With the Rio Olympics, the ongoing fight for pay equality, the death of Pat Summitt, and the hiring of more women for high-profile coaching jobs, the year in women’s sports was filled with highs and lows, progress and setbacks.
Continuing a year-end tradition, it’s time to revisit the barrier-breakers, record-setters, and history-makers who grabbed headlines in 2016. Some drew worldwide attention. Others made a big impact in their small corner of the globe.
So, with another nod to Title IX, here are nine women’s sports stories worth another look:
Mavericks for women, too
The big-wave surfing contest “Titans of Mavericks” is legendary. When towering waves develop over the fall and winter, competitors receive 48 hours’ notice to report for the one-day contest off the northern California coast. The invitation-only competition traditionally has featured the world’s top 24 male surfers. Women have been alternates, but have never competed. Until now. The 2016-17 event will include a one-hour heat for six female surfers with $30,000 in prize money at stake. That’s a big breakthrough. Almost as big as the three- and four-story waves you’ll find at Mavericks. And it happened because female surfers lobbied the California Coastal Commission, which made female inclusion a condition of its permit. Clearly, you shouldn’t mess with fearless women who surf the biggest waves.
New Brazil soccer coach makes history
From 1941 until 1979, the Brazilian government decreed that female athletes “will not be allowed to practice sports incompatible with the conditions of their nature.” Translation: No soccer for girls and women. Not in schools. Not for fun. And certainly not at the highest levels. So when the Brazilian soccer confederation named former player Emily Lima the first female head coach of the women’s national team, it was cause for celebration. In the last 37 years, Brazil has built one of the most talented female player pools in the world. Now it needs to empower women to continue their soccer careers after their playing days.
Death of Pat Summitt
The death of legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt was marked by tribute after tribute from famous figures. And she deserved them all after eight national championships and more wins than any other Division 1 college coach, male or female. But Summit’s own words were the most impressive. The way she talked about her life, career, and coaching philosophy offered vivid reminders of the strong-willed way in which she raised the profile of women’s basketball. A favorite anecdote? Easy. Tennessee officials once approached Summitt about coaching the men’s team. She dismissed the idea with a simple rhetorical question: “Why is that considered a step up?”
$1 million contract for pro softball pitcher
If the name Monica Abbott sounds familiar, then you’re either a softball fan or a tracker of big-money sports contracts. Last spring, Abbott, a professional softball pitcher, signed a six-year, $1 million deal with the Scrap Yard Dawgs of the National Pro Fastpitch softball league. It’s believed to be the most lucrative contract awarded an athlete in American women’s team sports history. Abbott agreed to a base salary of $20,000 for each of the six seasons. The rest of the money comes from easily reached, attendance-triggered bonuses. There’s no question that Abbott is a barrier-breaker, and her big, multiyear contract gives hope to other female pros. But we’re a long way from her becoming any kind of trend-setter.
First full-time female NFL assistant coach hired
Apparently, Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan is a progressive guy, at least when it comes to coaching hires. In January, the Bills named Kathryn Smith quality control-special teams coach, making her the first full-time female NFL coach. Smith follows the path cleared by Jen Welter, who worked as a coaching intern during Arizona Cardinals training camp in 2015. Smith worked her way up the NFL ranks, starting as the Jets’ game-day/special events intern, then becoming a college scouting intern, then a player personnel assistant. She was Ryan’s administrative assistant before her promotion. And what does a quality control-special teams coach do? Typically, they assist the special teams coordinator on game days, help with the special teams scout squad in practice, and break down film.
US soccer team continues fight for equal pay
The fight for equal pay in women’s soccer got a lot of attention in 2016. That shouldn’t stop. This year, five national team players filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Speaking on “60 Minutes,” Carli Lloyd, the 2015 FIFA Player of the Year and one of the team members behind the complaint, summed up the situation best when she said, “We feel like we’re treated like second-class citizens because they don’t care as much about us as they do the men.” The “60 Minutes” piece compared what US men’s goalie Tim Howard earned from US Soccer in a World Cup year ($398,495 for playing in eight games) versus what US women’s goalie Hope Solo earned ($366,000 for 23 games). Given the success of the women’s team — from record-setting TV ratings to three World Cup titles — equal pay should be only a starting point.
First openly transgender man plays in NWHL
When Harrison Browne took the ice this fall, he became the first openly transgender player in professional team sports in North America. With Browne playing for the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts, it’s another historic step. He had planned to medically transition after his college career with the University of Maine women’s team. But with the creation of the NWHL and the opportunity to play professionally, Browne decided to delay that next step. The league is working on a policy that covers transgender athletes. Commissioner Dani Rylan has said the NWHL respects Browne’s chosen first name, the pronouns he wants to use, and “his request to be his authentic self.”
Tunisian bronze medalist speaks up for Arab women
Olympic medals offer athletes valuable platforms. After Tunisian fencer Ines Boubakri won bronze in the women’s individual foil event at Rio, she promptly made a statement to Arab women everywhere. “I hope that this will be a message for all Tunisians, especially our youth, all Tunisian women, the Arab women,” said Africa’s first female Olympic fencing medalist. “A message which says you must believe that women exist and that they have their place in society.” There are many reasons to criticize the Olympic movement. But giving a megaphone to medalists such as Boubakri, creating role models who can advocate for equality, puts the Games in their best light. See also: The four women Saudi Arabia sent to Rio doubled the number who participated for the country at the 2012 London Olympics.
Tennis tournament director faces criticism, then resigns
Even in the United States, athletes need to speak out against entrenched sexist attitudes. That was abundantly clear when Indian Wells tennis tournament director Raymond Moore said, “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.” He also said that female players “ride on the coattails of men.” Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, and others in women’s tennis fired back. Moore apologized for his comments, but the outrage remained, and he resigned. And so the fight for equality in sports continues here and abroad.
Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.