By Annie Spewak
I walked eagerly into my Tuesday morning Communication and Sport class. Each class is centered around what any student athlete can passionately get behind: sports.
After we watched an incredible documentary about media coverage and female athletes, the discussion ensued.
Immediately, the guy two rows in front of me said something about the lack of slam dunks that occur in the WNBA. As the only female athlete in the class, I was taken aback. I thought, Brittney Griner can dunk. Here we go.
That’s when the male athlete that sits behind me began to explain the reason why women’s sports are not popular (to watch, to play, or even to cover in the media). His reasoning was simple, but archaic: “Girls are just less passionate than guys.”
First off, we’re not “girls.” We are women. We are developed, composed, and clothed in strength. As an athlete, I took offense to his statement. As a female athlete whose sport gets little funding and support, I was purely disgusted. Like every other athlete, I have dedicated my life to playing a sport that I love. The game fuels me in every single aspect of my life.
When our professor asked him to explain his statement, he perked up in his chair just a little bit as though he may clear up his crude and uninformed announcement. He looked our professor in the eyes and said, “What I really mean is… girls just don’t get as fired up. Ya know? They don’t get into it. You don’t see passion. Ya know what I mean?”
No, I don’t “know what ya mean.”
Do you mean passion comes from chest pounding, profanity shouting, and crotch grabbing? Do you mean to say that an athlete who shows composure, lacks passion? If an athlete’s passion manifests itself as useless hissy fits, I do not want him or her as my teammate. Athletes who can cope with defeat, or endure a bad referee with poise and grace are true competitors, regardless of gender. Their minds are impenetrable.
Most women’s sports do not even exist in the “Big Leagues.” Sure, a semi-professional women’s hockey league was formed, but how much can a female athlete actually earn playing without endorsements that overly sexualize their bodies and beauty?
The vast majority of female collegiate athletes have little to no chance at ever earning a paycheck at the top level— not because of the competition they’re up against, but because of the lack of professional and paid opportunities. Yet they still play on. Why?
Why do they wake up at 5:20 a.m. to make sure they can at least put a banana in their system before they have to get to a field that is dipped in frost or dew to stretch, run seemingly endless sprints, and lift? Then, why, with no time to shower or eat, they rush across campus to take a midterm that they studied for until 2:00 a.m. before scarfing a protein bar, slamming a sports drink, and high-tailing it to practice? Why do they roll out of bed, bodies still aching from the previous day’s conditioning and practice in the snow, to make it to their professor’s office hours to submit an assignment early because they will be traveling the next four days for an away game series? Passion. Relentless passion.
There are currently NBA players whose individual salaries are more than that of the entire WNBA’s salaries combined. In 2014, the WNBA’s salary cap for the entire league averaged to be about $10.3 million. According to ESPN’s publication of NBA salaries for 2014, Kobe Bryant earned $25,000,000 for just the 2013-2014 season. Bryant does not stand alone. ESPN’s NBA salary list names more than 50 other NBA players whose individual salaries total to more than $10.3 million in just one season. Women aren’t playing for a paycheck; they’re playing simply for the love of the game. Come to think of it, isn’t that what all athletes should be playing for?
When I was eight years old, my older brother duct taped seat cushions to my shins, slapped a helmet three sizes too big on my head, and gave me a stick that was taller than me with some net screwed on the top of it. He began slinging white rubber balls at me promising, “I won’t hit you.” It only took one very hard shot to my bum for me to figure out that I wanted to be the one shooting. When I was eight years old, I fell madly in love with the sport of lacrosse.
Growing up, I played roller hockey with my two best friends on our neighborhood streets and in our own basements. My best friends were boys — Christian and Alec. Our gender never mattered. I don’t think it ever phased us. We played hockey, swam laps, shot hoops, and raced. We even rode our bikes into massive mud holes just because they did it on The Goonies. My bike was blue because that was my favorite color, and its color never mattered because that’s all it was: a color.
I never realized how oppressed I was simply by being a female athlete. It became more and more obvious the older I got.
“Why is your bike blue? All your stuff is blue, not pink.”
“You’re not scared to play with the boys?”
Gender was not a big deal to me. The biggest deal was that I was having a blast and wearing a helmet if needed. As a kid, when someone insults your favorite shirt, you never want to wear it again. You have no shame at all until someone points it out. Now, you are self-conscious about its fit, its color, its graphics; all of it. But if you truly love that shirt, you will continue to wear it because it’s your favorite. The more competitive I became in lacrosse, the more adversity I faced. But I continued to play. Why? Passion.
“Girls’ lacrosse is stupid; you can’t even hit.”
“Lacrosse is a dyke sport. Are you trying to tell us something?”
Despite the fact my favorite thing on this entire planet was under constant scrutiny, I played. I played hard. I fell red hot in love with lacrosse, and the sport loved me back.
When I was young, lacrosse became deeply ingrained in my soul. It shaped me emotionally, mentally, socially, academically, and physically. The sport has given me numerous opportunities and relationships some can never even dream of, and for that, I am beyond thankful.
Now I’m 21 years old, and lacrosse is still soaked into my being. However, there is a huge issue in athletics that we need to address—not just for our sake, but for the eight-year-olds who are picking up a stick or kicking a ball for the first time. Gender does not define you as an athlete: your grit, determination, hard work, and passion for the game do.
Women are constantly reminded that men run faster, jump higher, and are just stronger overall. I think we are too quick to associate these characteristics with one’s work ethic, rather than just remember that men and women are anatomically different, and that’s okay. We should never forget that it does not matter who is the fastest or strongest because, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Passion changes everything.
Focus, determination, pain, disappointment, excitement, suspense, anger, relief: it’s all a part of the game whether you are a man or a woman.
Passion is a complex feeling. It’s a catalyst, a craving, a push to go the extra mile. It does not have to be defined by how deeply you yell or how many fist pounds you get. While passion can be seen, it can also be heard, so I hope this serves as a wake-up call to remind ourselves, and especially the eight-year-olds falling in love with a sport, that passion is not a “gender thing.” It does not belong to one biological gender; it does not discriminate. Passion is passion, and no one can take that away from you.
The guy who sits behind me certainly did not take my passion away. In fact, he fueled it. If you want to catch just a small glimpse of that sensation, take a look at a few pictures I shot during my team’s games. If you want the passion for the game to overtake you, go to any athletic event near you and sit right behind a team’s bench. Listen to athletes talk about their game, witness their eyes light up as they speak about their craft, passion, and pride oozing from their words.
My classmate, who made the uneducated, obtuse, and stereotypical statement that “Girls are just less passionate than guys,” continued the conversation with the professor before settling back and slumping under the table to check his phone. He likely never thought twice about his remark.
However, one day, when his glory days as a college athlete have fizzled and he’s taking his strong, beautiful athletic daughter to her first game, he is going to hope she lives in a world where she never runs into someone who questions her relentless passion.
Annie Spewak is a junior at Robert Morris University studying Public Relations. After sustaining a back injury, Annie retired early from Division I lacrosse, but you can still find her teaching or filming the game she loves. You can follow her on Twitter at @annabellethinks.