Nancy Lieberman walked into a recent Dallas Legends practice, and overheard her players – some former first-round NBA draft picks — talking about the big NCAA Tournament game from the night before.
Baylor vs. Texas A&M. Women.
“Women’s sports have come a long way,” said Lieberman, the Legends coach who was a former player and coach in the WNBA. “When the guys want to know about (UConn’s) Maya Moore, when they’re tweeting about what (Baylor’s) Brittney Griner is doing, when they’re asking me if those guys are better than Cheryl Miller or myself or Ann Meyers, they’re really in tune to what’s happening.”
Great strides have been made for women in sports and sports media since the passage of Title IX, but there’s still plenty of progress to be made.
That was the overwhelming sentiment shared by the high-profile speakers discussing the state of women in sports on the AWSMNow webinar Wednesday, March 30.
The webinar, presented by the Association for Women in Sports Media, was the first in the AWSMNow series, designed to open dialogue on hot topics related to women in sports media.
Nearly 50 AWSM members and non-members were on hand to hear the thoughts of panelists from the fields of media, athletics and government.
Since 1972, the participation of girls in high school athletics has increased tenfold and six fold at the college level, according to Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.
“More and more women than every before have the opportunity to play,” said Ali, who added that men’s sports participation has grown during that same period, debunking the myth that Title IX is only about growing opportunities for women.
Among the athletes who have benefited directly is Mariel Zagunis, the most decorated fencer in U.S. history. At age 26, the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medalist said there was never an issue of whether or not she could play.
“Sports has always been a huge part of my like, and obviously with fencing, it is my life,” said Zagunis, who is currently training for the 2012 Games. “The opportunities that Title IX has given me as a female athlete have been outstanding, but in my sport, which is still very male-dominated, there are a lot of steps to go before we have equality in my sport.”
It is not just specific sports that struggle with equity.
“We still see vast disparities in athletic opportunities nationwide,” Ali said. “Women represent about 57 percent of college students, and yet only have about 43 percent of the opportunities, and we see disparities at the high school level as well. Our work is really designed to ensure the spirit of Title IX becomes a reality.”
One area where progress is lacking is at the management level. Multiple panelists expressed a desire to see more women rise to ranks that continue to be dominated by men.
Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s said the best way to change that is through thoughtful education and preparation.
“It’s great that we’re participating on the field, but it would be even better when the decisions are being made, we’re at the table,” Joyner-Kersee said. “It is important that we as women know our value and know what we bring to the table.”
The representation of women and women’s sports in the media is also significantly overshadowed by the play given the men’s equivalent, like the NCAA basketball tournaments, professional basketball and golf.
“The men’s (NCAA Tournament) gets bigger and bigger every year, and literally blocks out the sun for the women,” said Christine Brennan, USA Today columnist and AWSM’s first president. “I’m sure all of us can count up to three or four figures the amount of times we have heard ‘the tournament’ as if there is only one. We in the mainstream sports media are doing a terrible job there. It’s going the wrong way, frankly.”
In cases like these, Brennan said it up to fans of women’s sports to take the initiative to demand equity in coverage by their local media.
Lieberman added it is up to women to lend their support to the women’s game, something she said is lacking.
“We might play a sport, but we’re not a fan of the sport,” she said. “I take issue with that. The way we’re going to grow ratings, the way we’re going to grow, not only do we have to make the call to get more exposure, we have to use our power.
“If we’re not emotionally invested in watching the women’s NCAA Tournament or watching the WNBA or other great women’s sports, why should men care? We still haven’t learned how to spend our discretionary income buying tickets, supporting the teams, going to the arena and doing business in the arena.”