In the 2018 US midterm elections a record 117 women were elected to Congress. National politics, once exclusively a men’s club, is changing fast. However, in 21st century America one place place still ruled by men for men — sports.
Look no further than our nation’s most popular sport. Gridiron football came to prominence in the late 19th century during what some scholars called a “crisis of masculinity” following the Civil War and associated with the end of the frontier era. One of football’s greatest champions, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a 1900 essay titled “Boys to Men” that sports “has beyond all question had an excellent effect in increased manliness.”
In 1925 Henry S. Curtis, who helped to bring playgrounds to American cities explained that athletics offered “the most effective method we have of teaching courage, determination, manliness, grit and all those qualities which we speak of as virile.” The sports that dominate US culture today were sports developed by men and for men more than a century ago.
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No sport dominates American culture more than football. The 50 largest stadiums in the US were built by cities and colleges to host football games. These weekend athletic shrines should be called “men’s fields” as only rarely do women play games in them.".
Because we are all immersed in American football culture — which I also celebrate — it can be difficult to see how things might be different.
When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed more than 400 years ago women were not allowed to act. Instead men played female roles. In the era’s Elizabethan culture, the idea of women actors would have seemed odd or even wrong.
Politics, film, music are a century ahead of sports
Yet, four centuries later, when it comes to actoring, we are still partially in the grip of Elizabethan culture. A 2018 study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that across 1,100 popular films women were less than a third of speaking characters, appeared at least partially nude in a quarter of films (a rate 2.5 times higher than their male counterparts), and were directed by only 43 women.
Like sport and acting, music was once considered to be exclusively a male enterprise. Clara Schumann, a 19th century composer lamented: “I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose — there never was one able to do it.” Times change. Today we sing along to Beyoncé, “We're smart enough to make these millions. Smart enough to bear these children. Then get back to business.”
To be sure, politics, film and music industries have a way to go to achieve gender equity, but they are at least a century ahead of sport.
Opponents of gender equity in sport argue that women’s sports just aren’t popular, pointing to television viewership and crowds. This claim is in most cases true, but it is also a spectacularly circular argument. Elite women athletes typically participate in sports created for men to highlight male physical attributes and do so in a culture that has prioritized male sport since the 1800s.
So of course male sports are more popular, in the same way that white males have been far more popular on the Senate Judiciary committee. Plays with female leads were not popular in the 16th century, nor were female composers in the 18th century. These outcomes reflect the society we choose, not the way things must be.
Sport will also change to reflect gender equality
Evidence shows that when women are given a platform to express athleticism, personality, drama in competition, our culture readily accommodates. For instance, in last year’s US Open tennis tournament, the women’s final had 3.1 million TV viewers, and the men’s had only 2 million. But this is an exception, in Forbes list of the world's 100 top paid athletes worldwide in 2018, not one female appeared on the list.
If sport is indeed a mirror to society, then what we see is a culture dominated by men for men. If women continue to achieve greater gender equality with men across society, and they should, then sport, as in politics, acting and music before, will also change to reflect changing culture and norms.
This could mean the creation of new sports and competitions. Just as football was invented to exhibit virility and manliness, it is possible to imagine sport reinvented to exhibit other societal values. We already see this happening in the Olympics with innovations such as co-ed competitions in track and field, swimming, table tennis and triathlon and the mainstreaming of once “extreme” sports, like snowboard racing and jumping.
Changing societal values would also imply the decline of football. The dominance today in American culture of 19th century football is simply not consistent with a 21st century society that values women as it values men.
One day in the future, and perhaps far into the future, our descendants will no doubt look at early 21st century sport much like we look back at acting in the early 17th century, reflective of old values from a distant era. If so, we will all be better for it.
Roger Pielke Jr. is an author and professor at the University of Colorado. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJr
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: On Super Bowl weekend, it's worth considering whether male-focused sports are out of step