Sports

SHIRA SPRINGER I FAIR PLAY

Here are nine changes that would be good for women’s sports

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 03: Venus Williams of The United States and partner Serena Williams in conversation during their ladies doubles fourth round match againstAndreja Klepac of Slovenia and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez of Spain during day eight of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on June 3, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Serena Williams (left) was ranked No. 1 when she began a maternity leave and No. 453 when she returned.

Each year, when the anniversary of Title IX rolls around, tributes to the law’s passage typically fall into two categories. 1: Celebrate all the progress made by women’s sports. 2: Push forward for more change.

We’re going with No. 2 because there’s a lot of work left to do. So much work it’s hard to know where to start. But here’s a list of nine changes it’d be good to see in women’s sports, changes that primarily focus on smaller issues than pay equity or scarce coverage. Sometimes they’re changes in attitude, sometimes in approach, sometimes in status quo. But all are suggested in Title IX’s spirit of promoting more equality and more opportunities for female athletes.

Name change for the World Cup

Are you watching the World Cup in Russia? Correction, are you watching the men’s World Cup in Russia? Even though the men’s World Cup started 61 years before the women’s World Cup, it’s time to give the soccer tournaments equal billing, at least in terms of how they’re referred to in news articles and broadcasts. Calling the men’s event the World Cup diminishes the women’s event. And while the men’s World Cup may draw more attention worldwide and enjoy more support from sponsors and make far more money overall, the women’s World Cup is equally thrilling. Just ask the fans of US Soccer who don’t have a men’s team to cheer in Russia. And, hey, NCAA, let’s not forget that this is an issue every year when college championship tournaments take place. It should be the men’s Final Four and the women’s Final Four, the men’s Frozen Four and the women’s Frozen Four.

New pregnancy rules are due

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Nothing brings attention to women’s sports issues like Serena Williams. So, naturally, her post-pregnancy return to competitive tennis sparked a debate about female athletes and maternity leave. Here’s the deal: Williams was ranked No. 1 in the world when she started her maternity leave. She returned ranked No. 453. The Women’s Tennis Association currently treats pregnancy like an injury, granting players a “special ranking” that allows entry into tournaments but doesn’t guarantee seeding. Williams was unseeded at this year’s French Open and faced tougher opponents earlier in the tournament. No long argument needed about why the WTA should change its policy and why tournaments such as the French Open should seed new mothers such as Williams. If they don’t, they’re penalizing women for becoming pregnant during their playing careers. And they’re sending the message that motherhood and pro tennis careers don’t mix, especially to players who don’t make the millions of dollars that Williams does.

US Open seeding protocol will now consider pregnancies, USTA president says

Say goodbye Silver Dancers, hello family friendly ‘hype team’

In May, the San Antonio Spurs ushered their dance team, the Silver Dancers, out the door. And they announced tryouts for a family-friendly, coed “hype team” that will perform acrobatics, dance routines, and stunts. Here’s hoping the Spurs’ move signals changed thinking about the scantily-clad dancers and cheerleaders employed by men’s pro sports teams. It’s always been an uncomfortable combination, even more so with the flood of recent reports about how these women have been mistreated and objectified. This isn’t about the talent of the dancers or the cheerleaders. You can respect the dedication it takes to do what they do and still feel it’s not appropriate entertainment for impressionable boys and girls. If you can’t have Red Panda all the time, it’d be good to see teams follow the Spurs’ lead.

Give Caster Semenya more than a little respect

Caster Semenya (right) won the 800 meters at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon in May.
Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via AP
Caster Semenya (right) won the 800 meters at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon in May.

If you don’t follow track and field, you might have missed the latest legal battle involving runner Caster Semenya. In honor of the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 800, here’s the quick version: In April, the IAAF, the international governing body of track and field, announced a new eligibility rule. The rule requires that women competing internationally at middle distances maintain certain testosterone levels. It’s clear the rule targets Semenya, who has naturally high testosterone. She has called the rule “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable,” and decided to fight it. Say what you want about Semenya enjoying an unfair advantage, about the IAAF trying to keep the playing field level, about the science. You’ve got to respect Semenya for putting herself out there and taking on the IAAF by challenging the organization’s preferred conception of femininity. She’s a better role model than rule-makers intent on ostracizing female athletes for hormonal differences.

Call out the NFL and NFLPA on domestic violence issues

Looking for more female role models? Try Georgetown Law School. That’s where Professor Deborah Epstein directs the Domestic Violence Clinic. But in the sports world, she’s become better known for penning a Washington Post opinion piece about why she resigned from the NFL Players Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence. Basically, she wrote, “I simply cannot continue to be part of a body that exists in name only.” She also called the commission a “fig leaf.” And she went into detail about why. The NFL has long been guilty of empty talk when it comes to social issues that affect the league and its players. Now, it looks like the same can be said of the NFLPA. Let’s hope Epstein starts a trend of calling sports organizations on their you-know-what, especially when it comes to issues that matter deeply to women and apparently don’t really matter to men’s pro sports organizations. More than that, let’s hope Epstein’s public shaming prompts change inside the NFLPA when it comes to addressing domestic violence.

Give credit to female athletes for social activism, too

Minnesota Lynx players spoke with students in Washington, D.C., as part of their day of service in early June.)
Cliff Owen/AP
Minnesota Lynx players spoke with students in Washington, D.C., as part of their day of service in early June.

Did you know WNBA players engaged in social activism back in July 2016? That’s when the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty wore “Black Lives Matter” warm-up shirts. A month later Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the anthem. Did you know this season the WNBA introduced the “Take A Seat, Take A Stand” program. Because of the program, a portion of proceeds from WNBA ticket sales go to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Did you know that the now-reigning champion Lynx turned a White House snub into a day of service in Washington D.C.? The point of these did-you-knows: Female athletes have long been involved in social causes. And they should get as much recognition as male athletes for what they’re doing.

Unite the CWHL and the NWHL

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North America boasts the best women’s hockey talent in the world. Just look at how the US and Canada have dominated Olympic and World Championship tournaments. And there’s no shortage of professional-level players. But that doesn’t mean there should be two separate women’s pro hockey leagues in North America — the CWHL and the NWHL. Can’t they just get past their different philosophies and different business models and build one strong, well-supported league? It seems like a no-brainer no matter what the obstacles. It’d be better for women’s pro hockey if they did. While a merger won’t be easy, two leagues dividing the player pool and fighting for fan attention isn’t good for anybody. Certainly not for the long-term success of the women’s pro game.

Get the NWSL a commissioner, pronto

Let’s move onto another women’s pro league. The National Women’s Soccer League hasn’t had a commissioner for more than a year. Not since Jeff Plush stepped down on March 2, 2017. To fill the void, the league’s managing director of operations, Amanda Duffy, has taken on many of the responsibilities associated with the commissioner’s job. It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening with a men’s pro league. But here we are. What does this mean for the NWSL? It risks losing momentum and losing out on opportunities. You need a commissioner to develop a guiding vision and articulate long-term goals, to problem-solve decisively and look for ways to promote league growth. The NWSL needs to find someone to fill the commissioner position soon, preferably a woman.

Stock more women’s sports gear in stores

Like clockwork, the start of each WNBA season is followed by complaints about difficulties getting WNBA gear. It’s not in the sports store down the street next to all the NBA merchandise. Sometimes it’s got to be ordered online through the WNBA Store site. Sometimes it’s a long wait for what you want. A few years ago, a fan even started a change.org petition to get more WNBA jerseys in major retail stores. So, the ask is simple: Get more women’s pro, college, and national team gear into more sports stores. Because jerseys, hats, T-shirts, and shorts are one big way fans connect to their favorite players and favorite teams, and effectively provide free advertising. And it’s not just about clothing. All kinds of merchandise connected to women’s teams should be easy to find and buy.

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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 springer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.