gender inequity

A fan holds up a foam finger while cheering at a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.
In a recent survey of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults, 90% identified as being a sports fan to some extent, although there were important differences related to respondents’ gender and sexuality. (photo via SGPhotography77)

Our lives are socially structured in many ways. This means that we are frequently directed to behave in a certain manner, embrace particular values, and think about ourselves in socially patterned ways. Gender and sexuality are especially influential aspects of social structure that affect our aspirations, interactions, and identities.

As sociologists who study such influences, we recently investigated the relationship between gender, sexuality, and sports fandom among U.S. adults in a study published in Sociology of Sport Journal. Prior research indicates that most Americans are sports fans. Yet, historically, sports cultures have often been organized by and for heterosexual men as spaces for them to have fun and connect with one another as they watch and talk about sports. Sports have also been used as sites where men could successfully “prove” themselves to be heterosexual and masculine. In contrast, sports cultures have often been unwelcoming spaces for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) adults. This has been less true within women’s sports fan communities, although women’s sports are also characterized by a long legacy of homophobia. Still, many people across all gender and sexual identities love to watch and follow sports.

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Spectators are seated watching eSports competitors on a stage. A large screen above the competitors displays the game they are playing.
Women who participate in eSports online frequently receive sexualized comments. (photo by Philippe Wojazer / Reuters)

Electronic sports, also known as eSports or competitive video gaming, may be a subject of laughter or mockery for some traditional sports enthusiasts, but for a growing number of fans they are a serious and lucrative matter. The eSports game “League of Legends,” for example, garnered a peak viewership of 200 million during the November 2018 broadcast of the World Championships. Despite this growth, anecdotal accounts and emerging research regarding the experiences of women in eSports point to troubling issues, as women report being harassed, threatened, and isolated within the realm of eSports. In light of such issues, we conducted a two-part study (read the full study here) to understand the nature of feedback women receive in the eSports community. The results of our first study suggest that women and men eSports participants do not perceive gender differences with respect to the criticism they receive. A follow up study, however, suggests that women who play eSports receive a substantial number of sexualized comments.

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Calgary Inferno’s Zoe Hickel (L) and Tori Hickel celebrate winning the 2019 Canadian Women’s Hockey League Clarkson Cup after beating Les Canadiennes de Montreal.
Calgary Inferno’s Zoe Hickel (left) and Tori Hickel celebrate winning the 2019 Canadian Women’s Hockey League Clarkson Cup after beating Les Canadiennes de Montreal. The league discontinued operations on May 1, 2019. (photo by Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Women’s professional team sports seem to be flourishing, especially basketball in China and the United States (WNBA), and various soccer leagues in Europe. The news is not so good for women’s ice hockey in North America.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) discontinued operations on May 1, 2019. In the U.S., the recently established National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is in a vulnerable position. Many of the players are hoping to develop a more stable women’s league by partnering with the National Hockey League (NHL), following the model established by the WNBA and the women’s soccer leagues in Europe.

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NBA Player Delonte West
Former NBA player Delonte West’s mental health was a prominent topic in media coverage of his career (photo via Slam).

Professional athletes in the United States and Canada are increasingly discussing their personal struggles with mental health on commercial media outlets. Notably, National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kevin Love has received praise for his “courageous fight” to combat the stigmatization of mental illness in sports. In a March 2018 essay for The Players’ Tribune, Love detailed his bouts with panic attacks during the NBA season, writing, “Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.” As a successful athlete, Love has accrued lucrative endorsement deals with Banana Republic and the Built with Chocolate Milk campaign. Following the public stories of other NBA players like Channing Frye and DeMar DeRozan, national media outlets framed Love’s essay as a “courageous decision to speak candidly on mental health.”

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