Like many other Americans, one of my defining childhood memories is baseball. Fenway Park was a menagerie of chaos and uncouthness then: the rowdy blue-collar crowd, the swearing, the harassing of the Yankees even if there was no Yankee within a hundred miles, the cult-like chanting to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. I loved going to Fenway with my father in the 1980s and 90s. Attending a game was a right of passage, but as a young girl, it felt extra special. I was tough enough and athletic enough to be one of the boys and experience the curse of the Bambino that cast a shadow of aggression and lawlessness among the fans in the nosebleed seats. I brought my glove to every game we attended in the hopes of catching some of Fenway’s greatness.
At home, of course, baseball was off limits. Girls didn’t play baseball. They played softball. The nature of this division never occurred to me. I was enamored with the leather smell of my mitt, the grass stain of a great outfield play, the dirt caking my ankles of a hard-earned triple play. When parents remarked in bewilderment that I “threw like a boy,” I took it as a point of pride. That meant I was a good athlete. It never occurred to me that this comment meant people had low expectations of women as athletes. And I didn’t realize my sex would prevent me from actually being one of those Red Sox one day. The hidden sexism in sports wasn’t obvious to me as a young kid. I just wanted to play.
The 80s and 90s were a post-Title IX golden age of women’s involvement in sports. Participation grew exponentially then. If there was a boys’ team, then there had to be a girls’ team (except for baseball). If there weren’t enough players, then room on the roster had to be made for that pioneering girl. Growing up, sports weren’t just a gym requirement or an afterschool activity. Sports were a pathway to a bigger future – a college scholarship. This progress became a smokescreen for the inherent sexism that remained though.
As an adult, my subconscious registered this innate prejudice and I lost interest in watching sports. (As a Bostonian, this is sacrilege.) My girlfriends, who prided themselves on being unfeminine, a guy’s girl, harassed me the most on this – what personal pride could I possible have if I didn’t invest myself in the same things men or my neighbors saw as important? Didn’t I call myself an athlete?
Of course, I saw myself as a success athlete. I played two Division III college sports: soccer and track and field (where I became a captain), I played amateur soccer after college, got paid to coach it, and interned at a semi-pro league. That’s the short list. Why did others, who gave up on their own physical participation, negate my accomplishments if I didn’t consume sports from the comfort of a couch with them?
I had no desire to watch sports because no one onscreen represented my desire to play or my physical self. The professional sports that my peers absorbed the most were only of men. The women in the game were the cheerleaders or the token sportscaster. As a feminist, I came to realize that my girlfriends had been sucked into choice feminism. They had been trained to think that choosing to follow the exploits of men (over women) and rejecting femininity would turn them into men’s equal. This sense of choice is erroneous when the majority of readily accessible, watchable, and promoted professional sports are of men. For all the progress women have made in sports, it’s still patriarchal. It’s a rigged game, which is the red flag for choice feminism. In their naivety, they continued to worship and promote not sports, but the patriarchy.
The sports’ inherent sexism has become more apparent to the public in recent years. There’s the pay disparity between the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team and the women’s team, the vastly more successful and watched team. The disproportionate punishment women athletes receive for just speaking up, like Serena Williams, or out, like Hope Solo to that of male athletes, who commit more legal transgressions. There’s the pattern of overlooked and paltry league punishment of domestic abuse by male athletes, and the apathy, concealment, complicity of sexual abuse on women athletes by male trainers and physicians. And there’s the judgment and fines of what these athletes wear over how they play. The list of all the ways women are still not respected as athletes, or people, goes on.
Today, my artwork and writing specialize in how social culture impacts social and civil rights.
Sports are a defining cultural phenomenon. Sports honor the human spirit and need to persevere and triumph. It creates heroes. It unifies people. Make no mistake that how women are treated within the realm of sports has a lasting impact on their treatment overall. The practices within society’s rituals set a tone for normalized behavior in both the private and public sphere. The Freaknomics podcast recently focused extensively on the nature of sports, stating that its social impact is far greater than its economic impact (sadly, the podcast segments did not focus on women’s issues within it, a huge oversight). In 2014, Ray Rice punched out his girlfriend and only received a two-game suspension initially. After much controversy, public outrage, and time, the NFL eventually suspended Rice but then reinstated him. He never signed with another team. It was a classic example of how in private spaces domestic violence is treated as a mild transgression. If most citizens or businesses overlook it as an inconsequential private matter, there’s less motivation for public and civil enterprises to create policies to stop it. This is how injustices become normalized and acceptable crimes.
If sports are to be a wholesome and essential cultural event, its success on any level — be it men’s championships or new records, cannot be accomplished or wholeheartedly accepted while women’s treatment within it is subpar. Celebrating without such consciousness and integrity just normalizes the idea that men’s success can come at women’s expense. It eschews the principals of teamwork. Men and women must come to understand that they are in this together. One only succeeds if the other does. A true champion, leader, or athlete understands this. The current cultural system of sports does not play by these rules. It’s time to redefine how people think about sports success. In my childhood, sports created magical memories for me. In my adolescence, it taught me leadership, strength and perseverance. But in my adulthood, I became aware of all the ways it had failed me as a woman. It wasn’t until I discovered feminism in my professional work that I truly started to understand the meaning of selfless teamwork and sacrifice. Luckily, the combination of those life stages has made me more savvy and capable to try to make sports a much more equitable playing field for everyone. This is the only way everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, or creed, can find success within it and for their wins to be truly spectacular.
Katrina Majkut, author of The Adventure and Discoveries of a Feminist Bride: What No One Tells You Before You Say ‘I Do,’ (Black Rose Writing, 2018) is a visual artist and writer dedicated to understanding how social culture impacts civil rights. Discover more of her work at www.KatrinaMajkut.com