Have you caught World Cup fever yet? President Obama has. Millions of Americans have. But not all have, and that’s okay. Not enjoying sports, or a particular sport, is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Actively taking the position that women athletes aren’t worth watching? That’s a problem. On Monday night, the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated Colombia 2-0 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup. During the game, Sports Illustrated commentator Andy Benoit declared that not only women’s soccer, but all women’s sports simply aren’t worth watching.
Whether you watch women’s sports or not, I think we can all agree that this is nonsense. Not only was Benoit’s sentiment antiquated and sexist, it’s objectively false. Consider this, from Deadspin:
Even if soccer’s not your bag, Benoit’s blanket statement is ridiculous. Women’s tennis is arguably better than the men’s game, especially on grass; women’s gymnastics and figure skating double up equivalent men’s events ratings at the Olympics; and the WNBA is worth watching just because you’ll never see this happen in an NBA game.
I’m clearly not the only one who found Benoit’s statements offensive — Benoit quickly deleted both the tweets, presumably due to the swift backlash on Twitter, and he apologized the next day. But sadly, Benoit is just one among many men with sexist views of women’s sports. Earlier this month, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith was forced to apologize for a sexist joke about the Women’s World Cup. Benoit might try to disguise his sexism with the comment that “women are every bit as good as men in general,” but thinking women’s sports are objectively lesser than men’s is no less ridiculous than thinking women can’t be scientists, construction workers, mathematicians, or doctors.
As Will Leitch pointed out at Sports on Earth, if you think women’s sports are boring, you are the problem:
But college basketball — and the Women’s World Cup — is only boring if you choose not to care. The same goes for women’s sports. People like Benoit toss out these justifications for not watching women’s sports out of some sort of faux sports purity, like he’s really just out to watch the pinnacle of athletic achievement every night, like anything less than the “best” and the “fastest” and the “strongest” is somehow a waste of one’s time. But this isn’t why we watch sports at all; we watch because every game we watch, we have a chance to see something we’ve never seen before. Dismissing that out of hand isn’t a way of demanding the highest quality performance every game (as if that’s something that could be done anyway); it’s a way of confirming your preexisting biases. It also devalues the actual athleticism on display, and the amount of work it required of everyone to get there.
Let me repeat: dismissing the women’s game only confirms your preexisting biases. Take, for example, Benoit’s argument that women’s lower TV ratings are evidence that women’s sports are inherently inferior, when in fact, the imbalance is a result of sexism, not evidence that sexism doesn’t exist. It’s taken decades of investment in men’s sports to bring it to its current status — and decades of not investing in women. If women had always been paid equally to men, encouraged to take up the same sports as boys from a young age, given as much airtime, or hired as commentators, we would see more equal ratings for men’s and women’s sports. But we’re far from equality on those and other fronts.
Commentators like Benoit — and organizations like FIFA, the very group that’s meant to support international soccer for both men and women — shouldn’t be allowed to use the consequences of sexism to justify their sexism. They can’t blame women for being ignored and undervalued for decades, and yet they do. That’s the cycle we’re currently stuck in, and that’s what many women athletes and journalists are fighting against.