Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No Way Out

A number of somewhat unrelated things, on the surface, have come together this week to get me thinking about women in sport - yet again.

First, it's the women's world cup. England are on the verge of victory in their first match; we may make it through the group stages, having qualified for the first time in twelve years. Yet, despite this almost unprecedented success, and being the sport most women play now in the UK, and being the fastest growing sport etc. etc., women's club football is on the verge of collapse due to the complete lack of financial support (as written convincingly and excellently by someone with whom I went to college and share an allegiance to Spurs). I harp on and on about women playing sport; do we need people to watch? I think we ought to, to provide the love and dedication that leads to fans paying out, which leads to higher profile female football stars, which leads to inspiration which leads to eight-year-olds wanting to play. Yet, I am as guilty as the next person - probably worse - because I don't really watch women's football. At all. Why not? I don't know. My allegiance is to Spurs (and minorly Carlisle & Sheffield Wednesday), and the English national team, but it's not like I don't watch other matches & leagues - or I would, if stupid ESPN didn't require a subscription for me to watch La Liga. It's just not an ingrained thing for me to do - yet. I hope this world cup will change that. Ah crap, Japan just equalised. But maybe that's a positive difference: When I was a kid, women were unusual for playing football, let alone being watched for it; maybe for younger women, that will change.

Why it's important is that sport is not a career option for women in the same way as it is for men. You can make it perhaps as a golfer, or tennis player (both of which, Williams sisters aside, are predominantly middle-class sports, which is relevant to my point below about making one's way out of poverty); but to make a living as a footballer is generally the province of US-based players only, and sometimes not even for them. Basketball players earn around $50k a year; Kevin Garnett, on his contract, could pay each and every woman in the WNBA twice their currently salary from his yearly wages. No wonder each woman stays to their senior year to try and win March Madness. And NFL... there is no equivalent to that monster, college football, which earns scholarships, adoration and the big bucks. Softball doesn't lead to professional careers for very many, unlike baseball.

What's my point? I was talking to a friend from Kansas, who grew up in a sufficiently remote place that high-school football was big because they were so far from any pro team. So all that pressure is put on 17 year old boys, which honestly makes me sad for them. But then I realised that they have a way out; a shot at escaping their towns, if academic success is unlikely. It's often their way out of poverty, parochialism, and a job in McDonald's, just as football is in Britain, or boxing, bizarrely.

What do women have? Cheerleading? That is, in advance of any protestations to the contrary, NOT a sport. They are athletic, incredible dancers, in great shape, and it's acrobatic and impressive; that does not a sport make. And, essentially, they are there to worship the football players. It's a way of using your body, but I would argue it is inherently different due to its derivative nature; it's a sideshow, titillation maybe, but nothing more, despite how difficult it is and how hard they work. It would be great if women could have options in the same way. Yes, there are other sports, and there is Title IX, but how many have the glamour, the prestige and the devotion that men's college football and men's college basketball have? I'd say none. Maybe that's not fair, but I'm yet to be convinced otherwise... I think there's also a difference for women to make their ways out of towns using their body to adulate men's while titillating an audience, and men to do it for sport.

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