People in the press (at least before England reached the Semi Finals) were saying that the Women’s World Cup was getting far less coverage in the UK than the US and were using this fact to peddle the myth that the UK sports culture is far more sexist than the equivalent in the US. But that is not true. Women’s football is popular in the US due to a conjunction of circumstances and the sports culture in the US is as sexist as the UK as I am going to explain.
The US Women’s team is the beneficiary of a US Government law – namely Title IX. Passed in 1972 this law states that:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded form participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to, discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
And this includes sport. That means schools and universities In the US cannot discriminate against girls/women when it comes to sport. The UK government passed the country’s equivalent to Title IX – called the Sex Discrimination Act – in 1975. However sport was not included in the Act (probably because the UK Government in 1975 had a majority of just 3 seats and would probably have lost any bid to include sport in the Act) therefore sportswomen did not gain protection from sex discrimination. Feminist campaigner Helena Morrissey recently called for a UK Title IX but just like 40 years ago the UK Government has a small majority (11) would struggle to get a UK Title IX through Parliament and UK sports fans are so sexist any Government that tried to bring sex discrimination law into sport – but especially football – would be committing electoral suicide.
Jean Williams (in “A Beautiful Game” page 34) called the US Women’s football team “The daughters of Title IX”. But Title IX is not enough on its own. The US women benefit from another piece of luck. The fact that football is not part of the male sporting establishment in the US. The history of sport shows that the more a sport is part of the male establishment the less tolerant of women it is. In the UK football cricket and rugby are the male establishment sports and historically they have been less tolerant of women (the English FA banned women’s football for a scarcely credible 50 years).
The US establishment sports – baseball, basketball and grid iron football – are if anything even more hostile to women than their UK counterparts. Women who want to play grid iron football have to play it in their underwear in the so called Legends Football League (formally the Lingerie Football League. Sepp Blatter would approve). As for baseball once girls leave Little League they are – how will I put it – “encouraged” to play softball instead. Basketball does have a women’s professional league – the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) but a recent incident shows how little regarded women basketball players are.
Last week Chicago Sky star Elena Delle Donne scored a career high 45 points in a WNBA game. The response to her feat was a hail of sexist abuse on Twitter:
“I’d rather watch professional lawn mowing”.
“I’d rather watch paint dry”.
“Women aren’t capable of playing sports”.
“That doesn’t look like a kitchen to me”.
“Yeah against what competition? I could score 45 points on them”
“Where is the oven?”
“The WNBA is a joke and completely unwatchable”
“In a WNBA game witnessed by dozens”
That is exactly the sort of sexist abuse that female footballers get in the UK. And although former NBA commissioner David Stern predicted in 2009 that women could play in the NBA within 10 years – impossible in the Premier League in England where the law of the UK prohibits it – his voice is very much in the minority. Last week Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated tweeted that “women’s sports in general are not worth watching” (he later deleted the tweet but the damage has been done).
This helps women’s football in the US because schools and universities in order to comply with Title IX – and keep women away from grid iron football basketball and baseball – used football – a little regarded sport in the US of the 1970s – to provide the female teams needed to obey Title IX. Had male football been more popular in the US this would not have happened. These school/university teams laid the foundation for the US winning the 1991 and 1999 World Cup and the 1996,2004,2008 and 2012 Olympics which in turn increased the popularity of the sport.
So the fact is that the US women’s football team is more popular than its English counterpart does not mean that the US is less sexist than the UK when it comes to sport. They are just the lucky beneficiaries of a law that the UK doesn’t have and the fact that their sport is not part of the sexist sporting establishment as it is in the UK. So the fact that women’s football is more tolerated and popular in the US than the UK is not a stick to beat the UK with. To say sexism does not exist in US sport is rubbish. It does. Just not in football.