WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Laura Pappano is the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW).
Laura Pappano is the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Learn more about her>>

Female Kicker Makes History

FootballStockFemale Kicker Makes History

When Arizona high school senior Becca Longo on Wednesday officially signed on to be a kicker for Division II Adams State University Football, it was notable for a key reason: She was getting paid.

Of course, she is not literally getting paid. But she is getting a scholarship to play. There is growing history of female athletes playing football at the college level, but it’s not clear that any others have been recruited and given an athletic scholarship.

Katie Hnida, who played for Colorado and then New Mexico, walked on. And while Shelley Osborne in 2014 was recruited from Jeffersonville High in Indiana to play defensive back at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, they play in the NAIA, which does not award scholarships. (Three years later, however, she is still on the roster as an active member of the team.

Why do scholarship dollars matter?

Symbolically it’s a big deal. Not only for the obvious problem women have getting paid the same money for the same work as men (the wage gap now stands at 82 cents to the dollar men earn). But the scholarship also begins to challenge an historic bias about how males and females view and participate in sports. Culturally, there is an assumption that men play to win and women play for fun and fitness, notions reinforced through the origins and structures of sport opportunities.

It has taken decades for female athletes to be viewed as individuals every bit as driven and intense as their male counterparts. The scholarship helps make that case for one simple reason: When coaches recruit, they don’t waste money. They are picking talent and assembling the elements of their team with a goal of winning.

Credit Adams State coach, former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Timm Rosenbach.  He told media that he just picked a player he thought could compete. “I see her as a football player who earned it,” he said. “She has a strong leg and can be very accurate.” Last season Longo made 30 of 33 point-after kicks and a 30-yard field goal

When Hnida in 2003 became the first female to score an extra point in an NCAA Division I game (she actually scored two, against Texas State), it was seen as a stunning event. More than a dozen years later, Longo’s recruitment is more noteworthy than shocking.

We are – at long last – becoming acclimated to the talent and intensity of female athletes. It is not a freak occurrence to see women excel. It’s sinking in that high-level ability can be developed, trained and practiced. Why shouldn’t a 5’11” 140-pound athlete with a powerful leg and strong mental make-up kick field goals?

Just consider the arching bombs that female soccer players launch down a field toward a net. Aim over uprights and a boundary is breached.

Longo’s signing marks progress in the cultural understanding that women – as well as men – can be dazzling athletes worth real money. (NCAA women’s tournament basketball game UConn vs. Mississippi State, anyone?)>

Yet even as Longo’s name was hurriedly added to the Wikipedia “female American football players” entry, one notes that the list isn’t very long. The reasons for girls and women not to play football – aside from reasons no one should – reflect a stubborn gender bias about what is “appropriate” and what is not, particularly when we are talking about kickers.

Journalist Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women and was a leader of The Women’s Sports Leadership Project. For seven years, she edited the FairGameNews blog, now preserved as an archive.

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Fighting... Women in Sports

indexFighting... Women in Sports

I’m not an athletic purist, one who finds poetry in the elemental mano-a-mano competition of strength, agility and smarts (sigh, yes, I know there’s strategy) of boxing and mixed martial arts, which include grappling moves. Honestly, I just don’t enjoy seeing people beat, punch or twist the crap out of one another. Period.

That aside, I appreciate what Ronda Rousey is doing these days. When you consider that the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates we are 43 years away from wage parity with men, Ms. Rousey deserves credit for speeding things up.

In 2012, she became the first woman signed by Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world, and three years later claims to be the UFC’s highest paid fighter. Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes, who compiles the list of highest-paid female athletes, puts Rousey at #8 for 2015 with $6.5 million in earnings, including $3 million in salary (the other $3.5 million from endorsement deals plus a bestselling book and three movies).

Mind you, his calculations came out before the Ms. Rousey’s blockbuster UFC193 November 2015 fight against Holly Holm, which drew 56,215 to Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, the largest crowd ever for a UFC event. It was also the third most purchased UFC pay-per-view event, attracting more than 1.1 million buyers.

Despite the pre-match promotions and expectation that Ms. Rousey would continue her rampage, the fight turned out not to be a female version of The Thrilla in Manilla. Ms. Holm won – quickly -- stunning everyone who had expected Ms. Rousey to continue the dominance that had her winning 11 matches in the first round.

There remain troubling inequalities in men’s and women’s combat sports. When women box at the Olympics in Rio – women’s boxing debuted in the modern era at the 2012 London Olympics -- there will be three events to the men’s 10. And in classic Olympic Committee style women’s competitions are slightly shorter than the men’s. There will be four 2-minutes rounds, while the men will have three 3-minute rounds (men get an extra minute!).

Yet, women’s fights have gained legitimacy and come a long way from the days of mud wrestling. The emergence of mixed martial arts as a spectator sport – and UFC as a forum – are just over two decades old. Where mud wrestling – not actually a sport – was a 1980s phenomenon about the sex appeal of barely clad women grappling in brown goo, UFC is not titillating in the least.

Ms. Rousey, the MMA competitor, hardly evokes the version of herself with the blonde trusses wearing the painted-on swimsuit in the new Sports Illustrated issue. Which is to say, you never know where progress toward gender equality in sports will come from – or the complications such a boost will offer. Feminism can demand purity, much as boxing fans focus on the base beauty of the physical human contest.

Some celebrate Ms. Rousey as the quintessential feminist while others see her as a traitor. When asked by an Australian reporter about gender pay equity in sports, she didn’t offer an ideological frame – or much sympathy. Rather, she said, “I think that how much you get paid should have something to do with how much you bring in.”

She added that, “I’m the highest-paid fighter not because Dana and Lorenzo wanted to do something nice for the ladies. They do it because I bring in the highest numbers. They do it because I make them the most money. And I think the money that they make should be proportionate to the money they bring in.”

There are a thousand reasons why it’s more complicated than this for women in sports as well as other jobs and career fields. But as we celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day, it is a reminder that gains are not always neat, intended or harmonious. And sometimes we win even when we don’t mean to.

Journalist Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women and a leader of The Women’s Sports Leadership Project. For seven years, she edited the FairGameNews blog, now preserved as an archive.

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Women's Soccer and the New Feminist Power

soccer ball

Women's Soccer and the New Feminist Power

We are in a fresh feminist moment, highlighted thanks to FIFA. Hang with me while I explain.

It is obviously ridiculous that the payout to the U.S. Women’s Soccer team for the World Cup victory is $2 million; the German men got $35 million last year. The $2 million is almost cute, considering it’s the same amount as the alleged bribe paid FIFA exec Jack Warner for his vote to make Qatar the 2022 World Cup site.

For a long time money has measured worth. I’m sure Warner, former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, and others could prattle on about why women don’t deserve a big payday: women’s sports are not big time. When you consider low ticket prices, turf fields (rather than grass), shabby player treatment (competitors stuffed into the same hotels and practice venues), it hardly looks like the big-money (men’s) World Cup event of July 2014.

For years, FIFA has treated the Women’s World Cup as an afterthought. When the U.S. women last won, in 1999, there was so little publicity that people only found out because Brandi Chastain whipped off her jersey, spurring debate about whether it was appropriate to show a sports bra in public.

Things are changing. The fashion forward will note that bras have officially become shirts (now they’re called “bralettes.”). The Women’s World Cup final became most watched televised soccer game in U.S. history. Commemorative t-shirts are selling out online. Carli Lloyd could earn $2 million (that number again!) just in commercial deals following her hat trick in the first few minutes of the game, the fastest ever in World Cup history.

Suddenly, rather than looking powerful, FIFA looks dumb and stale. For guys with a nose for cash, they are leaving a lot of it on the table. (You can’t watch a replay of Lloyd’s half-field goal online without viewing a commercial first.)

There is a big problem with the economics of how women are paid in sports (and elsewhere), which FIFA is helping to make obvious. I don’t want to say that money doesn’t matter (it does), but the U.S. women are playing out their power in a fresh feminist image that is a celebration of female skill and dominance. The effect is to make low wages look absurd. In much the same way that women have quietly come to own college campuses and advanced degrees, female athletes are demonstrating their clear-headed brilliance.

This isn’t about anger. It’s about proficiency—on the field and off. The U.S. Women’s World Cup win comes at a moment when “feminist” is no longer a dirty word among the under-thirty somethings. It comes as muscular Serena Williams is proving to be so dominant that I caught ESPN talking heads debating the other day if she might be the greatest athlete of all time. Who was it? LeBron, Michael, or Serena?

We have reached this moment through an interesting détente between old-time feminists and young women. We have don’t have to choose between sport girl or girly-girl: I saw an eight-year-old at a men’s soccer game wearing a party dress—and cleats. This new feminism is about pink and sparkles and mettle, all at the same time. It is Serena tough. U.S. women driven. Amy Schumer sarcastic. And Taylor Swift nice.

Pop star Swift, like the U.S. women’s soccer team, has amassed a base of girl fans and built an empire by reaching out and preaching friendship, self-respect, and girl-to-girl support. She has embraced stuff that is sweet: cats and cookie baking. But don’t be fooled. She was the one who forced Apple to change its payment policy to artists by threatening to withhold her album 1989 from iTunes (Apple fussed, then caved). That is power.

So when Swift invited the Women’s World Cup team to the stage before 60,000 fans during her concert at MetLife stadium following the team’s ticker tape parade in New York City, it was a visual demonstration of the new feminist might. It was women reaching out to one another and recognizing that success in one venue amplifies value in another. The bedazzled love—and support—suits them both. Blatter once famously said that the only way to get people interested in women’s soccer was for the players to don very short shorts. Now, he—and FIFA—just look out of touch.

Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women, a journalist who frequently contributes to the New York Times, and author of several books including Playing with the Boys: Why Separate in Sport is Not Equal>

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Valuing the Ideological Roots of Women’s Athletics

Feb6ImageValuing the Ideological Roots of Women’s Athletics

Did those female gym teachers back in the early 1900s actually have it right? No one wants to return to bloomers and half-court basketball, but the coalition of female physical educators who ran women’s sports and fought takeover by the NCAA (which took control of women’s college athletics in 1980) were onto something. Their message--that sport should be about self-development, social skills, and fair play--sounds pretty great right now.

They found competition unseemly (that's a problem), but their broad recognition of college sport as a life and community-building pursuit is worth a reprise given the mess that has become the NCAA-led college sports world.

Right now we’re in the midst of soul-searching about what college sports should look like. A spate of lawsuits ask about the “student” status of student-athletes and whether they should be paid. Last month, the five wealthiest conferences--Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12, and Southeastern--began a new era of freedom from many NCAA rules, gaining leeway to give more money to players. Where will this go? Will more universities develop athletes instead of scholars? (Some already do.) Will only marquis players get extra money? Will non-revenue-producing sports look expendable in a more commercialized environment?

The Knight Commission recently polled DI college leaders on their interest in exploring alternative models for competition and administration for some sports. Ambivalence won: 43 percent of respondents were interested; 37 percent weren’t. There’s a lot to figure out--and little consensus on where to go.

The college sports debate, let’s be clear, is a male conversation. It is ruled by big-time sports--football and men’s basketball--and the economic disruption they have created in the academic system. This is about competition and money. No wonder Cardale Jones, the third-string quarterback who just led Ohio State to the inaugural National blogpullquote WomensAthleticsChampionship, was confused when he arrived on campus. His 2012 tweet: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”

If Cardale did not come to “play SCHOOL,” why should Ohio State--or any big time program--be other than a semi-pro team? While we’re here, what role should college football--with it's concussion and brain damage record--even have in higher education? The conflicts are moral, but dollars will rule.

The gym teachers saw athletics as integral to school; the problem today is precisely that they are not. High-powered programs with big revenues (most lose money, but a handful make a bundle) operate as independent commercial enterprises. The wealthy programs pay coaches what their peers in the NFL and the NBA earn. (Sometimes more!) Cardale Jones does have a point: He was brought to play football and bring money and success to the program. You can’t blame players for wanting to be paid. But is this the point of college sports?

As we celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day, we typically cite participation statistics and recognize how far women have come. But we ought to value the ideological roots of women’s athletics, not as a shameful past of milk-and-cookies patsy play (though it was some of that), but for the wisdom of recognizing the hornet’s nest of unbridled high-stakes competition on what should be the virtues of athletics play in a college environment. The athletic field offers lessons in teamwork, leadership, persistence, skill-development, problem solving.

A study I did with colleagues Allison Tracy, Ph.D. and Sumru Erkut, Ph.D. showed that this message is getting lost. We gave 828 college recruiters a detailed survey to explore how they valued varsity sports experience in judging candidates for entry-level corporate jobs. They saw the obvious--college athletes excelled at teamwork, which they considered a key trait--but did not recognize skills such as time management and organization required to play college sports. Interestingly, they did not rate male or female athletes differently.

Anyone who has called herself an athlete recognizes the personal benefits of sport. Money has become a spoiler in the conversation (heck, Olympic athletes are not “set” financially--far from it). It’s time to see that the payoff of college sports can come without ESPN “Game Day,” academically questionable athletes, or coaches paid far more than the university president.

Find that value on women's teams, in locker rooms, and at games that garner little attention, but build durable skills. Sure it’s embarrassing to recall a beauty “Queen of the Court” crowned at halftime or college contests that mixed opposing players to limit competition and hard feelings. But maybe the men steering the future of college sports should consider the great goods that women and girls have been bringing to the games they play--for years.

Laura Pappano is the writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and an experienced journalist who writes about education and gender equity issues in sports.

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In quest for equity, sports and combat are sisters

helmetsIn quest for equity, sports and combat are sisters

How perfect that National Girls and Women in Sports Day (who invented this cumbersome name?) arrives as the military prepares to lift it’s ban on women serving in combat.

The barriers that women have faced to such service sound like the battle for equal access and treatment in sport.

How so?

Just step back and consider that the barriers, the arguments against women have focused on three central ideas (the three “I’s”): the presumption of women’s physical inferiority, the perceived immorality of women serving alongside men, and worry that women would be injured.

Drop those three I’s onto sport and those arguments – inferiority, immorality, and injury – have been the rhetoric used to limit and bar women from equal access to competition, whether it was 1970s Little League or ski jumping (finally to be included in the 2014 Olympic games).

In many countries, girls and women still do not have access to regular sports participation. In many urban areas, strapped families do not value or can’t afford to let daughters play sports.

This is not merely a problem of fitness, but of political, social, and economic equity. Sport is not just about play, but about parity.

When President Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill of Rights on June 22, 1944, the official text of his public statement recognized “service men and women” in the opportunity to resume training and education. Reality looked different. Even women who flew B-26 Marauder medium bombers on service missions could be declared “nonveterans” and made ineligible for benefits. Many in that generation of women didn’t get the government-funded college education they earned.

Women have been serving on the front lines. As the battlefield has become less clearly defined with danger available at most pay grades, it is time for women to have the same access to assignments and the economic and career benefits that come with combat-level commissions.

There is grumbling. Worries about sexual harassment (immorality) fail to recognize that half of the assaults are against men. That’s a problem of unacceptable behavior, not of gender. Injury? Unfortunately, women are already getting injured and even dying — alongside men.

The physical inferiority piece is more interesting. It raises questions of physiological differences and the relevant question: What do you really need to be able to do, physically, to perform?

blogpullquoteQuestForEquityIn a recent NY Times story exploring how military fitness tests will change with the new admission of women, we learn that those are all under review. But Greg Jacob, former commander of the training school for enlisted Marines at Camp Geiger, N.C. points out that he saw women who couldn’t complete two pull-ups be able to pump out eight in a matter of months, “because they were training to that standard.”

Females have never before trained for combat. Just imagine what it will mean to have women push themselves physically to a new level. Remember the surge in performance following women being allowed to run the marathon?

Come to think of it, equal access to combat may be just the thing to bring women’s athletics to new heights.

Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, and an experienced journalist who writes about education and gender equity issues in sports. This post is courtesy of her blog, FairGameNews.org.

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