Sports have long been considered an activity that simply expresses or showcases the “athletic talent” of individuals or teams in a competitive setting. They have less often been considered as a socio-cultural institution that exhibits social and systemic characteristics pertaining to race, class, gender and ability, just to name a few. In other words, “sports” is strictly considered to be an athletic endeavor rather than a social one.
This April, Melissa Harris-Perry hosted a segment on her show dedicated to female athletes and women’s sports. One of her guests, Katherine Switzer, succinctly broke down just how men have developed a monopoly over contemporary American sports and how sports has effectively become a patriarchy-dominated arena. Here’s what she had to say:
“Now, we have a very short history, but we’ve got a very long future. We’re only beginning to understand what women’s capability is all about. We know that men have speed, power and strength, but we’re just exploring women’s superior capacity in stamina, endurance, flexibility and balance. Sport may be completely different in fifty years from everything we know … [Right now] women are winning 100 mile six day races, three day events, things like that. It’s quite stunning.”
What is remarkable about this excerpt is that modern-day sports (such as football, baseball, basketball and hockey) essentially get defined in patriarchal terms. What gets considered a “sport” is actually based on key elements (speed, power and strength) that men tend to excel at as compared to women. So, when we think of the greatest athletic talents in current times, we think of names like LeBron James, Adrian Peterson and Albert Pujols, as opposed to any woman who might have a superior capacity in stamina, endurance, flexibility or balance. All of these traits that are more associated with women are obviously athletic in nature, yet they don’t receive nearly the same amount of consideration or significance accorded sports designed to highlight the athletic traits at which men primarily excel. In other words, the framework of the definition of contemporary “sport” is pliably gendered; and in no way, shape or form are men inexorably superior to women since the definition of “sport” has become narrow and patriarchally circumscribed.
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Since the institution of contemporary sports is built upon a patriarchal foundation, then it would make sense for that institution to accentuate those traits at which men tend to excel. Moreover, those traits become normalized as the generic terms by which “athleticism” becomes defined and understood. Thus, women’s athleticism gets defined and compared to the assigned patriarchal definition of “sports.” Because women’s sports are also typically defined in relation to the patriarchal platform that they operate on, they will inevitably never receive the same amount of notoriety or business that men’s sports receive.
However, if we begin to understand and conceptualize sports as a social enterprise and not just a generically athletic one (since patriarchal ideology collapses the social nature of “sport” down into an athletic activity only), then we might begin to expand or even change the definition of American sports in a ways that give significant acknowledgment to women as phenomenal athletes in their own right. Encouraging girls’ involvement in sports such as gymnastics and cross-country running (as well as sports that have been traditionally dominated by men), in combination with initiatives and structural changes that no longer let patriarchal systems set the precedent for defining American sport, then we may ultimately be able to bring about the conditions that allow women to receive the respect and appreciation that they deserve. Not to mention that young boys and men should also be encouraged to participate in sports that accentuate the traits at which women tend to excel.
Finally, all of the institutions and arenas that people find themselves part of in contemporary American culture tend to define and assign meaning in white, patriarchal and capitalist terms (just to name a few). Virtually all of our daily interactions occur in relation to these systems as well. Our involvement in and understanding of sports may ultimately play a key role in understanding our relationship to various other social systems of inequality and disadvantage. So, we definitely have the ability to transform each of these structures into equitable and peaceful realities for everyone involved!