Women and sports: Where we go from here

The relationship between women and sports seems like it should be simple. Sports involve the use of our bodies; women have bodies; therefore, women and sports should naturally relate.

But like many relationships, this one is more complicated than it seems to be on the surface. To be sure, the coupling of women and sports, at least in this country, is stronger than at any point in our history. When I was growing up in suburban Trenton, New Jersey, in the 1960s and '70s, I had relatively limited opportunities to play organized sports. By contrast, there is a wide range of offerings available to today's young girls, who can play sports freely at the grassroots level and then, thanks to Title IX, move on to established, wide-ranging and, in some cases, highly sophisticated programs in high school and college.

In the same way, I don't recall my mother (or any of her friends) sweating it out side-by-side with the guys at the health club like I do; her recreational life didn't extend much beyond her weekly bowling league. Who could have predicted in 1970 that only a generation later, adult women would be exercising in droves, and throwing themselves with vigor into athletic pursuits as far-flung (and rigorous) as triathlons, martial arts and Pilates?

Girls and women today have also taken to sports as fans in numbers that were unimaginable when Title IX became law in 1972. There was a time when you wouldn't expect to see men and women cheering in unison at a sports venue, but sporting events in 2010 routinely feature a healthy share of passionate female spectators. And through the wonders of technology, girls and women -- just like boys and men -- now follow sports anyplace and anytime, with unprecedented ease.

But while women and sports seem closer than ever, elements of the relationship are sometimes hard to reconcile. In our post-Title IX world, the old stereotypes and barriers which historically distanced women and girls from sports are largely gone, but differences persist in the way American males and females participate in, consume and think about sports, which in turn affects health and fitness trends, media imagery and coverage, and strategies for companies trying to turn sports into profitable business ventures. The future of women's sports will be shaped by the way these differences are addressed and by the effectiveness with which women's sports proponents can meld the gains of the past 40 years with the needs, sensibilities and realities of today's world.

A good place to start is with our girls. While it's true that hordes of girls today participate avidly in sports in their formative years, extracurriculars and other diversions wind up competing for their attention, leaving many to drop out by the time they reach middle school or high school. Keeping our girls physically active as they move into adulthood emerges as a critical challenge.

And while it's now perfectly normal for adult women to play or watch pretty much whatever sport suits their fancy, they may struggle to find enough hours in a day to fit sports in, as the demands in their lives (particularly for working mothers) often make sports of any kind a luxury, one more activity to shoehorn into an all-too busy day. Convincing women that sports are integral to a healthy and balanced life, and that making time for regular athletic activity shouldn't be just a goal, but a priority, is an equally important imperative.

Evolving, and sometimes conflicting, definitions of femininity complicate matters. Most people are no longer put off by the sight of women sweating profusely or diving after loose balls, and an athletic, muscular build has begun to be accepted as a representation of feminine beauty. But representations of traditional gender roles persist: Bare-bellied cheerleaders endure as sideline fixtures at men's sports competitions, and in sports (like football) where the machismo quotient is especially high, the opportunities for women who yearn to participate are still limited.

Time will tell whether the female athlete will ever replace the supermodel or actress as the prototype of femininity and beauty. Until that day comes, much good can come from promoting the notions that sweat has no gender; that strength is a form of beauty; and that health brought on by physical activity is an ideal to which all girls and women should aspire.

Women's professional athletics are another important part of today's equation. The progress since I was a girl has been real: women's tennis and golf are now fixtures on the pro sports landscape, and after decades in the shadows, women's basketball and soccer have found their way onto the scene, something many never dreamed possible.

But although the battles for acceptance which marked the 1970s and '80s have been largely won, they've been replaced by another challenge: how to convert the feel-good vibe of "with you in spirit" into cold, hard revenue, so that women's sports leagues can endure as viable businesses. The protections of Title IX, which helped make the pro outlets possible, do not reach beyond federally-funded educational institutions, so the future of the leagues will be wholly left to the realities of the marketplace. In the post-Title IX age, progress at the elite level will ride on the adeptness with which women's sports leaders can marry what's appealingly feminine with what's impressively athletic, what's edgy and controversial with what's mainstream and wholesome -- and in our culture of celebrity, whether women's sports "products" can be turned into compelling entertainment, the kind that busy fans (women and girls among them) will make time for and pay real money to see.

Women and sports: their relationship is complicated. Part of the story has been told, but chapters remain to be written. For the believers, new frontiers beckon. It's an exciting time.

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