Defeating Sexism in Sports Culture

The same stereotypes that hurt and limit girls can also hurt boys and any student who does not adhere to binary gender norms.

At the end of this school year — like every school year — prom fever was in the air. Posters advertising candidates for prom king and queen decorated almost every inch of our hallways. One poster caught my eye, not because of its excellent persuasive qualities, but because in very few words it spoke volumes about traditional gender roles. The poster, shaped like a soccer ball, said the female student’s name, then: “Soccer girls can be queens, too.”

At first this might seem harmless enough, and even encouraging: Of course girls who play sports can be prom queens! However, the fact that this girl felt the need to say this as part of her campaign suggests that we still have a ways to go when it comes to gender tropes. In this case, the poster voiced objection to three distinct but related stereotypes: (1) Girls voted prom queens are “girly” girls, popular mostly because of their conventional beauty; (2) girls who play sports are manly because sports are supposed to be for boys; and (3) sporty girls are not usually voted prom queen.

Any one of these stereotypes could prevent a girl from becoming involved in sports in the first place. Some girls who love sports and have competed their whole lives refuse to try out once they get to high school because, in high school, reputation is everything and they don’t want to pigeonhole themselves as jocks.

Athletic girls who do pursue sports must also grapple with the sexism that is pervasive in almost all aspects of sports culture, despite the strides that have been made since Title IX was passed in 1972. In the same day, we might see a story about a girl who is denied the right to play a sport because of her gender and a story like the one we saw in Steubenville, Ohio, where members of the high school football team raped a girl at a party and were then defended by their teammates and coaches.

With stereotypes and inequity still so prevalent in high school sports culture, some students — like the girl who made the poster — are saying, “Enough is enough.” About a year ago, for example, a group of 22 male student athletes from the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts — including captains of the football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, track, cross-country, golf, volleyball, water polo and squash teams — co-signed and publicly released a letter denouncing “hook-up culture” in sports, a culture that many feel contributes to incidents like the assault in Steubenville. Also, more girls everywhere are joining sports teams despite negative stereotypes they might encounter, in essence changing the stereotypes by refusing to adhere to them. Some, like one of my students, love their sport so much they are willing to play as the only girl on an all-boy team if that is the only option available. 

These changes are happening within a firmly entrenched male-dominated athletic universe, and the students behind them need support. By championing these individual acts, teachers can help them grow into systemic changes that will make athletics safer and more accessible for all students, because the same stereotypes that hurt and limit girls can also hurt boys and any student who does not adhere to binary gender norms. 

So, what does change look like? Teach about female athletes who made history on and off the court or field. Hang posters advertising tryouts and season schedules for both boys’ and girls’ sports teams in your classroom. When an athlete — of any gender — makes the local news for a spectacular play, post it on your wall of champions. Attend the women’s sporting events at your school. Women’s sports face lower attendance rates than men’s, and being there to show your support not only shows the girls you support them, but also shows the rest of the school you believe women’s sports are important. And, most important, take every opportunity to question and discuss gender expression, whether related to athletics or not. Students need language and context to question what they’ve grown up believing to be true.

As teachers, it is our job to champion all students who participate in extracurricular activities, no matter their gender. And we should applaud students who stand up for what’s right. If students feel safe to join in these important activities, our society will be one step closer to a sports culture that welcomes everyone — even prom queens.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.