October 30, 2005

The popularity of women in sports

It seems as though we can roughly divide sports into three categories: competitive and combative sports, and races.

In competitive sports, such as gymnastics or pole vaulting, the competitors do not directly interact, and have basically no influence on the performance of the others. A competitive sport is as much about beating one's personal best as beating others.

By contrast, combative sports such as hockey or baseball usually involve two teams, or at least two individuals, matched up and competing directly with each other on the field of play. In a combative sport, improvement and achievement only make sense in the context of victory over others, and there are no absolute measures of skill.

Races fall somewhere in between. A race is decided by the time to complete the course, naturally, but often there's a level of interaction between competitors during the race that can be important.

I find it notable that, with very few exceptions, almost all the sports with prominent, professional female athletes are competitive or running events -- gymnastics and ice skating are probably the two most watched sports in which women compete during the Olympics, for example. The exceptions are tennis, soccer, and basketball. Even here, though, women and men do not go up against each other; there are separate soccer and basketball leagues, and tennis tournaments are divided into a men's and women's tournament.

On the other hand, the most prominent sports around the world are combative -- football and baseball here in the US, soccer everywhere else, rugby and cricket in the former British colonies -- and the 'ladies' leagues of these sports (if they even exist) are often regarded with open derision (how many lame jokes have you heard about the WNBA?). Can women have any hope of being professional atheletes as prominent as their male counterparts so long as combative sports are segregated in this way? Or is this a chicken-egg problem, and we're not liable to see, say, women quarterbacks without more prominent women in the non-combative sports?

1 comment:

Sarah said...

There have been women in college footbal, but only as kickers. (i believe one lost the fiesta bowl for unm a few years ago).
Also many rugby players, whose leagues are either all male or all female, do play together for fun fairly often (at least all those i knew).
The greatest impediment (i would use "hurdle" but it's corny)for women althletes in gaining entry to male dominated sports is size. Look at the offensive line of any football team and you'll see men who are 6' and taller with their weight being around 300 and higher. It's something that many women just can't physically match.
In basketball women just are not as tall as their male counterparts.
If women are going to enter "male" sports, it will have to be as kickers or in soccor where players are not as freakishly large.