Editorial | Athletes shouldn’t be defined by their gender

Illustrated by Gaby Fantone

Serena Williams will go down in history as the best female player of all time. Simone Biles is the greatest female gymnast ever. Danica Patrick leaves racing with a claim to be the best female driver in American history.

There’s a shared characteristic between these headlines from articles by BleacherReport, Vox Media and Yahoo Sports, a single word linking these record-setting athletes while demeaning their accomplishments at the same time.

“Female.”

Think about this for a second. It’s just one word – “female.” What effect could it possibly have on our perception of an athlete and their achievements?

It’s important to designate an athlete’s accomplishment in the context of its competition, yes. Yet Michael Phelps isn’t called “the greatest male swimmer of all time,” he’s simply labeled as “the greatest swimmer of all time.” Michael Jordan isn’t referred to as “the best male basketball player ever,” he’s known as “the best basketball player ever.” It would be bizarre to refer to these athletes this way and we recognize that. But we still refer to the aforementioned powerful women as “great female athletes” rather than simply “great athletes.

Why does gender have to matter when providing context to the accomplishments of women in sports, yet not their male counterparts?

If you type, for example, “women’s soccer role models” into Google – a worthy search, given the U.S. national team’s incredible 2019 run to the World Cup – you will find a wealth of articles describing the team as influential and inspiring to young girls. This, certainly, is true; their status as role models is clearly cemented. But it should also be noted that these women likely inspire young boys as well.

Television ratings for the women’s World Cup final match against the Netherlands in July of 2019 exceeded the viewership of the men’s final in 2018 by approximately 3 million viewers nationwide, according to The Wall Street Journal. So it makes sense that a young boy tuning in should be equally inspired by Megan Rapinoe’s picture-perfect form on a penalty kick as Tim Howard’s dives for saves in the goal. This being said, we shouldn’t limit prominent female athletes as role models solely for young girls. They are incredible role models for everyone, regardless of gender

Our own sports editor wrote a column last week referencing how the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) receives an incredible amount of backlash – simply because the league is made up of women rather than men, who perhaps can’t execute a 360-degree, between-the-legs dunk, but are just as fundamentally sound as players of the sport. And until a day in the future when the lines between WNBA and NBA blur and professional basketball becomes co-ed, athletes in each sport should be celebrated for the three-pointers they swish or nifty passes they deliver without regard to their specific gender.

Our front-page story this week, a piece on student Kinsley Rolph, is an example of the marginalization one woman has experienced while pursuing a sport that she loves. She isn’t alone. Countless women have received slander for pushing barriers, for striving to achieve feats in a historically male-dominated industry.

It’s time for this culture to change. Sports can be a beautiful display of individuality and an inspiring outlet for physical expression; women shouldn’t be dissuaded from pursuing that. If you want to help future generations of young girls establish themselves as athletes, consider supporting foundations such as the Women’s Sports Foundation, Girls on the Run and Play It Forward Sport. Because female athletes should be celebrated for being athletes, not just females.