I love cheering for Mo’ne Davis. The 13-year-old Philadelphia pitcher, who happens to be a girl, is making quite a name for herself at the Little League World Series.
If only we were cheering as loudly for Mo’ne and other young female athletes on the softball field. Or anywhere else in girls sports.
But Davis is a novelty, a girl crashing a boys’ party.
Too often, that is the only time we notice girls and give them equal billing.
The message is pervasive.
On the front page of the Sports Illustrated website as I write this, you will find six lead items — a Johnny Manziel feature, a story about high school football in Ferguson, Missouri, an account of Braxton Miller’s injury, an homage to referee Dick Bavetta and an update on Andrew McCutchen’s return
The sixth item — and only “sports news” regarding a female — is a picture of a young woman in a skimpy bathing suit, the lead-in to the site’s daily gossip feature.
The lineup of stories will have changed by the time you read this, but the mix will almost certainly be the same when it comes to portraying females as objects, not athletes. And that is not isolated to SI.
ESPN’s lead features six stories — all about male athletes or teams.
Even MaxPreps, which covers high school sports and is a de facto media partner with many of them, is male-oriented. Of six stories featured, four cover football, one is about girls volleyball, and a sixth is about boys basketball.
Particularly at the grade school and high school level, this is unfortunate.
We need to rally behind them as well, said a Purdue University expert who studies girls’ participation in sports and gender images in media.
“Even if schools invest in both male and female sports equally, the girls are often the group that gets left behind with community or fan support,” says Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of women’s studies, gender and sexuality studies. “Younger girls seeing that support know their participation is valued, and this can go a long way to encourage them to continue with sports throughout their youth.
“Research shows there is a higher sports dropout rate for adolescent girls, which is linked to peer pressure and community expectations.”
Studies have shown the benefits of girls participating in sports include higher levels of academic achievement, confidence and self-esteem, learning leadership skills and better physical health.
There is nothing wrong with Davis playing baseball or another girl crossing over to play a boys sport like football. That should not be the only time we celebrate the achievements of girls in athletic contests, though.
Too often, it is.
(Full disclosure: The Daily Journal is not immune from this criticism, although it provides better sports coverage of girls and their teams than many. “Better” is a relative term, though, as I suspect today’s front page stories are dominated by boys’ sports.)
Girls should not have to play against boys to get support and recognition for their efforts and achievements.
If you want this to change, it has to start here, in the community.
“On a societal level, getting involved with girls’ community athletic events could probably lead to increased interest in sports itself, and even lead to increased fan interest in the women’s collegiate and pro levels. It would go a long way in shifting cultural perspectives,” Cooky said. “The popularity can translate into better support and more resources and higher investment for women’s sport participation.
“Corporations are already starting to notice the woman sports consumer,” the professor said, citing the success of the Always #LikeAGirl ad campaign to address attitudes about “running like a girl” or “throwing like a girl.”
We’ve simply got to change the stereotypes that undervalue young athletes who happen to be girls. We owe it to our daughters and granddaughters.
I understand I am swimming upstream (and definitely not in a bikini like an SI model). And I understand that one little column will not change the way we view girls sports as a society.
Maybe, though, it will help remind us that girls deserve the community support that boys more often receive.
And maybe it will reinforce, in the face of Sports Illustrated and other sites that objectify females as eye candy, that female athletes are something more than a novelty or a swimsuit model.
Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal, a sister paper to The Republic.
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