Instilling It Young: Does Sexism in Sports Begin Earlier in Different Countries?
MARIKA KROMBERG | EDITORIAL INTERN I was born in the United States but spent a chunk of my childhood living or travelling to Norway. I’ve spent months of my summers in Peru and Guatemala, integrated into the culture by my cousins’ local connections. I speak Norwegian, Spanish, and English fluently. As a cross-cultural child, I always find culture creeping into whatever phenomenon I’m observing or whatever analysis I make. My friends complain about my incessant cultural analysis. To me, culture has always been the most inter-sectional influence. Within the realm of feminism, and even more strictly, feminism in sports, culture jumps out as soon as you begin considering it. However, when I started brainstorming exactly what part of the relationship between culture and sports sexism I wanted to look at, I didn’t know how to manufacture a sweeping, worldwide analysis. I know very little about sports culture in Pakistan or Mauritania, and articles are often insufficient in describing cultural identity. So I decided I wanted to look at my personal experience, specifically at how sports is introduced to children. In the United States, I started playing soccer when I was four and basketball when I was seven. In Peru, I volunteered with a group of boys and girls between six and ten who were learning to play soccer and volleyball. In Norway, I have mainly experienced it through hearing anecdotes from my Norwegian friends; this time, specifically, I talked to my younger sister’s Norwegian best friend, Anna.
"The national sport, football, is exclusive to men, and that idea is drilled into the heads of children from a very young age."
We don’t think about it very often, but the way we first come to interact with sports has a substantial role in the way we think about sports. We can talk about gender inequality, we can bring sexism into the public eye, and we can even pass policies like Title IX, but we can’t truly begin combating sexism in sports without understanding one of its deepest causes— its grounding in culture.
After my junior year of high school, I went to Peru for a part of my summer to live with a host family and work at a community center and school for rural, impoverished kids. Before I’d even met the children I was working with, I was sitting in the living room with my host family, watching trivia on a popular game show. One contestant was blindfolded, and another had to describe a hidden image to him without using the word. The image was soccer. He described it as “el deporte de machos,” or “the sport of men”. The blindfolded contestant guessed it on the first try. I was shocked, but my following experiences only enforced the idea of certain sports belonging to certain genders.
Pictured: The four-year-old niece of my host family, Aylin
On the first day I ran ludoteca (playtime) with the kids from the center, I figured sports would be a good way to start. The group consisted of around 6 girls and 10 boys of all ages, but we invited all of them to play soccer together. It quickly became apparent that none of the girls were interested in playing. Huddled on the sideline, they begged me to let them go back inside to do arts and crafts. ‘But, teacher, I don’t want to play,’ they insisted. Later that evening, I learned that this aversion had likely come from the parents of this community. The center set up a volleyball game for the local adults, hoping to spark community building. Only moms showed up to play, and one of the girls informed me that volleyball is the “sport for women.”
Although splitting sports participation by gender isn’t directly revealing of sexist mechanisms in Peru, the underlying message is clear. The national sport, football, is exclusive to men, and that idea is drilled into the heads of children from a very young age. Not only isn’t there equal opportunity for men and women; it is like their realities are completely separated. How could they begin to approach equality in sports, when the world of sports for men and women are so segregated?
Pictured on the right: My sister’s best friend, Anna Kuljic
Norwegians take a unique approach on the issue of sports and gender. In Norway, sports are kept completely separated from the school environment. Middle schools, high schools and colleges do not have their own competitive sports teams; the only way to play sports in Norway is to go out and find a club. Sports are taught only in gym classes, where boys and girls play together in a recreational rather than competitive fashion. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what part of this approach leads to more equality in sports (or perhaps it’s even unrelated to this, and it’s just a function of their more equal society), but, according to Anna Kuljic, who has played soccer in Norway for several years, Norwegian women’s’ teams tend to garner the same respect and fan base as the men’s teams. Women’s skiers, handball, and soccer team are the three most popular national teams of Norway— men or women.
To me, separating sports from school allows an environment in which women are given a more even opportunity for success. Keeping them attached in middle and high school establishes a precedent early that male teams are superior, one that is encouraged by the differing number of fans at boys’ and girls’ game. Letting sports develop independently of school, and then developing fan bases at the professional level, has leveled the playing field in Norway.
The United States
Like I mentioned before, I can’t pretend to be an expert on every nook and cranny of the United States; I can really only speak to my experience in Seattle. Here, I began sports in soccer — a co-ed league that consisted more of parents turning their children to run in the right direction than actually scoring goals. But when those goals are occasionally scored, they were largely scored by the girls, since they have matured more quickly and have the upper hand physically. Although after a few years, boys and girls begin playing in separated leagues, a lasting concept has been established; inferiority ebbs and flows, it isn’t an inherent characteristic of a gender. As kids, we are all equal.
Pictured jumping: Seventh-grade me!
Children are instilled with the fundamental idea that girls are as capable as boys. However, the split comes when physical abilities begin to diverge. Women don’t fly in the air to dunk; they don’t score goals on windmill kicks as often. Those are fair criticisms of women’s sports, and a fair reason for differences in popularity of professional teams. That, though still highly reductive to say that sports are only about pure physicality, is a better mindset than undervaluing women’s sports simply because of the gender. This underlying thinking— that men and women are equal, but the preference for men’s professional teams is allowed— was integral in Title IX. The American population has the right to choose whichever sports teams they want to watch, be it the Storm or the Celtics, but that choice doesn’t reflect fundamental equality.
There seem to be clear trends in youth involvement in sports that dictate the eventual sexism that is manifested. It’s often impossible to conclude whether sports simply embody the existing sex relationships of the culture, or if they play a part in shaping them. Either way, sports at least play a role in solidifying stereotypes. In looking at these three countries, the tradition of sports-teaching that I have found most successful in eliminating sexism in sports is making boys and girls play sports together, from a young age. In Peru, girls and boys always play separately, and identifying a particular sport with a gender is the consequence. In the United States, although it often drops off as we get older, women are at least taught, as little girls, that sports do not have to be segregated. And, in some senses, a split is only fair. However, as the next step after acknowledging the importance of playing together, I think it is necessary to ponder what the effect of linking youth sports to social gatherings has had on women in sports. In Norway, eliminating that relationship has had huge success— the women’s national teams are vastly more popular than the men’s. Would that solution perhaps be possible too for the United States?
"Instilling It Young: Does Sexism in Sports Begin Earlier in Different Countries?" was senior Marika Kromberg's final project as an Editorial Intern at the Awesome Sports Project.
Click here to find out more about the internship program for high school girl athletes.