Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Sunday, May 26, 2024
The Observer

It's not a question of skill: sexism in female athletics

Last year, a six-year-old avid Notre Dame fan Amelia Joan Connolly wrote to The Observer to express her frustration that she could not buy a women’s basketball jersey in our University bookstore. They have men’s jerseys, cheerleading outfits, cookbooks, expensive artwork and decked out pool tables, but no women’s basketball jerseys to support our team that won the National Championship and made it to the final four the next year.

She said it wasn’t fair and that if there were more jerseys made to support the women’s team, more kids would cheer them on. And she’s exactly right.

We just opened a new indoor practice facility for the football team — and this is great. We should invest in our athletic programs, and the football team was in need of a new indoor facility. However, we have put millions of dollars into one program while failing to recognize another equally successful program in our own bookstore to even close to the same extent. Adding resources to one area of athletics does not imply the deprivation of resources from another.

I’m not trying to rag on Notre Dame specifically in this column. This clearly isn’t a Notre Dame specific issue. Gendered inequality in sports is an issue that has pervaded our society for decades. Women weren’t even allowed to run in the Boston marathon until 1972. The highest salary in the WNBA, of $117,500, doesn’t even come close to matching the starting NBA salary of $582,180. Jackie Young, a Notre Dame Women’s basketball alum and number one pick in the 2019 WNBA draft is estimated to earn $53,537, compared to Lebron James’ four-year contract with the Lakers for $154 million.

Our women’s national soccer team brought the pay gap to the foreground this year, and the team ended up filing a lawsuit with the soccer federation for gender discrimination, citing “female WNT players would earn a maximum of $99,000 or $4,950 per game, while similarly situated male MNT players would earn an average of $263,320 or $13,166 per game.” The women’s national team has won four World Cups. The men’s team reached the quarterfinals in 2002. Even more damning is the fact that critics can’t even point to a difference in generation of profit. From 2016 to 2018, the women’s team produced $50.8 million compared to $49.9 million from the men’s team.

Obviously, this is a problem, but it raises the question of why. Why does our society continually fail to recognize the importance and skill associated with female athletics?

Many people will argue that it is not the fault of the NBA for the inequality in their athletic programs. Women’s sports are less interesting, less athletically impressive and thus draw fewer viewers — but this is simply not true. The lack of investment in women’s leagues is the obvious factor to blame for the patriarchal and archaic state of women’s sports today. It’s not the lack of revenue that female sports are able to produce, it is the fact that they were never able to produce that revenue in the first place because of rampant structural sexism.

How is a league supposed to generate loyal viewership when all of the coaching staff and players are underpaid, their facilities lack the investment of male programs and the athletes are rarely considered for sponsorships or any other type of major promotion?

Female tennis is a great example. In 2007, all Grand Slam tournaments standardized pay for male and female tennis players. The standardization of pay legitimizes female athletics to viewers, eroding at the stereotypes and misconceptions developed through decades of underfunded leagues and programming. Furthermore, the female tennis circuit plays the same major events on the same cycle as their male counterparts and networks have become just as willing to broadcast the major events. Clearly, the problem isn’t the ability of female athletes to generate a profit, but the refusal of managers and advertisers to take interest in the first place.

I walked into the bookstore last week and I did see some gear supporting our national championship team, but it still isn’t enough. Representation — and the kind that Amelia desires — is vitally important, but it will still take years to erode at the rampant sexism that has plagued our understanding of female sports. It requires a reorientation of thinking to ask the question of why the majority of viewers think of the male basketball team when they hear ND basketball?

As we begin this new year, and upcoming sports seasons, football, basketball and field hockey alike, I think it’s important that we consider what support for our female teams look like both on campus and nationally. Women’s sports lack popularity not for their lack of skill or excitement in the games, but fundamentally because we never decided to support them in the first place. Basketball jerseys in the bookstore is a small but important step to recognize equity in athletics and inspire a new generation of fans.

Jackie O'Brien is a Notre Dame senior studying political science and peace studies, originally from the Chicago suburbs. When she's not writing for Viewpoint, you can find her attempting to complete the NYT crossword, fretting over law school applications or watching RuPaul's Drag Race. She can be reached at or @im_jackie_o on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.