Women Athletes Continue To Face Double Standards During March Madness

by 24USATVMarch 30, 2024, 2 a.m. 21
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Interest in the Women’s NCAA Tournament is at an all time high. Attendance records have been broken, with almost 300,000 total fans attending games across the first two rounds of the tournament, and media coverage has been consistent, with every game televised across the ESPN/ABC networks. Brands are catching on as well, with commercial ad costs and revenue hitting all time highs. While the increases in viewership, fandom, and revenue is incredibly positive and speaks to the overall growth of women’s sport, damaging stereotypes and expectations continue to plague women athletes and teams.

Three prominent figures in women's college basketball, Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, and Cameron Brink have encountered scrutiny for their aggressive playing styles during the tournament. While men athletes are provided with the privilege of being aggressive and loud in their play and behaviors during their time competing, it's a common challenge for women athletes who often find themselves caught in a double bind situation due to their aggressive, assertive, and dominate styles of play.

Throughout the tournament, many have criticized Caitlin Clark for her intense behaviors on the court and towards the referees, stressing that her challenging of the officiating is disappointing. Similarly, Cameron Brink faced a great deal of backlash for speaking to the officials after fouling out of her game against Iowa State in the second round of the tournament. Angel Reese has been called out by the media and spectators for her aggressive play throughout the season, which began following national attention surrounding her ring finger, ‘you can’t see me’ gestures during the 2023 National Championship game against Iowa. While behaviors by women athletes such as these have received intense scrutiny, men athletes who behave similarly do not face the same backlash. Instead men athletes maintain the privilege of their behaviors being positioned as an expression of their intense passion for the game.

For women athletes however, a double bind situation occurs when they encounter conflicting expectations or demands, leaving them with no viable option to satisfy both simultaneously. Essentially, it is a dilemma where whatever action they take, it results in a negative outcome. For women athletes, particularly at elite levels of competition, this might entail facing criticism or scrutiny regardless of their performance. They may be judged harshly for being too assertive or aggressive, yet could also be criticized if they are not competitive enough. This places women athletes in a challenging position where they cannot fully meet societal expectations, leading to frustration and imposing limitations on their athletic pursuits.

According to Dr. Nefertiti Walker, who is the Vice Chancellor for the Office of Equity and Inclusion at UMass Amherst, “At the end of the day, these women are competitors. They have emotions, they have big emotions, they're athletic, they have lots of adrenaline that's running in the moment. So to expect them, in these really big moments, to perform in alignment with a gender ideology, that is not only outdated, but also just doesn't align with competitiveness, you're not expecting people that are competing to be courteous and nice to each other.”

This double bind phenomenon aligns closely with role congruity theory, which suggests that societal expectations often dictate that women should exhibit qualities traditionally associated with femininity, such as nurturing and empathy, rather than those typically associated with athletic prowess, such as strength and assertiveness. As a result, when women athletes demonstrate characteristics that deviate from these gender norms, they often face backlash or criticism.

In sport, this creates a double bind situation where women athletes are expected to excel athletically while also adhering to traditional gender roles, oftentimes finding themselves navigating a precarious balance between assertiveness and femininity. This all adds an additional layer of complexity to the challenges faced by women athletes, further complicating their pursuit of success and a burden men athletes do not need to carry.

As noted by Dr. Walker, “the hypersensitivity to these women being competitive, and then saying that being competitive in that way, is not being a good role model. That's the disconnect for me, because on the men's side, they are competitive. What they're saying is that if you're a role model, as a woman athlete, that you need to be courteous, and you need to not be boisterous. And you need to be more gentle and your sportsmanship. And if you're a role model, as a guy that you can be competitive and loud and show big emotions.”

It's important to normalize aggressive and hyper-competitive behaviors exhibited by women athletes, just as is the case for their men counterparts. By doing so, it validates the competitive drive, determination, and skill displayed by women athletes and continues to chip away at harmful, and largely binary, gender-role stereotypes.

According to Dr. Walker, “it's entertainment, people are interested in it. And it's part of why people watch sports is to see the banter, to see the athlete show big emotions. They watch sports to be entertained. They don't watch it to see people be courteous and kind and hold their emotions in, that's not why people watch. So at the end of the day we have to recognize the evolution of women's sports away from following traditional, oppressive, I would call them gender norms to move into a place where things are more egalitarian.”

Ultimately, defending the hyper-competitive behaviors of women athletes empowers them to compete authentically, contributing to a more inclusive and progressive sports culture for all.

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