A Peek at the Gendered World of Sports Fandom
As a female sports fan (a Hawks basketball fan to be exact), I am frequently confronted with questions like, “Okay, but do you even know any statistics?” or “What does the term ‘paint’ mean?”
And if I don’t answer immediately, I get shut down and shamed for being a “fake fan,” or I get told, “You just like the sport for the players’ looks.” And, while the players’ looks don’t hurt, I really am a fan of the sport itself. It is about time that women get treated like the true, dedicated fans that they are.
Dr. Jennifer McGovern, an assistant professor of political science and sociology and current professor of the sociology course, “Sports and Society,” explained that sports, from the beginning of times, have been a way for men to prove that they are manly. It was first used as a method of training for military combat; therefore, sports were gendered because women were not able to engage in military combat.
However, nowadays, McGovern suggested, “The performance of masculinity, or just a man trying to present himself as a man to other men and to women often wants to associate himself with sports.” Since masculinity is so rooted in sports from the beginning of time, it makes it difficult for women to ‘connect’ in men’s eyes.
Girls are often socialized from birth to enjoy things like shopping, caretaking, and dressing up, but, at least in their earlier years, most girls are not encouraged to take a liking to sports. Or, worse, girls are at times discouraged from taking a liking to sports. Therefore, when a girl decides to truly get involved and invested in a sport, whether it be playing the sport or being a spectator, it seems as though a good portion of men take offense to it.
Dr. Marilyn McNeil, Vice President and Director of Athletics, stated, “It’s the cool thing for the guys to be into sports; it’s not always the cool thing for women.”
McNeil further explained that when men are spectators of a female sport, they believe that they can do what women do just because women are smaller and can’t run as fast as men do.
On the other hand, McNeil said, “They [men] think things such as, ‘I can’t shoot or jump like Justin Robinson,’ or ‘I can’t block like Chris Brady.’” This idea that male fans watching female athletes makes them feel empowered, like they can do what they do is startling because, as many athletes would know, being an athlete is extremely hard work.
For some reason, some men feel as though sports are their domain and that women cannot intrude on it. No matter how dedicated a fan a woman is, it just does not seem to be enough for some male fans. Women should not have to ‘get approval’ by a man of her fandom, nor is she seeking approval; however, it would be nice if a male fan would give female fans the same respect and courtesy as they do fellow male fans. However, this is not to say that there are not male fans who do dole out respect and courtesy to all different genders of fans.
At Monmouth University, we are fortunate enough to have a female Athletic Director. McNeil is only one of 32 female Athletic Directors at our University’s division in the country. This number juxtaposes the 348 total athletic directors in our division; this means that only approximately nine percent of athletic directors in our division are female. According to McNeil, one of the main causes of this issue of a lack of female representation in athletic positions is America’s focus on football.
Football is a sport that is played only by male athletes, with no female counterpart. While female tackle football attempts to poke its head in various schools, there is no strong support behind its growth.
Because of football’s immense popularity, women are excluded from many athletic positions. There is nothing to say that women can’t understand football equally or even more than male fans, but, because women cannot play the sport, their input is often brushed off. However, basketball does have a female counterpart and female fans of the sport continue to have a difficult time ‘fitting in.’
Monmouth graduate and former basketball manager, Alexus Bird, said of her position, “I think working for the team definitely helped the way people treated me [as a fan]. My first year I think most people thought I became a manager for the wrong reasons. But I think I proved to everyone that basketball was something that I have always been passionate about and I just wanted to work hard and gain experience around the sport I love. It definitely gave me more credibility.”
Bird brought up an important point: women feel the need to prove to men that they belong in the field of sports even if it truly is their passion. By achieving the position of team manager, Bird was able to show her love of the sport, which made her a more credible fan in the eyes of males.
While not all of us have the opportunity to show our dedication in the same way Bird did, knowledge is an important aspect of fandom that any female fan can show in order to gain a similar credibility. McGovern added, “Most sport fans, at the end of the day, respect what you know. [Unfortunately,] as a woman you might get dismissed before you get the opportunity to prove it.”
The definition of “fan” varies from person to person. There are fans that know the ins and outs of the sport: every player’s name and personal statistics, the lingo of the sport, heck even the history of the sport. These are super fans and there are plenty of female super fans. Then there are fans that simply appreciate the sport, know a lot about their favorite teams, and never miss a home game.
McGovern said, “If you know what you are talking about—do your homework and your research—people will accept you because fans like other knowledgeable fans.” She further stated, “A man might automatically be trusted and a woman maybe needs to bring more facts to the situation.”
In agreement with Dr. McGovern, Miranda Konstantinides, junior Monmouth soccer defensive player and nursing student, urged females to get involved in conversation: “Contribute in sports conversation between males if you are knowledgeable on what they are talking about. It often surprises males to know that females know about sports as they do.”
Dr. McNeil stated, “You know as much as the guy next to you; don’t let them belittle you. Try asking him, ‘and what do you know about the game?’” Many times, women will know more than the guy they are sitting next to on the bleachers.
On the other hand, Reggie White Jr., sophomore Monmouth football wide receiver, said, “I know some fans have a lot of knowledge and I know some fans who don’t, but that doesn’t matter to me if they still come and cheer us on.” White brings up an important aspect of being a fan—loyalty. Being a loyal fan, to many, is even more important than being an extremely knowledgeable fan.
While we point out that female fans are often shunned by other male fans, there are also plenty of male fans who enjoy the company of fellow female fans. Kelly Brockett, a graduate student of communication and passionate Rangers hockey fan, said, “Most of my closest friends are actually males and we bond over sports. I feel accepted and a part of the conversation whenever hockey is a topic and never feel looked down upon or discriminated because I’m a girl.”
Brockett further stated, “They respect my passion for the sport and my knowledge. I was actually a part of a fantasy league last year and I was the only female out of the 10 of us.” Overall, it seems that if a fan has passion and knowledge, fellow fans of any gender are accepting.
As an avid Monmouth basketball fan and manager whom attended/attends almost every game, Rob Panasuk, a senior English student, is exposed to all types of fans in the stands. He commented, “A true fan is anyone that watches the game and truly cares about how their team is doing. Absolutely any gender can achieve this status.”
“Sports shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘men only’ thing, it should be something everyone can enjoy without being judged,” Bird exclaimed. We must learn to ignore the belittling comments and keep our heads held high when we feel we are being judged for our fandom because there are male fans out there that will respect our input and opinions.
Panasuk left us with this advice, “If you care about something, don’t let anyone stop you.” As female sports fans, we will continue to cheer for our favorite teams, experience heartbreak for every loss, and, most of all, continue to be ourselves, whether others accept it or not.
PHOTO TAKEN by Lauren Niesz.