I grew up in a hardcore sports family. Throughout my childhood I was brought to all of my older brother’s games, and now get to cheer for him in his professional baseball career. We have a long history of baseball in my family and I still hear my grandfather’s stories about playing in the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball in the 1950s. I also remember going to Purdue University football games and notoriously cheering “Go Boilers hit the home run” and embarrassing my dad at my lack of sports knowledge he thought was ingrained in me.
While I have had many experiences as a fan, I have had even more as an athlete. My competitive spirit often got me in trouble during elementary school because I went too hard in gym class, though that fire and drive served me well on the field. Throughout my childhood I was fortunate to participate in every sport imaginable including gymnastics (until I was too tall by first grade), soccer, tennis, softball, swimming and basketball.
I didn’t get hooked on a sport until seventh grade when I was introduced to lacrosse for the first time. I remember excitedly coming home and telling my dad I wanted to start playing lacrosse; what seemed like almost immediately, he took me to the lacrosse store in our town to buy my first stick. It happened to be Carolina blue. While blue is still my favorite color, much of my wardrobe is now Crimson as I currently compete for the Harvard Varsity Women’s Lacrosse team.
Throughout my life I have seen, and more importantly experienced, how powerful sports can be. I not only have been blessed with amazing friendships through playing, but there are common threads of competitiveness and work ethic that I value and admire in my peers. Sports are certainly an outlet for energy, but in the academic environment they force me to multitask and prioritize my time effectively. I will undoubtedly be able to take both traits with me into the workforce and leverage them for the rest of my life.
Sports too have been a microcosm of the real world for me. From playing AAU basketball and competitive lacrosse on a national scale, I am fortunate to have friends from various backgrounds across the country. Being African American and playing lacrosse, a predominantly white sport, I am comfortable in scenarios where I am the only one who looks like me in the room. As I enter the sports industry, I may not be the only African American in the room, but it is possible I will be the only woman there at times. While there is certainly a push to increase the numbers of women working in sports, as is the aim of the Women in Sports Tech Fellowship program I am honored to be part of this summer, the industry is still predominantly male.
As a fan I respect men’s sports and watch them regularly, but as an athlete I am more attuned to the discrepancies between the treatment and care of male and female athletes. I grew up with access to girls-only teams in each sport I participated in; for me, access was not the problem. In my own experience, as a female athlete I have been accepted and celebrated but in terms of promotion and subsequent attention and viewership on a larger scale, there is a much different reality.
One poignant example is that at a recent home game at Harvard, the women’s team played immediately after the men’s. The entire fan section was completely full for the men’s game. Not only did our team have to wait to enter the stadium until their game ended, we had to push our way through the throngs of fans who were departing at the same time. The stands were empty for our game.
Female athletes, and the sports we play, can and should be celebrated. While some of the discrepancies between treatment and levels of attention and engagement I have mentioned have to do with individual preferences and a bias towards men’s sports from the fan base, there is also a major difference in the marketing of the sports we play. In lacrosse specifically, the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship is routinely hosted in NFL stadiums such as Lincoln Financial Field and Gillette Stadium. Conversely, the women’s tournament is hosted in college stadiums. There is a clear difference in scale and reception of the tournament given the grandeur and excitement that comes with playing in a professional stadium and all of the amenities that follow.
Financially, in 2019 the NCAA spent just over $2.6 million for the men’s tournament compared to roughly $1.7 million for the women’s tournament. Therefore, while preference for one sport over another does factor into the lack of attention and support for women’s sports, so too does the firsthand promotion of the sport.
Promotion of events allows for new fans to be made which then increases viewership. Notably, 46% of sports viewers said that if women’s sports were more accessible on free TV they would watch them more. Given this, it is concerning that women’s lacrosse games were broadcasted during overlapping times on ESPN3. In contrast, men’s games were on ESPNU and ESPN2 without overlap, therefore increasing the availability of the games and viewership. For women’s sports to continue to grow, coverage of games, among many other things, must be more frequent and accessible.
While there are major discrepancies between the treatment of male and female athletes, sports have and will continue to be a critical part of my life and have given me amazing opportunities both personally and professionally.
As a current Division I athlete, I have a unique perspective as to the challenges and inequities female athletes face today. Within the last few years, there have been noticeable advances as to how women’s sports – and their athletes – are promoted, covered and, best of all, celebrated. As we reflect on the 50th Anniversary of Title IX, and recognize the progress that has been made, we know there is still much to be done. While I’ve been fortunate to have a great athletic experience, I look forward to being part of the progress to ensure those who come after me have a better experience than I did.