Let them play

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

The recent FIFA World Cup qualifying win for Philippine Women’s National Football Team (PWNFT) is just the latest in a line of moments showcasing the abilities and potential of our women athletes. One of the most memorable of these, of course, was the impact made by our women athletes in the Olympics, highlighted by our first ever gold medal at the hands (and muscles) of Hidilyn Diaz.

But even in their moment of triumph, many women athletes remain aware that their achievements stand out because of the obstacles they’ve had to overcome as women athletes. While speaking to the media, midfielder Camille Rodriguez spoke about how the success of the PWNFT will hopefully prove to the country that “investment in women’s sports… pays off.”

It’s an unfortunate fact that – with the exception of historic triumphs such as that of Diaz and the PWNFT – women in sports barely get any attention, particularly from the media. A recent study of media coverage in America by USC/Purdue University found that “95 percent of total television coverage as well as the ESPN highlights show SportsCenter focused on men’s sports in 2019.” This lack of coverage extended to social media. While more available outlets mean that there was a greater live coverage of events, there was no increase in terms of coverage by television news and highlights shows, which are both crucial to growing an audience and attracting both attention and investment.

The truth of the matter is that patriarchal assumptions still reign in the realm of sports, and the structure and way that it is played and covered. Putting aside the status of the likes of chess or sharpshooting (and even here sexism is a problem) the unspoken assumption is that sports belongs to the realm of physical ability, and it is assumed that men simply have more powerful bodies than women. The “unspoken” part has been readily abandoned in the raucous attacks against trans women in sports taking over much of the discourse in the West. And there are those who claim – without having previously cared about women in sports at all – that women’s sports must be “protected” from “domination” by those who were assigned male at birth. The premise of most arguments is clear – that women simply could not compete with men, that women’s bodies were weaker than those of men. Putting aside for the moment the generality or accuracy of that contention (which grossly oversimplifies many factors), that statement itself is damaging to the appeal of women’s sports as an athletic endeavor. It is a simple step from those arguments to one which elevates male athletes over female athletes. There is a misconception that if you want to see the best of the best compete, the strongest and fastest athletes, then the only sports that matter are those where it is exclusively men that compete; or if what you want to see are feats of strength, of endurance, of speed – why bother watching women with their biologically weaker bodies instead of the men with the biologically superior ones?

Our women athletes deserve better than to be dismissed out of hand.

Women deserve better than to be dismissed out of hand.

Sport is an important and enriching part of the human experience. And by human experience I mean the wide breadth of it, and not only the contests between elite professional athletes. In fact, much of the value of those professional displays lies in their ability to inspire others (particularly the youth) to play sports and to adopt the values characteristic of success in sports: cooperative teamwork, constant practice, willful resilience and humility in victory amongst others. Sports is something that should be fostered and developed for all, both boys and girls, men and women.

This is why it’s so important to equalize the treatment of men and women in sports: the attention given, the investments made and the payment for professionals. The UN through UNESCO recognizes, for example, the importance of gender equality in sports media, stating that: “[s]ports coverage is hugely powerful in shaping norms and stereotypes about gender. Media has the ability to challenge these norms, promoting a balanced coverage of men’s and women’s sports and a fair portrayal of sportspeople – irrespective of gender.”

That is why it’s so important to change the discourse on women’s bodies and to acknowledge that while there may be arguments for the segregation of men and women in sports, these cannot be predicated any longer on some inherent weakness or inferiority of the body. There must be an acknowledgment that there are instances where this segregation has occurred not to protect women or because of their “inferiority,” but in order to maintain male dominance in a sport once women prove they can compete. This happened in figure skating (after Madge Syers won a silver medal) and in skeet shooting (after Zhang Shan won the gold medal). While there are differences between sports and differences in the bodies of those born men and women, it’s important that we continue to resist the narrative that women’s bodies are inferior or weaker to those of men.

In her interview, Camille Rodriguez also said this: “It shouldn’t stop with us… because the best kind of celebration for something as historical as this is to give it to more girls, give it to more athletes like us.”

Let it not stop with them, with this generation of inspiring women athletes. Let this in fact be the beginning – the start of a new age of investing in and believing in girls and women in sports… Women and girls of every age and at every talent level.

Teach them to play. Watch them when they play. Support them. Believe in them.

Let them play – how they want, when they want, where they want.

Let them play, and we all win.


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