Let’s Cut the Term “Female Athlete”


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Emma Bapp, Contributor

The term “female athlete” needs to sit the bench, or altogether be cut from the team. Despite it seeming like an innocent descriptor, it is a label that drags down the accomplishments of women in sports. The simple order of the words shows that it is viewed as female first, athlete second, which directs the attention away from an athlete’s accomplishments. 

Many see the term “female athlete” as a way to simply differentiate between the women’s and men’s teams in terms of marketing and advertising. According to an article written by Emily Liang for inquiriesjournals.com, “by constantly displaying pink on-screen logos and reminding viewers that they were watching women’s games, the commentators ‘gender marked’ competitions to maintain a ‘necessary sense of clarity for the viewers,’ especially when the men’s and women’s competitions took place in the same arena.” While this “clarity” may make sense, it prompts women’s sports to be tossed together in one category. 

According to Connor Groel in an article for Top Level Sports, “It may be convenient to group women’s sports together and discuss them as a whole, but doing so turns gender into a niche, making women’s sports seem less important than men’s…These ideas are absurd. Women’s basketball, gymnastics, and snowboarding couldn’t be more different. The only linking characteristic is the gender of those competing.” This forces women to be judged not by the sport that they take part in or their talents and accomplishments, but by their gender. 

For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Soccer League (NSL) do not bear the term “men’s” and are only qualified by the sports that they represent. However, the National Women’s Soccer League, and Women’s National Basketball Association, include the word “women’s,” which implies that they are below, or an offshoot of, their male counterparts. The athletes taking part in these leagues are categorized and belittled by the fact that they are female due to these gender qualifiers, which is essentially what the term “female athlete” is: a qualifier. 

The term “female athlete” carries with it a stigma that perpetuates that there is a man or a man’s league that can do it better or more competitively. This is not the case. Take, for example, the United States Women’s National Soccer Team. According to ussoccer.com, the team has won four FIFA World Cups, four Olympic Gold Medals (and one silver) and has been CONCACAF Gold Cup champions eight times. The USWNT has been the highest-ranked women’s team for years, and their lowest ranking was second in March of 2017. The men’s team, in contrast, is currently ranked 22nd, and their highest ranking was fourth in April of 2006. The men’s team also bears no gold medals and no world cups. However, according to forbes.com, the USWNT makes a fraction of what their male counterparts do and are not rewarded for their statistically-superior performance simply because the league they dominate is characterized with the term “women’s.”

This skewed mindset is also present at the college level. In the world of lacrosse, the University of Maryland is what the University of Alabama is to football. The women’s team, that is. According to the NCAA, the University of Maryland Women’s Lacrosse team is frequently referred to as the “dynasty.” The NCAA also cites that the team has won a record of 15 NCAA championships, which includes a winning streak of seven in a row from 1995-2001. This is over twice the amount of the second-tiered program, Northwestern. Furthermore the NCAA records that they also have 14 Big Ten/ACC conference championships and have produced more National Player of the Year/Tewaaraton Award winners than any other program, across both men’s and women’s (eight that is, compared to the highest in men’s lacrosse, which is three from University of Virginia). They possess five undefeated seasons, have been part of all but one national championship game since 1990 and have the longest home game winning streak of all Division 1 athletics (86 straight games from 2012-present). The NCAA cites how The University of Maryland Men’s Lacrosse team, in comparison, has won three national championships and receives much more respect and advertisement. According to Mary Pipes, BFA Comet Lacrosse coach, and Maryland Lacrosse alumni, the men’s team’s scores are shown in the news after every game, whereas the women’s team is rarely on the Maryland news unless they win a big game or are in the finals. Why is this? Because the Maryland women’s team is a dynasty carried on the backs of “female athletes,” so it also creates the stigmatized mindset of it being inferior to their male counterparts.  

Growing up as a young woman, and becoming very involved in athletics, has introduced me to the first-hand experience of being a “female athlete.” In kindergarten, I began playing lacrosse on a co-ed team that followed the boy’s lacrosse rules until second grade. However, once I reached third grade, I had to transition over to women’s lacrosse, where everything from the equipment to the lines on the field were different. I had to not only adapt to a completely different playing style, but attitude. The more skilled I became at the game, the more I developed different aspects to my style of play. Two of these became aggression and competitiveness and, as result, I often heard comments such as “You play like a boy,” or “What is the point of girl’s lacrosse, it’s not even a sport?” It became clear to me that, as a young woman, I could not be seen as skilled or passionate without comparison to my male counterparts, whether it was in relation to my play or the sport itself. Why couldn’t I play like a woman? Evidently, that would not have been a compliment, but are aggression, competitiveness and passion only relegated to the men? This attitude epitomizes why being seen as only a “female athlete” diminishes accomplishments of myself and all of the strong and talented teammates I have played with. We should simply be athletes and be seen under the same lense as our male counterparts.

Women in sports should not need to be referred to as “female athletes.” Women do not need a qualification to their accomplishments, hard work, and skill. The paradox of women in sports is best explained by Alex Aust, a professional lacrosse player, coach, fitness instructor and Maryland dynasty alumni. She states, “How about, I play lacrosse. Period. Not women’s lacrosse, women’s basketball or women’s soccer. If you’re too good, you’re manly or your sport isn’t as fun to watch. If you’re not good enough, you play like a girl, or go back to your league. How about – I am just me.” This is applied to all women in athletics who have put their mind and bodies through constant training and stress to perform in the sports that they love. No woman is any less and should not be perceived as so in sports or in any aspect of society.