The world of sports is one dominated by men. Whether that be at a professional level or a collegiate level, it’s undeniable that men’s sports are thrust to the forefront whilst women’s sports stay shadowed in the background. In the past few months, I’ve made my way to two women’s volleyball games and five men’s soccer games, and the differences in atmosphere between the two sporting events was quite alarming.
In Professor Mika Lavaque-Manty’s “Being a Woman and Other Disabilities”, Lavaque-Manty brings up an example of how spectators used to not be allowed in women’s sporting events, which explains the absence of spectators in images of women’s sporting events from the early 20th century. While it’s no longer true that spectator’s aren’t allowed into women’s sporting events, it is still true that there’s a lack of them. The five or so men’s soccer games I’ve attended this season had varying attendance. Generally speaking, the student section was either semi or mostly full, while the non-student spectator section was almost always full. In contrast, the attendance at the two women’s volleyball games I attended was lackluster. The student section in Cliff Keen is rather small, and while it was generally full, that still doesn’t add up to the number of students at the men’s soccer games. The non-student spectator section at Cliff Keen was maybe half full at best. Now there are obviously a lot of factors at play here: the day and time of the game, the opponent, the fact that I’m comparing two completely separate sports, etc. However, I don’t believe this disparity in attendance to be a coincidence.
As Levaque-Manty discusses in his book, there’s this common and longstanding argument that women’s athletic performance “simply is less impressive than men’s”. There’s this societal conception that women simply aren’t as good as men when it comes to sports (amongst other things), and this concept is one that’s difficult for me to wrap my head around. When watching these women play volleyball, not once did I think “men could do this better” or “eh, mediocre”. These women are athletes. True athletes. And undermining them the way I heard fellow students do throughout the game was insulting. Multiple times throughout the game, it was extremely apparent to me that some of the men around me were there for a purpose far different than my own. I was there to watch a game of volleyball, they were there to watch volleyball players. The number of derogatory, sexist, and misogynistic comments I heard some fellow students make about these exceptional athletes was mind-boggling. It’s not like these types of remarks overpowered the game, but there were enough to make me uncomfortable. One of my favorite instances of this was when Mr. Star Trek t-shirt behind me commented on which one of the players he’d “do first”. As if.
I’m not saying this was why the majority of the spectators were at these women’s volleyball games, because I know that’s not the case. But the fact that there were spectators around me who were purely there to sexualize and demean the female athletes working insanely hard to win a game and make our university proud is disgusting. It’s something that didn’t happen at the men’s soccer games I attended and never will. And this isn’t a solo incident. Earlier this year, 27 members of the Tufts men’s lacrosse team were suspended after yelling sexist (and racist) remarks during a women’s volleyball match between Tufts and Smith College. What I’ve witnessed at the women’s volleyball games I’ve attended here at the University of Michigan isn’t anywhere near that extreme, but the fact that events like this do happen shows that sexism is alive and thriving in the world of sports, and it needs to be stopped.
Although it’s obvious that I believe sexism plays a large roll in the discrepancy between attendance at male and female sporting events, I do acknowledge that it’s not the only factor. Taking the time out of your day to go to a sporting event is a commitment. It’s two or so hours you’re dedicating towards leisure and not work, and as such, you’re only going to take that time to go to a sporting event you know you’ll truly enjoy. Most students, myself included, haven’t gone to many women’s sporting events, and as such, don’t know if it’s worth the time you sacrifice in order to attend. Lavaque-Manty states in his book that “women on average have somewhat “lesser” performances than men”, and I think this scares people out of attending women’s sporting events because they don’t know if it’ll be worth their while. I’ll even call myself out on this, because despite that fact that I absolutely love soccer, I’ve never attended a women’s soccer game at the University of Michigan. While I can sit here and make excuses about why I’ve yet to attend a one, at the end of the day, it’s because I’ve never gone to one and thus don’t know if it’s worth the time I’d be sacrificing in order to attend. College students are busy people, and constantly being told that women play soccer at a lesser level than men can give the impression that women’s soccer games aren’t worth attending. Unfortunately, soccer season is over now, but I’m going to make it my mission next year to attend at least two women’s soccer matches. Because at the end of the day, who am I to talk about the disparity between men’s and women’s collegiate sports, especially when it comes to attendance, if I don’t do anything to try to mend the gap.