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This March, outcry arose during the NCAA March Madness tournament when Sedona Prince, a forward for the Oregon Ducks women’s basketball team, posted a TikTok comparing her team’s weight room to that of their male counterparts. The men’s weight room was an expansive gym full of machines, equipment and free weights. The women’s weight room was a single rack of dumbbells and yoga mats. The NCAA claimed it was a space issue, but the TikTok clearly shows that the women’s area had ample room for a full gym. And while the internet exploded in discourse and debate, many women athletes expressed that these disparities are nothing new.

Indeed, this controversy is a reflection of a greater issue in sports and in society overall. Women athletes, and especially women athletes of color, are not only paid less for the same or better work, but they are denied equal economic resources and facilities, do not receive fair marketing and coverage and suffer stereotyping, sexualization and discrimination. Despite the passage of Title IX in 1972, women athletes today — at the club, high school, collegiate and professional levels — face substantial roadblocks to true equality. And while the University of Michigan does a good job supporting its student athletes who are women, the institution of sport overall is still skewed to support men and their success.

As a woman who grew up playing competitive soccer, I am well aware of the social disparities that occur on and off the field — less fans coming to the women’s games, having to prove yourself while the men do not and the pressure to look good after sweating for 90 minutes straight, for instance. I wondered, then, how these realities play out on the collegiate level, where one’s sport is not a hobby but a job in the public eye. Student-athletes are already under a lot of pressure from having to balance schoolwork, games and practice, so how do their differing identities — like which sport they play, their gender, race and socio-economic status — and the intersectionality of these identities impact their ability to thrive in athletics and academics, as well as their self-esteem, identity and worldview?

I spoke with seven women from six different sports — track & field and cross country, gymnastics, rowing, field hockey, softball and lacrosse — in the hopes of learning about their experiences as women student athletes at the University. As a non-student-athlete, I have witnessed within myself, and among other peers who don’t play college sports, a tendency to make assumptions or stereotypes about student-athletes, especially with gendered, racial and sport-specific lenses. And while these seven women graciously allowed me a look into their academic, athletic and personal lives with common themes linking their experiences, this article is merely a glance into the diverse, complex institution of sport.

Dr. Ketra Armstrong, professor of Sport Management and director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for the School of Kinesiology, touched on the idea of a universal student-athlete experience during a Zoom interview.

“I’m always hesitant to paint that experience as a monolith,” Armstrong said. “It differs if they’re a Black student or a student of color. Or if they’re a student of color, and they’re female and they’re an athlete playing what is considered a ‘masculine type sport.’ So there’s a multiplicity of identities that are at play when you look at those two buckets of being a student and being an athlete.”

Indeed, identity impacts experience; even so, there are the typical obstacles most women athletes face every day. Sexist comments. Body image issues. Social and political engagement. Viewership disparities. These are encountered in the classroom or while competing; women athletes suffer many of the common grievances of the patriarchy and those that come with their sport.

“They’re trying to deal with a lot,” Armstrong said. “They’re trying to be students, they’re trying to be athletes and they’re trying to be citizens … citizens of the campus, citizens of the community, citizens of the world. So that’s a lot to ask of a person to do and to do it successfully and impactfully.”

And yet, just as they do on their field, court, track or floor — they push through, they persevere. 

“Athletes, particularly, they’re high performing,” Armstrong said. “They’re resilient, first and foremost, let’s not forget that. They’re resilient.”

***

The University of Michigan has 13 men’s and 14 women’s varsity sports, but if you’re not an avid sports fan, you are probably only familiar with two: men’s football and men’s basketball. Indeed, these teams are central to our campus spirit and identity: The fall football season builds a sense of camaraderie even for those who barely watch the games, and the March Madness tournament is another excuse to get drunk and excited over a maize-colored jersey. Much of these sports’ popularity comes from American culture and tradition, as well as the history of the athletic program, but it is sustained through powerful marketing and resourcing — which is possible, considering these sports are the major drivers of revenue for the University. The NCAA’s model, which has shifted from providing holistic academic and athletic opportunities to optimizing profit, has led to the cuts of many D1 athletic programs and hindered the growth of already existing ones.

For women’s athletics, this model can be an even deeper threat, as retaining popularity and viewership has proven difficult for these teams in the past. Not only do women athletes have to break through patriarchal stereotypes about who sport is for (traditionally, men) and which sports are “better” to watch (i.e. claims that men’s games are more exciting), but they have to fight for equal representation in marketing and media. The NCAA was criticized this year not only for the weight room fiasco but also because of its March Madness Twitter account. Its bio reads: “The official NCAA March Madness destination for all things Division I NCAA Men’s Basketball.” It seems unfair to claim that “just not enough people like watching women’s sports” when there’s barely a mention of the women’s tournament — how are you supposed to get new fans if people aren’t aware of the games?

It’s a phenomenon that LSA fifth-year senior Nadine Stewart, a lacrosse player studying Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience, described to me over a Zoom call. Stewart explained how the University’s women’s lacrosse games are not televised; rather, they are streamed on Big Ten Network Plus, which requires a paid subscription. 

“Some people obviously don’t have (BTN Plus), so they can’t watch, so we can’t really get a huge following,” Stewart said.

The Michigan women’s lacrosse team motivating each other before a game.

This lack of proper representation is also visible in the sports media. In one study of sports news in Southern California, it was found that while women and girls make up 40% of all athletes, they received only about 4% of news coverage. More so, the researchers found “a stark contrast between the exciting, amplified delivery of stories about men’s sports, and the often dull, matter-of-fact delivery of women’s sports stories.” Again, it seems unfair to claim that women’s sports are inherently “less exciting” when they have been preemptively characterized and marketed as a boring, required subset of men’s sports and not in their true, action-packed nature.

While the U-M Athletic Department, which did not respond to a request for a comment by the time of this article’s publication, makes an effort to uplift both their men’s and women’s teams — a point that every woman I interviewed made — the systemic inequalities in coverage and representation are difficult to fully unweave from the collegiate level. Business senior Kragen Metz, a field hockey player, touched on this theme when we spoke over Zoom.

“I think, at the University of Michigan, we get such unprecedented experience and exposure,” Metz said. “Playing on such a high-caliber team has been an incredible opportunity and I’m so appreciative of that. However, there are such discrepancies where it feels like you’re less valued than the men’s program, like you saw with the NCAA March Madness for women’s and men’s basketball. I feel like that just goes to show, if you’re not making money, you’re not valued as much as the men’s sport.”

She described how these discrepancies are a result of both cultural and institutional factors, and are commonly reflected in athletic and professional life alike.

“I think that Michigan is working on this, (but) I think that they have a lot of work to do, especially having been in the Business School and then on the field hockey field,” Metz said. “There’s a lot of people who just don’t get what it means to be a woman in these male-dominated spaces. I think that women have to put in a bit more work to be recognized the same, and that recognition is so hard to come by, especially from top leadership. Like, Warde Manuel does not really visit us often, Michigan Athletics social media doesn’t feature us very often, on BTN we don’t have commentators. All that stuff would be unheard of for a men’s team.”

The Michigan women’s field hockey team celebrates a win after a game with Northwestern.

Business sophomore Sierra Brooks, a member of the women’s gymnastics team, described one way she deals with the often difficult experiences of being a woman student athlete and the discrepancies that arise with it. 

“I think one point where I really realized that, in general, being a female athlete was different than a male athlete, was coming to college and just hearing about all the viewership issues and even just seeing how much money gets put into this program versus a different program,” Brooks said. “Those were times when … I tried to leverage my sense of community with other female athletes, because I’ve met so many, and we’re all so different. And I’ve loved learning about that, because there’s stereotypes with certain female athletes of certain sports … but everyone’s different, and that’s something that I’ve loved to see.”

These stereotypes that Brooks described are deeply-rooted in a centuries-long gender ideology that presumes what is feminine and what is masculine. 

“The gender ideology that has long pervaded the institution of sport, and the culture of sports, it has impacted men and women,” Armstrong said. “Men who are playing in certain sports, they’re affected as well.” 

The gender ideology Armstrong mentioned has created a theoretical spectrum, with one end delineating stereotypically “masculine” sports, which are centered around power and contact, and the other with stereotypically “feminine” ones, which focus on aesthetics and nonaggression. This impacts women who play stereotypically-masculine sports — they are often classified as “butch” or “buff” — and men who compete in stereotypically-feminine ones, who are labeled as “gay.” For women athletes, this is known as the Female/Athlete Paradox, which “states that athletic women face a dilemma; they are expected to succeed in their sport while maintaining hegemonic femininity.” 

One presumed “masculine” characteristic is strength. All athletes have muscles in some form or another, due to frequent practices, conditioning and lifting sessions. Their bodily strength, which is an asset while competing, suddenly becomes a negative feature for women when they enter any space other than an athletic one. Business senior Lexi Munley, a member of the track & field and cross country teams, described this collateral of the Female/Athlete paradox over a Zoom call.

“When I’m wearing a T-shirt or something, you can see my arms, and because I’m more muscular … sometimes people make a comment, they’re like ‘oh, you do a sport,’ ” Munley said. “And I don’t tone it down, but it’s something that’s there and not necessarily something I always want to be out there … I don’t know what exactly it is, but it just draws attention in a way. And maybe the root of that is wanting to feel more lean and feminine and not just as a strong athlete.” 

But this immediately changes when competing, Munley said, laughing: “But when you’re on the track, you’re like, ‘Yes, look at my arm, I will destroy you.’ ”

The Michigan women’s cross country team is honored for their 2018 Big Ten Championship win.

Indeed, the expectations for women to be small, passive and harmless do not align with the definition of athleticism, which centers around power, activity and confidence. Interestingly, female gymnasts exist in a space of both strength and fitness while also relying on elegance and aesthetics. While other sports, like track and field, emphasize a lean body type, gymnasts are usually more muscular; this contradicts the Western feminine ideal of thin women. And yet, gymnastics is known as “feminine” because of the aspect of appearance that goes along with the sport — in the leotards and glamorous makeup and hair, for instance.

Olivia Karas, alum of the U-M women’s gymnastics team, discussed how people perceive gymnasts, particularly in regards to their bodies.

“Something that men will never understand about women, and specifically athletes won’t understand about female gymnasts, (is) when it comes to literally putting your body out there on a balance beam or on a floor, under the lights in front of 10,000 people in a crowd on TV, you’re really out there, and it’s open for interpretation,” Karas said. “And it’s open for discussion of potentially your weight, or how your body is formed or whatever, and so that’s something about being a woman that’s just really difficult in the gymnastics space.”

The Michigan women’s gymnastics team celebrates winning the Big Ten Championships in 2019.

Similar to Munley, Karas described moments of insecurity when it came to her muscles outside of the athletic space.

“In high school, a lot of people would say things to me like, ‘You look like the Hulk,’ or like, ‘You have the perfect man body, like a V’, ” Karas said, noting that this changed during college. “It’s a little embarrassing because it’s like, why can’t I fit in this dress, or when I’m in a swimsuit, it’s just like, ‘look at her back’, and … it makes you self conscious, because then you see … these women, traditionally-looking women, and that means dainty, I suppose, if that’s what people want to associate women with, and it shouldn’t be that way.”

The Michigan women’s gymnastics team after getting their first score over 198 in the athletic program’s history.

The link between strength and masculinity also plays into the perception of women athletes, especially those with visible muscles, as violating gender norms and contradictory to heteronormative gender expectations. One paper on the Female/Athlete Paradox describes how this impacts perceived sexuality.

“Associating female athletes with lesbianism has been a common theme in the United States and ‘follows a belief in the myth of the masculinization and mannishness of athletic women,’the paper states. “Females’ sexual orientations are often judged according to their physical build; those who exhibit a more muscular body type are more likely to be labeled ‘dyke,’ ‘butch,’ or ‘lesbian.’”

LSA senior Lou Allen, a softball player studying Political Science, commented on how these perceptions were present even from a young age.

“There’s actually a saying in softball called ‘No Bow, Lesbo,’” Allen said. “Back when I was in my travel ball, when I was younger … it was a legit thing, like if you didn’t wear a bow, everyone was gonna assume that you were a lesbian.”

Allen, who is bisexual, described questioning the practice as she got older and began exploring her own identity.

“I got to the point where I was wearing like cheerleader bows, like these huge, huge things, so that it would be known,” Allen said. “And then like I went through my phase, I’m bisexual, so I went through all of that and I’m trying to figure out my identity and everything so I even got to a point of like, do I wear a bow? Am I supposed to? Am I supposed to be involved in this? Does this mess up my identity, because I don’t know what to do here, I like both. So what am I supposed to do?”

Members of the Michigan women’s softball team pose for a photo in the Law Quad.

The dissonance between identity and expectation is one that is especially contoured not only by gender and sexuality, but also race. LSA junior Haven Essien, a member of the women’s rowing team studying French as well as Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology, discussed the various stereotypes she encounters as a biracial woman.

“From what I’ve encountered, how male athletes are accepted or approached versus how female athletes are accepted or approached, is there’s always this additional physical aspect,” Essien said. “Even in high school, or even in middle school, it wasn’t about my work ethic, or it wasn’t about how much time I was putting into something, nobody ever thought about that. It was almost solely an aspect of physicality. I mean, again, I’m different, so I am perceived to be a stereotype, because I’m biracial, but I’m presenting Black. So, it was always, ‘Oh, you have African legs, that’s why you’re so fast’, or ‘Oh, your height, this makes sense.’ “

This idea that women athletes are bodies first and athletes second represents how women are perceived generally: As bodies first, people second. Our identity is, according to society, inextricably linked to our sexuality and subservience to men. Athletes especially are in a vulnerable spot, because their bodies and what their bodies do are central to the form of entertainment that is sport. As Karas mentioned regarding the “invited” scrutiny of the woman gymnast’s body, athletes are historically viewed as attractive bodies meant for us mere mortals to watch and appreciate. But what seems like an appreciative experience can actually reduce athletes to one dimension and purpose, often a sexualized or fetishized one; and once you add the contours of race and gender, this perception becomes even more sinister.

“These athletes tend to be seen as something for them (non-athlete consumers), because they’re already shown on the entertainment. That’s kind of what the NCAA and Big Tens and ESPN Sports in general is showing athletes as: props for entertainment and less about people,” Essien said. “So I think that also comes into people not necessarily seeing them (athletes) as human beings and then just seeing them as, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to college, and I want to hit up like a cute Black football player.’”

Essien also discussed how when people perceive athletes as one-dimensional, this creates the false notion that they are only admitted to the University because of their athleticism; this often overlaps with racist stereotyping.

“I’ve heard: ‘Oh, that makes sense,’.. like, (that) I got into Michigan because I’m an athlete?” Essien said. “I think, for men of color, it’s almost assumed that you are an athlete or that you’ve gotten in with some sort of scholarship or whatever.”

As the United States is undergoing a political and social reckoning, the positioning of athletes as simply bodies for our entertainment is quickly wearing out. And while athletes have been vocal in political movements for the entire history of sport, there was a page-turning moment in 2016 when NFL player Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during football games to protest police brutality against Black people. In the years that followed, we have seen increased activism from notable players such as LeBron James — who was told to “shut up and dribble” after discussing being Black in America and talking about former President Donald Trump — and Megan Rapinoe, who has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality, among other things. We have witnessed multiple teams in the WNBA lead social-justice movement in sports, being the first teams to wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts before games and helping push the vote and flip a Senate seat.

When it comes to social justice leadership or striving for gender equality, athletes at all levels and of all genders and races are banding together to push a new movement. Armstrong, who has worked in all types of sport spaces, commented on her hope for the future generation of athletes.

“I’m reluctantly hopeful, but I’m also happy when I see high schoolers standing up and saying, ‘You know, this is not right. This country has to change. I’m not standing up in support of this flag,’ ” Armstrong said. “It’s like when I see high schoolers having conversations about race. I listened to a conversation of these high school students talking about anti-racism, and like wow — that’s pretty special.”

The links between sport culture and society are clear and necessary to observe. 

“Sport is an entity in society, it mirrors and reflects society,” Armstrong said. “Some of the things we see in the world, we definitely also see them in the institution of sport.”

The experiences of women student athletes in social or academic spaces, as well as the institutional and philosophical pressures that define their identity and sense of belonging, can be easily extrapolated to the nature of womanhood in American society. We are constantly forced into impossible spaces, paradoxes that tell us to be one thing but not the other — but only in certain circumstances, certain settings. In understanding how these processes impact women and further our inequality with men, we can begin grappling with the systems and ideologies that prevent our society from true equality.

Statement Correspondent Magdalena Mihaylova can be reached atmmihaylo@umich.edu.