Sexism and Women’s Athletics

With apologies to the approximately 250,000 people on average who watch women’s basketball on ESPN2, if you’re reading this you’re probably among the rest of the world who remain blissfully unaware that the WNBA had its All-Star game this weekend. The spectacle, conducted in a Washington arena, was the 11th such affair, cementing the NBA’s “sister” company’s position as the longest-lasting women’s professional sports league in America. 

The league is losing money and fans. Word is it may soon lose several major-city franchises.

Steadily declining attendance and steadily declining ratings have plenty of folks concerned, and not just the athletes and administrators whose livelihood depend on the WNBA. People like Donna Lopiano, president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, which promotes sports and fitness opportunities for females, see the death knell of the WNBA as a harbinger of social retardation, further proof that the societal changes hoped for by the passage of Title IX (the legislation that mandated equal spending in college athletics on male and female programs) have yet to take hold in the general population. In an LA Times report, Lopiano attributed some of the WNBA’s woes to ESPN/ABC not promoting the league as aggressively as it pushes the NFL and Major League Baseball (for which the network pays astronomical rights fees). “They’re suffering from things they can’t control,” Lopiano said of the WNBA. Such as, the Times reported, sexism. “Sexism also hurts the WNBA because corporations don’t become sponsors or buy season tickets for women’s sports in the same numbers they do for men’s sports.”

This syndrome, I think, is not rooted in sexism. Women’s leagues attract less interest because they offer an inferior sports entertainment product.

Indeed, inferiority is the engine that drives female athletics. The only reason there is such a thing as a Women’s NBA, or Women’s Pro Soccer League, or Ladies Professional Golf Association is because the athletes in these organizations are athletically inferior to their male counterparts. If they were as good or better, they would be playing with and against men, as Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie have done on the PGA Tour, Danica Patrick has done in the Indy Racing League, and Julie Krone has done in horse racing.

How much credence should sports fans give to professional leagues whose chief criterion for membership is the absence of a penis? Many male basketball players who enjoyed success in the NCAA but aren’t good enough to make an NBA team would relish the chance to extend their playing career. But they’re disqualified from joining the WNBA because of their sex. In other words, they’re victims of sexism.

Because of basic physiology and body composition, women generally can’t jump as high, run as fast, or throw as far as men, which makes them not as entertaining to watch in competition — unless they are competing against similarly sub-optimal contestants. This is why, in the interest of competitive “fairness” and equal opportunity, we have women’s divisions in sports like tennis, skiing, swimming, track &field, volleyball, and speed skating, and even in sports like archery and curling, where superior male muscle power would seem irrelevant. To blame fans and corporations for not being interested in watching women play basketball when much better men are extant is like taking umbrage at the average football fan preferring the astonishing athleticism of the NFL to the relatively benign charms of a high school intramural game.

To have Women’s divisions in non-athletic competitive endeavors such as chess and poker is, I think, insulting and demoralizing. On the playing fields, however, it’s necessary and equitable. Per Title IX, women should have every opportunity imaginable to train and play and compete, to enjoy the myriad benefits that athletics provide to enthusiastic participants. But even as the heavily promoted WNBA has proven, they shouldn’t expect sports fans to buy a ticket.

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