Op-Ed: Not an anomaly

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 - 8:46am

When someone finds out that I actually know a thing or two about baseball and basketball, I get a few different reactions: “Wow, I didn't know you liked sports. That's cool,” “It’s funny how into sports you are; I wouldn’t have guessed” or “I don't meet a lot of girls who like to watch sports as much as you do.” And by now, I have come to largely anticipate an eyebrow raise or head tilt, as if to say, “Are you serious?”

Looking back on the countless times I’ve heard someone utter these phrases, I realize that the majority of these comments come from guys. These comments seem to come from a widespread disbelief that women can be, and are, serious sports fans, too. And it's not just guys — there have even been a few times my girlfriends have made similar comments, as if they have internalized the notion that female sports fans have to be something rare.

My favorite comment came from my one of my closest girlfriends a while back: “Guys think it's cool when a girl is into sports.” She said this as though one of the reasons I should like sports is so guys will think I’m cool. And while not everyone has reacted in these ways, comments like this one are among the most common I receive from people outside my own family. These reactions speak to the ways in which we have gendered sports to the point that female sports fans seem to exist as anomalies.  

When I was younger, I was content knowing people thought it was exceptionally cool that I, as a girl, liked sports. But then it got to be a chore, constantly explaining why I got into sports (“because your mom certainly was never this into sports”) or if I just liked the San Francisco Giants after they won their first championship, even though they’re my home team. And it got tiresome trying to explain that I liked sports because I was interested in sports and I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. And after a while, I realized it shouldn't be considered cool that a girl likes sports. It should be considered normal. But the sad reality is that it isn't, because many people — at least many I’ve talked to — think that female sports fans are few and far between.

Contrary to this popular notion, women attend professional sports games in significant numbers. A study conducted by Scarborough Sports Marketing in 2010 showed that females comprised 41.2 percent of MLB game attendees and 36.4 percent of NBA game attendees. What’s more, the study found that percentages of females who attended professional hockey, football, soccer and NASCAR events also hovered at about 40 percent.

Even though I realize I shouldn't have to, I still rush to justify why I’m a fan, explaining how my dad got me into sports when I was 4 years old and that I’ve loved them ever since. I even throw in the name of a player who is no longer on the team to prove I'm not just a bandwagon fan; to prove that I’m not just talking a big talk. But I need to stop doing this because I shouldn't have to prove myself.

Some people are fanatics. They know every stat, every player and every rule of the game. I am definitely not one of those people, but I feel like I have to be in order to be considered a fan at all. But do men hold each other to these same standards? Sometimes I mistake two players, but don't we all?

I shouldn't be held to a higher standard of knowledge than my male counterparts, simply to prove that I enjoy sports. Can't I ask questions, too, like a guy would ask his buddy, without it being chalked up to me being a girl who doesn't know as much about sports as she says?

Women are often met with similar surprise when they say they want to be doctors, businesswomen, scientists or lawyers. And the reality is that until a few decades ago these fields, along with sports, were “boys’ clubs.” For many years, women weren't allowed at Ivy League schools and there were zero women in many top professions. And though the numbers have not changed significantly, they have changed at least a little for the better. In 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprised 27.9 percent of chief executives, 34.5 percent of lawyers and 37.9 percent of physicians and surgeons combined.

We shouldn't have to qualify our answers or choices with reasons why. As mathematicians or sports fans, we shouldn't be treated as anomalies, or we will always be anomalies. I shouldn't have to prove myself and nor should any other woman.

No, it's not cool I like sports. I just like sports. End of story.

Anna Polumbo-Levy is a senior editorial page editor.