I’ve recently become a fan of pro basketball, something that I never in my life thought would happen. I watch it often with my boyfriend and a couple of our other friends (all male). And more often than not, I’m struck and annoyed by the casual sexism that comes across in the reporting, who gets to report, the cheerleaders and dancers, and of course the fact that the league is still exclusively men (MenBA) while the WNBA is discounted (often by the same people I watch basketball with, who in many other areas are big proponents of gender egalitarianism).
So it isn’t unheard of for me to opine that we should integrate genders in sports. We have trans and intersex people who are trying to compete, amazing female athletes who do beat male athletes in a variety of sports (equestrian events are integrated and women win medals regularly, Billie Jean King beat out Bobby Riggs in tennis, many of the top rock climbers in the world are women and top distance runners are often women), and the current system tends to devalue women’s sports and create an extremely unhealthy environment for men who participate in sports (see: the NFL’s horrific record on domestic abuse).
The problem is of course that we do have statistical data showing that in many of the most popular sports, the elite men have a significant advantage over the elite women. In the NBA for example, height is such a high predictor of success that almost 17% of all men over 7 feet tall are in the NBA (this is so ridiculous I can’t even process it, as the league as a whole is one of the smallest professional sports leagues, with only 15 members per team). The tallest woman in the world today measures in at 7 ft 3 inches, whereas the tallest man is over 8 ft, with the next few trailing in the inches behind them, making it far less likely that women will physically be able to compete against the taller men.
There are many similar examples, like upper body strength in swimming, or weight in football. And unfortunately, most of the extremely popular sports are those that trend male: football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer all skew towards the male body type, whereas some sports that are geared towards women’s strengths, like ski jumping, open water swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, and shooting are not advertised, supported, or seen as important in the same way that male sports are. While there’s no surefire way to change the attitudes of people towards these sports, media coverage of them would go a long way towards showing people that they are actually interesting (also note that gymnastics and figure skating get huge numbers of views during the Olympics when they are broadcast widely).
There’s some good evidence that the cultures that make up male dominated sports are harmful both to the people who engage in them and the people who interact with them, pushing men to view women as objects and socialize exclusively with other men, giving them a skewed idea of what women are like and what they’re capable of. That means there’s good reason to consider integrating sports, especially as the sports that are integrated (for example cheerleading) show good evidence of being healthier for everyone involved and bestowing benefits like teamwork, understanding, and respect for women’s leadership abilities. So why don’t we integrate sports, and if we do, how should we go about doing it?
The first and most obvious way to integrate would be to simply have one league in which everyone plays, potentially with an A and B league so that we get the same number of athletes playing and so that we get the same set of less powerful athletes playing at the B league (something that many people find more interesting for the different styles of play it encourages).
The problem with that is that in the most popular sports the A league would de facto be predominantly male even if it wasn’t in a de jure fashion. It might even lead to less women in sports if there are events that are so skewed towards male bodies that men would make up the entirety of the A and B leagues. Ok, bad solution.
Another possibly more helpful way to integrate by gender but keep the playing field relatively even would be weight classes. Of course this won’t work for every sport, but it would be a start and could be instituted in sports where weight is a significant factor. For something like the NBA there could even be height limitations in some leagues. Or consider leagues that are mixed genders and require a certain number of men and women on the playing field at any given time. Even competition, but probably a slightly different game than the basketball we see now.
It also seems entirely possible that there could be leagues with slightly altered rules to make women more competitive. Some people might whine and moan about how this would destroy the sport, but all our rules are completely arbitrary anyway and the way we set up our competitions is completely arbitrary, so why not make it more accessible to women? I know you all love dunks, but imagine a league in which dunks weren’t legal and how that would change the playing field for gender equality. Ok MenBA fans, stop throwing things, you can still have a dunking league too if you want.
Of course a lot of the work when it comes to gender integration of sports is going to be convincing fans that women are both athletic and interesting to watch. It’s convincing people that sheer power is not the most interesting athletic attribute (or at least not always). It might even be shifting the massive amount of time and effort that certain leagues put into maintaining a masculine image towards one that’s more inclusive and accepting of people who don’t just want to commit exclusively to sports and only sports all the time by proving that they’re men, manly men, the manliest men.
There are so many interwoven cultural signifiers that take up residence within our conceptions of sports, both in the way they’re coached and presented to boys and men, as well as the way they’re consumed (typically by men and in coded male settings). Simply changing the rules to integrate women isn’t going to convince people to value different athletic traits and abilities or new ways that the games might develop if women were integrated. Too many people will simply see it as artificially lowering the playing field because they value power and sheer strength over balance, flexibility, finesse, or skill.
So even if we could find a great way to integrate sports, there’s probably a lot of work at retraining our brains and societal expectations to appreciate new things.
tl;dr I don’t see gender equality in sports happening any time in the near future.