Women’s sports are not second-tier, NCAA must do better

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Julia Driscoll/The Occidental

Men’s National Basketball Association.

Have you ever heard that phrase?

How about MNBA?

I hadn’t heard of the MNBA, but I have definitely heard of the WNBA. My home team, the New York Liberty, used to have their schedules handed out on shiny index cards in my elementary school classroom.

The idea that all professional women’s teams must employ the word “women” when referencing them is a form of “gender-marking” — a term I learned from Lauren Di Lella (senior), an attacker on Occidental’s lacrosse team who conducted her senior comprehensive research on gender inequality in college sports.

“Gender-marking represents the verbal and visual representation of male athletes and men’s sports as being the accepted norm while rendering female athletes and women’s sports second-tier,” Di Lella said.

Inequality within professional and collegiate women’s sports has been a persistent issue within sports media and the sports industry and begins at the youth level. Gender-marking became second nature to me, as a soccer, basketball and softball player growing up. Looking back now, I always told people I was an athlete by saying I played on the “Girls’ Team.” My co-ed basketball clinic gave all the participation or sportsmanship trophies to the small number of girls. As a kid, I remember my parents telling me I would not grow up to play baseball; I would play softball instead. Even the word “softball” bothered me. Why were women playing with a softer, bigger ball? Why weren’t we using a baseball? These icky questions irritated me, even at a young age, and became ingrained in my point of view. From then on, my view of sports was inextricably connected to the physical manifestation of sexism in women’s sports.

Last week, I came across a TikTok from a player on a collegiate women’s basketball team. The phone camera zoomed in on a small rack of weights.

“This is the weight room,” the player said to the phone, revealing a single small rack of weights. “Let me show y’all the men’s weight room.”

The player — University of Oregon forward Sedona Prince — then displayed the separate weight room provided to the male players for their tournament. It was insane. The men’s weight room was lined with squat racks, free weights and high-end machines. I watched it, shocked, replaying and pausing and replaying as the sexist disparities sunk in.

Since Prince’s video went viral, garnering 17.6 million views on Twitter alone, more inequalities are beginning to come to light surrounding the annual March Madness and NCAA women’s tournament. According to Di Lella, the women’s teams are not even allowed to use the trademarked “March Madness” term.

When I made junior varsity on the girls’ basketball team my freshman year of high school, the only problem was there was no junior varsity girls’ basketball team because there were not enough people interested. There was a boys’ junior varsity team. How was that compliant with Title IX? Eventually I was bumped up to varsity, probably prematurely, as the junior varsity team seemed more and more like a term they threw around when there were a few extra, younger girls, with no real intention of ever creating a team.

Watching female professional athletes be constantly sidelined is heartbreaking. It shows that even at the top, women are still discriminated against on the basis of sex. Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, experiences discrimination from umpires, line referees and unfair dress codes, all put forth by national tennis institutions. The pay gap between the WNBA and the NBA is ridiculous and insulting. It leaves little room for hopes and dreams and may discourage young female athletes from playing at a high level. Even at Occidental, gender discrimination in sports is apparent in the resources given to men’s teams versus women’s teams.

“In the spring, I use a locker room, a very small locker room that my team can barely fit in and we’re all on top of each other,” Di Lella said. “Who is using the football locker room in the spring? Why can’t they give that to any women’s team?”

The gender imbalance in women’s and men’s college sports has also been exacerbated by COVID-19. In LA County, USC and UCLA football teams were allowed to play last fall while women’s sports were not.

“On a much bigger scale, it goes well beyond the NCAA and this whole controversy,” Di Lella said. “How can we ever expect college administrators and even the students in colleges to do better and view female athletes on an equal playing field, if the NCAA can’t even do it?”

Occidental College and all colleges participating in the NCAA must do better and address the discrepancies between their male and female teams. Sports are not immune to politics or sexism or intersectional identities. Women deserve to play sports and play professionally just as much as men. The paused athletic year can give Occidental the space to address the problems in their programs. How can women’s sports be uplifted? How can monetary and physical inequalities be addressed? What standards are women’s teams held to that men’s teams are not? How will collegiate sports fight for their non-binary athletes? Occidental and NCAA have a responsibility to answer these questions and do better.

I can’t imagine hearing male sports announcers discuss women’s sports with the same respect and interest as they do with men’s teams. I can’t imagine growing up with Sue Bird on my sneakers instead of Michael Jordan. I don’t know what it’s like to have my hometown rally around a professional women’s team. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone sporting a women’s team’s jersey. The US Women’s soccer team should not have had to sue to be paid fairly. Sedona Prince isn’t recognized on the street like Luke Garza might be. None of these things are okay and they must change.

Women’s sports are not second-tier.