It’s pointless to compare men and women’s sports, and here’s why

Earlier this week ESPNW posted a link to a goofy little story about comedian Kevin Hart who, along with a group of his weekend-warrior friends, challenged the University of Connecticut Lady Huskies to a ball game.  The Lady Huskies, who are basically like the 1990s Chicago Bulls of women’s collegiate basketball, predictably mopped the floor up with the guys.

The idea that any group of halfway functional men could best a group of elite female athletes has become a pretty standard trope of conversations about women’s sports – so common, in fact, that you could probably develop a Female Athlete Bingo Card and make it the center square.  I’ve heard it come from men who insist the U.S. women’s national soccer team would lose to any high school boys team, from men who say women’s track and field isn’t as interesting because the athletes aren’t as fast as the men, and so on and so forth, ad in-fucking-finitum.

My first instinct is to generally assume that the men making these comments are not athletes themselves.  It’s been my experience – and my husband agrees with me on this – that male athletes tend to incredibly supportive their female counterparts, as they know full well the skills, talent and hard work it takes to be good at a sport.  I’ve heard it and seen it over and over again.  Male athletes usually have no problem giving props to female athletes.

Frankly, I find it more than a little ironic that these non-athletic guys are quick to claim elite athletes as kin of sorts, simply by virtue of sharing the same plumbing, when the reality is that elite athletes of all genders have way more in common with one another than they do any of the rest of us.  These guys would not think twice if they passed Haile Gerbrselassie on the street (and some of them would probably even think some less-than-charitable thoughts, considering that he is a short, dark-skinned African man), but the second they know he can run a marathon twelve minutes faster than Paula Radcliffe, suddenly he’s a bro.

All snark aside, I have to say I find all of these conversations utterly and completely pointless.  Why?  Because when you compare, for instance, men’s basketball versus women’s basketball, you are essentially comparing two different sports.   Women tend to be shorter and we tend to have less physical strength in our upper bodies and we tend to not be as fast as guys.  Yes, there is great variance among the genders, and that variance means that there are going to be women who are taller, stronger and faster than men.  But the curve is such that the strongest, tallest and fastest women are still not going to be as strong, as tall or as fast as the men.

And guess what?  That’s totally okay!  It doesn’t mean women’s sports or women’s athletics are by definition any less interesting or exciting.  Because the thing about athletics is that they tend to be organized so that athletes of similar skills and abilities compete against each other.  That’s what makes it competitive.  That’s what makes it a sport!

Yet to speak to certain men, those biological factors mean women’s sports are not as good or as worthy of respect as men’s sports.  As far as they are concerned, if female athletes aren’t capable of mounting a team that can compete against the best professional men’s teams, they might as well kick off their shoes and head back into the kitchen.

Funny thing about that, though.  I never hear those same men saying that, say, college football isn’t worth watching.  I mean, the majority of college teams – even in Division I – would be annihilated by the most mediocre teams in the NFL.  The college players aren’t as strong or as fast or as experienced or as skilled as the pro players.  And yet for several Saturdays out of every fall and winter, millions of people huddle around their televisions to watch them play.

But…how can this be?  They aren’t the absolute best at their game!  There are teams out there that can beat them!  By virtue of that simple fact, they should just hang up their helmets and stay in the classroom and quit acting like they know anything about sports.  Am I right, fellas?


No, of course not.  No one would argue that.  And why would they?  It’s a fucking stupid argument to make, that’s why.  College sports are exciting to watch because a lot of the teams are playing against other teams that are well matched against them.  They are talented, hard-working athletes playing against other talented, hard-working athletes on an even playing field.  If you love sports, that’s really all you need.

This is why men who say women’s teams are not worthwhile because they couldn’t beat a boy’s high school team are wrong. They are not “stating facts” or “cutting through PC bullshit.”  They are saying they simply don’t think female athletes are by definition worthy of respect.  To them, it’s not about appreciating athleticism or loving sports or any of the other excuses they make.  It’s about dominance, about protecting their turf, about hanging up a plank that reads “HE MAN WOMAN HATERS CLUB” outside their clubhouse.

Plenty of men enjoy watching women play sports, and they manage to do so without feeling as though some part of their masculinity has been compromised.  Yet for some, their idea of themselves as men is so fragile that even the merest hint of icky girl germs could very well bring the whole fort of pillows and blankets crumbling to the ground.

Listen – there are legitimate arguments to be made about the quality of competition among women’s sports.  I’ve  made the argument myself before.  Men’s teams have access to deep pools of talent that have developed over generations, as boys have grown up playing sports with their fathers, taking part in competitive youth leagues, playing on high school and college teams and having access to quality coaching and training.  A whole culture exists to help them develop into the best athletes they can possibly be.

That kind of access has only opened up to girls and women (and in some places it still has yet to happen) within the last generation or so.  Plus, sexual stigma still remains for female athletes, many of whom still feel as though they have to overcompensate when it comes to their femininity, lest anyone think they are lesbians or bad at being women or whatever.  A lot of women and girls still just opt out, seeing it as something that is not for them. Consequently, women’s teams have smaller talent pools to pull from.

But things are changing.  Slowly but surely, they are, and as they continue to change, the number of female athletes who are capable of playing at a high level will only grow.  And as that number grows, it will force the other athletes to step up their game.   Soon enough, the days when a UConn women’s basketball team could mount winning streaks that nearly cracked the triple-digits will be long gone, because there will be so many good teams with so many good players that it won’t be possible for one team to steamroll over the rest.

That’s not the argument that’s being made by these guys.  The guys who insist female athletes are not worthy of respect because they can’t beat their male counterparts are not looking at history and sociology and gender.  They are simply operating from that tired old paradigm that says to be a woman is to be weak, to be soft, to suck at everything besides making sandwiches and babies.

The world of sports is changing, and the guys who insist on clinging to their boring old way of looking at things will either have to adjust or be left behind.

16 responses to “It’s pointless to compare men and women’s sports, and here’s why

  1. Love the arguments you made. Makes me think of my brother’s friends making fun of him because I’m a better runner than he is. Would they make as much fun if I was his little brother, not sister? Like being bested by a female is more humiliating?

    • Ugh! To have such an attitude with RUNNING, of all things, where it’s not even about brute strength but about cardiovascular endurance and the ability to withstand pain. And you are right, I doubt they’d make fun of him if you were a little brother. So irritating.

      • No, they would probably make fun of him more because of it. you never want to be beat by your little anything.

  2. My husband actually holds that women’s basketball players are far better technical players than men, and he adores basketball, so I consider this a high complement to the sport.

    Once again, a fabulous and well argued post! 🙂

    • Thank you! And my husband says the same thing. He really likes to watch women’s collegiate basketball and is rather meh on the way men play. Some guys get it – the ones who were smart enough to marry us! 🙂

  3. This attitude always baffles me. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful post on it. I train three days a week on skates (and additional days off skates) each week to play roller derby, and I’m damn good. But even after seeing me skate, grown men will look at me, a short pretty blonde, and brag how they would roll right over me. Not only do they look down on me as a woman (and as you point out, obviously weak and soft), but they also denigrate my entire sport, because it is predominantly a womens’ sport. So that means it’s easy, right?

    • That’s ridiculous. I don’t know how you deal with guys like that without wanting to hulksmash them into the ground. Someone once made the point in the comments of this blog that roller derby is a sport where women have a bit of an upper-hand because their center of gravity is lower to the ground, and so any guy who thinks he can just come in and muscle his way to victory is going to be sorely mistaken.

      I sometimes see this with running. I’ll be racing and I’ll pass a younger guy, who will speed up because he shouldn’t be getting passed by a girl, right? If I had a dollar for every time that happened…

  4. And this is why you are one of my favorite bloggers. I have had this argument with male friends many times before, but I could never make my point nearly as eloquently as you have.

  5. I just started reading your blog a month ago. I love your posts and this one had me laughing and nodding my head in recognition.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    Rose in SV

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  8. I have always been very sporty myself and have an incredibly sporty sister. So I understand that women deserve respect for their trades. However I would like to ask you: Do women deserve the same pay as men in sport? Especially given they draw in less sponsorship, less ticket sales, poorer ratings, and overall in unisex sports generally play to an obviously “lower” standard. Genuinely would like to hear your reasoned answer. I believe you’ll reply with an expectedly intellectual answer (rather than some insulting male bashing – which Iv heard time and time again when such a topic is brought up around people who aren’t quite as eloquent as you).

    • I think the pay question depends on whether you believe in a purely capitalistic model of professional sport. If so, then pay would just depend on how much revenue you generate. If take more a socialist model then broader buckets of money (say across all soccer clubs – male/female, young/old, elite/non-elite) could be distributed more equitably. Be aware the market forces, such as rigid media biases, would affect the first model, and could be addressed.

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