Herman Kaur Bhupal
You name it, I tried it: swimming, tennis, soccer, basketball, gymnastics. I played all at some point, with every encouragement from my family and coaches. But when I managed to stay awake some nights to watch “the game” with my dad, it was never a women’s game.
We usually watched basketball. College or professional, it didn’t matter; but it was always male. I say this not to accuse my father of sexism, but to point out that not even my being a girl who expressed an interest in sports was enough to direct our mutual attention towards women’s athletics. Neither of us ever thought about watching a WNBA game or looking into how the women’s NCAA tournament was panning out. Years later, I look back at those games and wonder why my Dad and I never questioned it, why I, as a young girl who was constantly looking for female role models in practically all other aspects of my life, was never inclined to learn more about woman athletes.
Regardless of this one-sided TV exposure to sports, I later got to see some women in action. This was in the form of the Duke Women’s Basketball team. My mom worked at Duke Hospital and women’s basketball tickets were handed out free to the employees that expressed an interest. For three seasons, my mom would take my brother and I to games every few weeks. I remember one game in particular, when Duke defeated Clemson by a margin of approximately 40 points. As far as I was concerned (I never bothered to look up rankings), Duke Women’s Basketball was really good. Once I established myself as a fan, I began to wonder why tickets to see such a good team were offered for free. The men’s basketball team had such a dedicated fan-base that Duke students would camp out for tickets; it would have been ridiculous to think that my mother would have been able to acquire free tickets to any of their games.
I am answering my younger self’s question about why I had free access one team’s games but not to another’s. Both teams played the same sport, so that left the difference to be gender. The men’s games would often be packed while, even with the lure of free tickets, the women’s games would still have empty seats. Furthermore, the men’s team was often called “Duke Basketball” or “Blue Devils Basketball,” or other labels that did not specify gender, while the women’s team was always identified as “Duke Women’s Basketball” or other labels that made it very clear that the athletes were female.
This is true of most colleges I have heard of, as well as of high schools and middle schools. The male teams embody the school’s athletic spirit while the female teams represent an often overlooked and less intense version of that. In almost every case, when a friend mentions that they are going to watch a sports event, we assume that the athletes are male. Why is it that women’s athletics are not significant enough for us to have to ask that friend whether they will be attending a men’s or women’s tennis match, or a men’s or women’s basketball game, or a men’s or women’s lacrosse game?
I never had aspirations of playing sports in college or any other serious space; I participated in sports because I enjoyed them and because they were a convenient way to stay physically fit. Yet at the same age that I was going to the Duke Women’s Basketball games, I noticed this discrepancy in my own life. I was transitioning between recreational soccer teams. My friend and I had been playing for an all girls’ team, but we decided to give the co-ed – but still overwhelmingly male – team a try. Did we think that being “good enough” to play with boys would prove our own abilities? Did we think it would be a challenging to play in a different dynamic? Did we think that boys would offer higher quality soccer? All three factors probably influenced our decision. Overall, it was a very positive experience, but there was always the feeling that the girls were doing the unconventional thing by playing on a boy’s team rather than that every teammate was playing for a co-ed team. After one scrimmage, I remember being told, “You play well, for a girl.” I was confused as to whether that meant I had played well in the context of the scrimmage or whether that meant I had done better than was expected of me because the speaker thought my gender would hold me back.
From Duke basketball to my recreational soccer team, I found a sense that men’s athletics were somehow better. At the end of the day, my protest against this is not even about women being just as good at a given sport as their male counterparts. It is about how the encouragement women receive – if they receive it at all – differs from what their brothers, boyfriends, or male friends hear regarding their own athletic endeavors. Today, it may be less common for a woman to hear “you shouldn’t be playing sports, you’re just a girl,” but the language we use gives us the sense that a woman’s athletic endeavors come second to a man’s. Laying out plans to fix this problem and then following through is important, but before we can do that, we need to be aware of the power we have on the most basic level, that of speech: we need to acknowledge and counter the erasure that we practice when we speak about women’s sports.