornament.

Rachel: One thing that comes to mind is Self magazine’s cover featuring “sporty supermodel” Lily Aldridge. The juxtaposition of the “Play Like a Girl!” slogan with the image of a made-up, non-uniformed Victoria’s Secret model is somewhat troubling. This is not what playing “like a girl” ought to mean. Instead, I prefer President Obama’s take, that “playing like a girl means you’re a badass.”

Jean: The things that made my blood boil were mainly promotional ads and campaigns that sought to offer sport to women in ways that reinvented prejudices about women’s bodies and interests. Chief amongst these were the patronising national ads in the UK from Sport England, part of the This Girl Can initiative. First, the ads reveal the real problem that remains in the UK in how to discuss women in sport. Many of the “girls” featured are in their 40s and 50s, and the accompanying stories about the women often declare how their love of cake is greater than their love of sport. What stereotypes does this overturn?

This Girl Can also infantilises these grown women, who are rarely shown to be proficient at sport but are just enthusiastic participants. Similarly, Judy Murray, mother of Andy, launched Miss Hits, a tennis participation campaign aimed at young girls with an emphasis on “friendship and fun.” To me, mis-hitting a tennis ball is to shank or slice it – in other words, to perform badly. The irony cannot have escaped Judy Murray, who is a very good coach. So why should she gender sporting participation in quite this way?

About five years ago, when manufacturers started using colour to sell all kinds of goods, there were comments on the “pinkification” of little girls. Sport is still doing this with pink footballs, pink football shirts, and lots of pink sporting gear. The logical conclusion to this was epitomised by the proposed UK lingerie football league, with players wearing pink sports bras.

Each of the three high-profile campaigns have been a feminist statement of sorts, but they also show how confused people get around gender and sport in the UK. Depressing stuff.

 

Let’s turn to women in sports media. ESPN just announced this week that Jessica Mendoza will join their regular broadcast team for Major League Baseball. But last year, when she first worked as a broadcast analyst for an MLB playoff game, there was harsh reaction among many male fans on social media. The episode was a reminder of how rare it is to have a woman in the press box, calling the game, as opposed to hosting the studio show or conducting sideline interviews. Why are there such rigid boundaries for women covering male sports, and do you see the hiring of someone like Mendoza as a sign that things could be changing in sports media?  

Courtney: If we continue to think of sports as a male escape from women, then women in the press box represents an “infiltration” of that male sanctuary. The female commentator is omni-present, and if there’s anywhere society doesn’t want women, it’s everywhere.

It really comes down to a policing of space. We saw this last year around Julie DiCaro’s reporting on the Patrick Kane rape allegations, when she was made to feel unsafe via social media and didn’t go to work because of a very detailed threat. I think this connects to the idea of a “crisis of masculinity,” because while feminism has expanded and challenged the boundaries for women, Western masculinity has never had a collective effort to re-negotiate its confines. Therefore, in many ways, every win for women is positioned a loss for men, which is far from an ideal relationship.

Amy: I think Mendoza is great, but as someone who has experienced the vitriol personally, I don’t see a whole lot of change on the horizon regarding acceptance of women within sports media. It’s brutal. Ask Ashley Judd, who had the audacity to tweet some smack about NCAA basketball. They annihilated her.

Whenever I venture into the mainstream media, the hate goes way beyond the mortifying things in the comments sections — and they are mortifying. They hunt down my email, my telephone number, and even the email addresses of my colleagues. All last summer, one wing nut felt the need to send mass emails to my colleagues to make sure they knew what a horrible person I was to be writing about the U.S. Women’s National team winning the World Cup. Death threats, anonymous messages, and on and on. It’s insane. And if it is this bad on my level, I cannot imagine what it’s going to be like for Mendoza next year. I wish that on no one.

Jean: I agree with Amy. Although my experience has not been that bad, I have spoken at FIFA and UEFA congresses and the level of cronyism and absolute contempt for women at these events is palpable. No, I don’t see things changing.

In the UK, for instance, all of the Match of the Day presenters are male. They are certainly not the most scintillating analysts of the game, but the notion holds sway that ex pros can read the action in ways that others can’t. The idea that women would be experts at analysing sport seems to undermine some very fragile notions of masculinity. James Cordon had a long-running and tediously misogynist series on sport in the UK called In a League of Their Own. The fact that such a non-athlete can get away with a banter show that consistently undermines and neglects female athletes sums up the UK mediascape. It doesn’t matter how many women are in front of the camera, as Sky Sports indicates with its choice of female presenters, the underlying values are misogynist.

Rachel: Jean’s mention of Corden’s show in the UK reminded me of a show I was recently subjected to during a long airport layover: The Girly Locker Room. The premise of this show seems to be that women know absolutely nothing about sports, including the most basic rules of games, and that women’s fandom, when it exists, derives mostly from attraction to certain men’s superstars. The show is meant to appeal to women but comes off as tone deaf.

 

Following on that, let’s get your reaction to news this week of another first in US sports: Kathryn Smith was hired by the Buffalo Bills as the first full-time female assistant coach in the NFL. In 2015, the NFL also had its first woman work as a referee. The San Antonio Spurs and Oakland Athletics hired women as assistant coaches last year, and one of the top skating coaches for NHL players is Barbara Underhill, a former figure skater. When you look at the boundaries marking the major team sports as male sanctuaries, do you have more hope for women making advances in coaching and officiating than you do for women in media?      

Courtney: I think a big difference facing women in the media that differs from women in coaching is that there is no team to defend or stand in solidarity with them. Female journalists – and academics, as has been pointed out – usually have to face the misogyny and sexism alone, whereas the Spurs assistant coach, Becky Hammon, has had Gregg Popovich stand up for her credentials and overall value. It also would be difficult for players to publicly speak out against someone like Hammon or Kathryn Smith because that goes against the “code” of presenting a united front as a team. That kind of support can certainly help quell some of the backlash that comes from the fan/media side.

Coaches are also able to use wins to quiet detractors – something that isn’t available to female journalists/commentators. There is no journalism or broadcasting award that will prove a woman’s worth in the booth the way a championship can prove her worth behind the bench.

We often have these discussions about female empowerment without talking about masculinity as the other side of the coin. There have been some very toxic expressions of masculinity with respect to Smith’s hiring, as we have come to expect. Still, I think that what can be read as the “male stamp of approval” can also be interpreted as a rare, and much needed, form of masculinity that is willing to make space for women in sport. We need male allies if women are to make any meaningful gains in sport. Men like Popovich and Andy Murray who have hired women coaches are necessary parts of the conversation. They make the gauntlet just a hair more bearable.

Rachel: I have been hopeful seeing women hired into positions in men’s sport organizations. As Smith remarked in an interview after her hire, the goal is for this not to be newsworthy. Every additional hire may make that a little more possible. But Courtney is right. We have a long way to go. Each time a woman is hired, the men in charge have to insist that their actions weren’t about publicity but about the best person for the job. They have to go on the offensive. These women are also held up to a level of scrutiny that men rarely are in similar positions.

Another angle to this is the continued underrepresentation of women in coaching and leadership in women’s sport. Certainly the barriers may be different, but there is dearth of women across both men’s and women’s sport.

Courtney: Briefly playing off of Rachel’s point, I think women’s tennis is a great example where even the top women tennis players rarely have female coaches. I only had one female coach my entire tennis career and that was a very brief stint.

Amy: On the one hand, I don’t see the hiring of a woman into the coaching ranks of football as progress of any kind, or the smattering of other women who are within the staffs of basketball or hockey and so on, especially when we consider that at the collegiate level, women serving as coaches has sunk to an all-time low.

At the same time, I do find it interesting that we use the “big” sports and men’s sports as a means to gauge these changes, when women have worked in many capacities in the top ranks of other sports. Take a look at skating, for example, where the likes of Ellen Burka, Betty Callaway, and Kathy Casey have reigned supreme. Marta Karolyi is unmatched in gymnastics, for both men and women. Amelie Mauresmo is sought after within the world of tennis, and in soccer Corinne Diacre is managing Clermont in France and Shelley Kerr is coaching Stirling University. I think there are many ways to look at gender and coaching, and it will be key for us to look everywhere — including places like gymnastics and skating, where the women’s side gets more play than the men’s – to see where women actually have power and control.

 

Let’s go back to what Jean said earlier about the campaigns in Britain that are intended to encourage women and girls to participate in sport but are actually patronizing. As she pointed out, women are enthusiastically active in various sports in these ads, but they aren’t very good at those sports. In your view, do we still need successful women athletes to serve as role models?  

Amy: I think we need successful women everything to serve as role models. Equity has simply not been achieved, and is, indeed, a long way off – if even feasible. I think women in sports can be as important as women in just about everything else, but with a significant difference: physical ability.  I was called last week by a writer from Cosmo who wanted to talk to me about women on the playing field because she was writing about – wait for it – firefighters.  We had a marvelous conversation about the infantilization of women in some sports and how it impacts our overall understanding of women and physical capacity. The new transgender guidelines that we should see at Rio this summer have the capacity to really force us to rethink what we attach to testosterone and femininity.

Courtney: Do we still need women role models? Yes and no.

Simply put, I agree with Amy that we need more visibility of women in every sphere of life and every level of talent. With that said, the first thing I ever wanted to be was an NHL goalie. It didn’t dawn on me until much later in life that women couldn’t play in the NHL. Personally, I can’t say that any female athlete has ever inspired me more than any male athlete. However, my experience comes from a certain level of privilege and exposure. I think when we say that we need more female athletes to serve as role models, we accidentally take that responsibility away from male athletes, as necessary components. We tend to think that male athletes serve the male demographic and women serve women and girls. This is why it’s so great to see little boys and grown men wearing USNWT soccer jerseys.

When I was younger, I once heard on the tennis court next to me two little boys pick which player they were going to “embody.” One said, “I’ll be Monica Seles,” and the other said, “I’ll be Steffi then.” So yes, we need more female athletes as role models, but we shouldn’t conceptualize them as only useful for inspiring more girls and women to get involved in sport. They are necessary for having conversations about gender norms across the board.

Rachel: I am wary of understanding athletes or others with the term “role model.” Many times, at least in the US, athletes “role model” for young girls or young women, meaning that they inspire them to pursue the “dream” of sport via hard work and dedication. It ultimately becomes a “Lean In” narrative that either proposes a meritocratic sport world or sees gender barriers as best overcome through individual persistence alone. I would love to see more women in sport advance a critical, intersectional, and feminist agenda for sport. To do this would be to rock the boat, in many cases upending it completely, and would counter dominant public conceptions of how women, athletes especially, “role model.”

Jean: For me, one issue is critical mass. The problem with one-woman hiring policies, as we saw in the UK with the Eva Carneiro issue at Chelsea FC, is that individual women become conflated in the confused minds of miogynists with all women (she made a mistake, so women don’t understand football, as Jose Mourinho seemed to interpret Carneiro’s treatment of Eden Hazard) and so they can just as easily be fired. “Experiment” over.

There’s also the problematic question about whether women who achieve high office are, in any way, role models in any sphere of life. We have had a female Prime Minister and she was one of the most unpleasant and destructive politicians in British social life, so far as I am concerned.

I am also going to say that women’s sports commentators are often neglectful of history. Jessica Ennis-Hill has been heralded a role model in 2015 after returning from the birth of her son to top-level sporting success. Same in 2014 for Jo Pavey and she – shock! horror! – is over 30. In 1948, Fanny Blanker Koen won her four gold medals, as a mother of two, aged 30 and pregnant with the her third child. That particular achievement rarely gets talked about.

 

So while you all agree that there were many things to celebrate in 2015 in terms of women in sport, there remain serious problems. As women who love sports, played by both women and men, and as scholars of sport, what do you expect to see in, say, 2030? When we look back fifteen years from now, will we see 2015 as a year that presaged important changes for women in sport, or will we still see barriers and attitudes that no amount of Serena Grand Slams or Jessica Ennis-Hill medals can displace?

Amy: I don’t think celebrating standout moments lends to change whatsoever. If anything, the fact that we do highlight these moments from last year is significant. Can you imagine asking anyone: what was the best moment for a man in sports in 2015? The conversation would be endless.

In looking at the persistent barriers that will remain in place, sponsorship, salaries, coaching, and administration all factor in. But so does audience. The lack of general interest in women as athletes — figure skating and gymnastics aside, for obvious reasons — is intimately connected to the position of women in society writ large. Has there been some change? Absolutely. Does change mean progress? Never.

Jean: We haven’t touched on the problem of sporting administrators. As global sport becomes more valuable as a commodity, the tensions between those governing bodies who own and exploit sporting rights and the people who are responsible for promoting participation become clear. It’s quite likely that the world of sporting administration will remain masculine and corrupt. However, a glimpse of positivity comes from recent research looking at the growth of women in the workforce generally.

As women move into the workforce in greater numbers, it becomes less acceptable to have sport as a symbolically male space. Witness how the sponsorship of the Oxbridge Boat Race in 2015 was able to insist that the women’s race take place on the same day as the men’s, to a much wider media audience. The injection of funds from Newton Investment Management, led by Helena Morrissey (who is also founder of the 30% Club, which has a goal of 30% female representation on FTSE-100 boards by the end 2015) ensured that rowing at Oxford and Cambridge is changed for ever. This is where the change can come from.

Without that, I am not optimistic. One of the reasons that I did not choose the USWNT as my stand-out moment of 2015 was because I had seen it all before in 1999 – Bill Clinton, JLo, and 93,000 people at the Rose Bowl, a World Cup win on home soil, front-page news on mainstream newspapers and US players becoming famous enough to be known by just their first names. But all that didn’t prevent the artificial soil issue in Canada, or the Japanese women’s team being flown economy class by their federation after their World Cup win while the less successful men’s team was in business class, or FIFA’s ongoing programme to imagine women’s football as fundamentally different than men’s football. Without fundamental change in the values of sport, “progress” is a chimera. Look at how long it has taken to get women in senior positions in the IOC and FIFA.

But I will have done my bit by 2030 and will be on a beach somewhere. It will be up to the next generation of sports scholars to analyse what it all means.

Rachel: I agree that 2015 will likely not mark any major push towards change, and that the so-called big moments in women’s sports do little to dislodge the dominance of neoliberal media sport. The women’s national team wins, breaks Twitter records, and gets a televised parade. But then the media coverage dries up, players return to a professional league where all their teammates work second jobs, and it remains to be seen whether the momentum generated against FIFA and US Soccer’s unequal treatment of men’s and women’s teams will last. We have a lot of work to do.

That being said, I do think progress is and will be made, but extremely slowly. The process predates 2015, or any single year, and will continue into 2030 and beyond.

Courtney: I also do not expect to see any large-scale changes taking place in the near future. What we tend to do instead is tinker with the status quo.

This is how the sports industry has approached the issue of climate change; we tinker with venues, efficiency, or recycling, but there have been no radical calls to ramp down on consumption. That defies market logic. We use the same paradigm for gender and racial equality: voluntary action on the scale of the individual. Thus, as we discussed before, the select hirings that took place in 2015 were very positive for those women and are useful for providing hope for a different future. Yet, with those victories in hand, there is still much work that needs to be done.

Jean’s example reminds me of the state of women’s “professional” ice hockey in North America. Every four years, the world hunkers down to watch the Canadian and American women face-off, just as they do the men, but in between the Olympics all of these women are forced to work full-time jobs and play glorified club hockey in empty stadiums. Equal opportunities have not resulted in lived equalities.

Sponsors and investors have been willing to take chances on men’s sport no matter how bad an investment it might be. Conversely, very few have been willing to take those same chances on women’s sport.

This may be seem like a dour outlook. However, I am reminded of an African proverb that states, “A little rain each day will fill the rivers to overflowing.” For the time being, we’ll chalk 2015 up as a light rain.

 

Rachel Allison is assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State University. Her research looks at women’s professional soccer. She is on Twitter @rallis2.

Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. She has written books on race and sport, and she writes for various outlets on race, gender, sport, and politics. Amy tweets from @bassab1.

Courtney Szto is a doctoral candidate in communications at Simon Fraser University. Her research looks at immigrants, ice hockey, and social citizenship, and she writes for the blogs Hockey in Society and The Rabbit HoleCourtney is on Twitter @courtneyszto. 

Jean Williams is professor of sports history and culture at De Montfort University. She has written several books on the history of women’s football and women in sport. She is Twitter @JeanMWilliams.