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Sexism, segregation, and sexuality: the problematic values embedded in the sports industry

By Andrew Taylor

The Glasgow Guardian unpacks the problematic values embedded in the sporting industry, which favours cishet masculinity.

Strength is a word often associated with sports. A vital component, one may argue. This correlation has often resulted in sporting events becoming environments dominated by heterosexual masculinity. The aftermath of this is a depreciation of marginalised groups, who are often forced to settle for fewer opportunities and a considerable pay decrease in the sporting industry. Forced exclusion seems just as worrying today, with organisations, elected officials, and the average person content with watching non-cis male athletes suffer due to a lesser social worth. A 2019 survey by Cyclist showed that of the 2,000 participants, 40% of participants preferred to watch men’s sports. This survey contained thoughts from men and women, with women adding comments such as: “some sports are only meant for men”, with the prominent notion being that it is “not natural for a woman to play these types of sports”. Take as well the recent football World Cup; although containing no gendered labels, it is instantly known to be composed of men, with the women’s equivalent clearly labelled with their sex in the title, almost as if it were an afterthought to the sport. This belief that many sports have to be masculine, or essentially non-feminine, is staggeringly engrained. I wonder, how did such a viewpoint take root amongst the general public?

Certainly adding to this systematic oppression of females within sports is the patronising attitude that many male athletes regularly show towards their female counterparts. For example, former Liverpool player Graeme Souness, declared that “[football] is a man’s game”. This comment was made after the England Lionesses won the Euros, an achievement which the men’s team have been unable to do. Additionally, former professional tennis player John McEnroe stated that Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player, but “she’d be [ranking] like 700” if she were to play amongst men. Williams replied to McEnroe’s statement, shooting it down as “not factually based”. Even taking into account the “men are naturally stronger than women” argument that many preach, are we really to believe that Williams’s world ranking would be as low as that?  The notion of men’s sporting prowess being superior to women is so commonplace within society, and not only through public perception but through the very athletes themselves, undermining the achievements of female players.

In 2021, Forbes released their list of highest-paid athletes, of which only two of the top 50 were female. This can likely be attributed to the lack of professional opportunities available and the smaller salary they are forced to settle for. The England Lionesess’s captain Leah Williamson reportedly earned £200,000 for their 2021/22 Euros winning season, while Harry Kane, doing the same job as captain of England’s men’s team, gets paid the same amount within a week. In 2021, there were 87,800 full-time jobs within the sporting industry, with 61,500 of these belonging to men, compared to 32,300 being taken up by women. When we understand how male-dominated the sports field is, this is sadly no surprise. In fact, studies have proven there to be fewer sporting jobs for women., with their abilities being overlooked amidst a major lack of demand or opportunities for women in this industry. Surely this combination of fewer employment options, lack of career progression, and second-rate pay is enough evidence that sporting culture has a clear favourite. 

Another factor that is heavily involved within sports is the lack of inclusion for trans and non-binary athletes. This has been controversial among fans and sporting associations, with World Aquatics (formerly FINA) introducing a ban on an athlete that has “gone through the process of male puberty”. On this matter, elected officials spoke out, such as UK Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who stated: “competitive women’s sport must be reserved for people born of the female sex”. Sporting organisations and non-sport officials are encouraging gendered division within sports by denying non-cis athletes the freedom to explore careers in their preferred field of sports due to them identifying as a different gender than their assigned sex at birth.  

Sexuality, too, has been a major cause of concern for many within the sporting community. Leinster’s rugby star, Nick McCarthy, announced that he contemplated quitting rugby because of his sexuality. McCarthy struggled with his sexuality during his career, and even though he had “great friends in rugby”, he was unsure how they would react to it. He is not the only professional or aspiring athlete feeling rejected. As many as 81% of gay men and 74% of lesbians (all under the age of 22) are “completely or partially in the closet while playing youth sport”. As suggested, a majority of gay people do not feel comfortable in sports, as 73% of these queer youth feel unsafe. Furthermore, 80% of all gay and straight participants have stated to have witnessed or experienced homophobia. Perhaps two reasons for this may be due to treatment from the sporting community, as well as the lack of care from sporting organisations. This systematic homophobia can be seen in the recent attitude of FIFA towards OneLove during the Qatar World Cup. FIFA, the largest sporting organisation in the world, with 209 nation memberships (similar to that of the U.N.), prevented professional footballers from wearing OneLove armbands. The players themselves can be seen surrendering to FIFA’s rule. A major example from the UK would be England’s Harry Kane, who, prior to the World Cup, stated he would wear an armband (that had no effect on the game)  supporting gay rights before changing his mind when he was made to choose between supporting his beliefs within the match, or a match booking. This act itself would have brought massive publicity to the pro-homosexuality campaign had it been his main priority. Such a major event and organisation settling itself within a state which has illegalised homosexuality, followed by iconic athletes and bowing to this, heavily suggesting their priorities are their own fame and less so towards having a safe space for their marginalised co-stars.

So how do we fix these problems of inequality that many have neglected? One solution could be increased normalisation of having non-cishet male centred sports entertainment and by teaching children at younger ages the essence of equality within sports, and the irrelevance of masculinity. In relation to this first point, something that would certainly help would be greater TV coverage of women’s sports. Currently, less than 5% of sports coverage is centred on women. Secondly, perhaps the problem of basic respect for all athletes should start at a younger age, with education on equality and sexism being taught to all in schools. Many females feel like they face extra pressure at younger ages than males, with bullying being common for aspiring women athletes. A possible method of tackling inequality at a younger age could be by teaching children that all genders are equal, thus creating environments for growing up that promote fairness and morality for all. And a world of sporting which similarly mirrors the values of this idyllic education system.


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