Sexism on Centre Court

On Saturday, at Wimbledon's Centre Court, Serena and Venus Williams extended their generational dominance of women's tennis in electric fashion. They went head to head for the twenty-first time and Serena took an 11-10 lead in their sibling rivalry. But amidst the drama of watching two of the finest athletes of their era clash, the specter of sexism haunted the All England Club. Early in the tournament officials blithely admitted that for women players' "physical attractiveness is taken into consideration" when it comes to court assignments. As the Daily Mail explained, "While a succession of easy-on-the-eye unknowns have appeared in Wimbledon's prime arena, the top women's seeds have been relegated to lesser courts."

Several players, including some of these "easy-on-the-eye unknowns" were upset with the setup. But much of the media dismissed the story as unimportant. L.Z. Granderson, a normally sane voice in the ESPN archipelago, wrote a column in which he stated simply, "I don't see the harm." After conceding the obvious--that the policy is sexist--Granderson played devil's advocate: "I actually find the Wimbledon officials' honesty quite refreshing...last I checked, gender equity in the workplace wasn't a beer on tap at the Kit Kat Club. Sometimes people like what they like, and accepting that also requires a certain degree of tolerance."

That would mean tolerance for sexism, an acceptance of the fact that no matter what their skills, women athletes should be prepared to be seen as objects first and athletes second. The fact that sportswriters don't only ignore this practice but defend it is more than just annoying, upsetting or infuriating. It's tired.

Women athletes find themselves in the same vise they have been in for a century: with sexism on one side and homophobia on the other. Accepting this sexist construct has become conventional wisdom for how to market and sell women's sports: sex, and specifically hetero-sex, sells.

As Granderson writes:

“Organizers are trying to sell their sport and believe the casual, straight male fan is more apt to watch attractive women--because if they had a love of the game, they wouldn't be casual fans, would they? In a sport in which Anna Kournikova, a player without a singles title, can become the most popular on tour, no one should be surprised by any of this.”

While Granderson is entitled to his own opinion, that doesn't mean he's entitled to his own facts. We now have some definitive answers as to whether sex sells women's sports or if it just sells sex. Dr. Mary Jo Kane, sports sociologist from the University of Minnesota, specializes in gender and sport for women and undertook a far-reaching study of images of women athletes putting their bodies on display for a wide-ranging focus group of both men and women. Kane found a very basic truth: sex may sell airport frat-porn like Maxim magazine, but it doesn't sell women's sports.

Kane believes these images "alienate the core of the fan base that's already there. Women, age 18 to 55, are offended by these images. And older males, fathers with daughters, taking their daughters to sporting events to see their favorite female athletes, are deeply offended by these images."

As for the young men excited to see their Women of the Olympics Playboy issue, Kane notes, "they want to buy the magazines but they didn't want to consume the sports."

This should be an earth-shaking revelation for every executive in the Women's Tennis Association, the WNBA and the LPGA, who have for decades operated under the assumption that a little leg goes a long way.

But women's sports, Kane argues, will need more than logic to move away from the abyss of abject objectification.

"This is deeper. This is also about what runs in the bone marrow of women's sports, namely homophobia. They are very well-meaning but they also want to distance themselves from the lesbian label. How do you do that? You reassure the viewing audiences, the corporate sponsors, the TV networks, and the female athletes themselves, that, No, no, no-- sports won't make your daughter gay. Women's sports will be more acceptable if you believe, even though it is stereotypical and inaccurate, that if you are pretty and feminine in a traditional sense then you are not gay."

We like to think that women's sports can be a avenue for liberation--a place where young girls can sweat, frolic, compete, get healthy and have the safe space to do anything but have to feel "ladylike." I can't help but remember the words of Martina Navratilova who complimented the great Billie Jean King by saying she "embodied the crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock." It's long past time for a new generation of women athletes, coaches and sportswriters to grab the flag and say that having a zero-tolerance policy for sexism is at heart about asserting the humanity of each and every participant.

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Sexism in women sports


You make a good point about the sexism being displayed at Wimbeldon. It should end.
But with respect to the women professional
leagues a bigger problem for them is that they are not supported in mass by women. Too many of the venues are half-filled at best and this is a bigger dilemma for the leagues than a homophobia issue.

I must confess...

that I went to women's volleyball games back in college not just for the bump-set-spike, and that I watched women's olympic speed skating not just for the... speed. But at the same time I have come to respect those athletes' ability, determination, and guts. Yeah - guys think about sex a lot - but the policies of tennis clubs should not be taylored towards our basest natures. And sports columns don't have to be written in defense of the lowest common denominator, either. So what? So guys don't have to hide the fact that they find some women athletes attractive, but they should not put it out there front and center, either. So, Martina Hingis, if you are reading this - you are a great athlete who I really respect.... and sooooooo hot!


In order to sell a sport played by females, they have to use sex in order to gain attention from straight males? ROFL!

It takes SOME muscle, if not A LOT, and some skill to be athletic. If you want babyfaced/toothpick models, go to a fashion show...they'll at least move and twitch I guess.

Their standards of so-called beauty are LOL material. If its a sport I'm interested in, I'm not waiting for the beer models or the lingerie-bowl players to come skipping on to the court. I just can't get into the brainless drivel these bimbos exude.

Some of these cats seem to be insecure in seeing females with some actual brawn and athletic skill, so they place these babyfaces out there. Too worried about so-called lesbianism, but I'm sure there's all sorts of men hiding in the closet pimping the next beer-bong.

I guess that's why the WNBA seems stagnant. These cats can't bare to witness girls that could probably knock some heads, so the advocate for the faux-innocence of some tween-looking bambi. If that's their thing, so be it. I'd rather have and watch a female who can actually move around without worrying about the cosmetics caking up on the field...LMAO!!!

Right On

Watching the women's finals I was struck once again by another infuriating aspect of coverage of women's sports: the incessant infantilization of female (ADULT) athletes! The Williams Sisters have systematically dominated women's tennis for a decade! Let me say that again: a decade! And throughout the match, where Serena definitely dominated, the announcers had the gall to propose that one of them might start crying because they are sisters (and, more sinisterly, female). The following day I heard no mention of either Federer or Roddick 'getting emotional' if they were to lose the match.

Anyway, right on Dave! This shit needs to be called out, "loudly and proudly".

RE: on LZ

Wasn't LZ the same idiot who said that gay athletes need to 'man up' and come of out the closet because it couldn't be any easier to be IN the closet? Yeah, I can see where he was a beacon of light in a sea of stupid.


What all of you need to realize is that no one who enjoys sports cares about womens sports. I can watch a high school basketball game that has more skill than the WNBA. Dave needs to stop the feel good aspect of his writing about womens sports, they are slow and boring. I coach soccer and 98% of girl players are not fit to play advanced soccer and 1/3 of all girls soccer players tear their ACL becuase they are not meant to play soccer. Tennis is another story, if the fans want sexiness then give it to them.

Mike: mad ignorant

Mike - you are mad ignorant here on multiple fronts. First of all, John Wooden - JOHN WOODEN - said he prefers women's basketball to men's at the collegiate level. It's just better ball. Second, women tear their ACLs not because they shouldn't play sports but because from an early age they don't develop the muscles that would support their ACLs. This has to do with the way young girls are taught sports. And men don't tell their ACLS?!?!?

Mike Is Dead On

Dave: You sound a little defensive regarding Mike's comments, which tells me you see a little bit of truth in it. Regarding John Wooden's comments, what he meant was that women's basketball is often more fundamentally sound than men's. While I disagree with this (as would anyone who had to sit through the Tennessee/LSU semifinal game two years ago), it is important to note that fundamentally sound does not equal watchable. I've seen plenty of fundamentally sound, team-oriented 10 year old basketball teams, but that does not mean I would rather watch them than North Carolian/Duke.
Secondly, you're going to have to do more to convince me regarding sex appeal than simply cite one lone study by a college professor. Does she actually know any red-blooded men? From a personal perspective, every guy I know 18 years and older is much more likely to watch a women's sporting event is there is a little bit of eye candy. After all, there's not a lot of sex appeal in women's basketball, but the ratings are still abysmal.

Thank you

Dave -

I'm 43 years old and a former high school athlete (with a new interest in martial arts! Yay!). Title IX passed when I was in grammar school but it was years before the full effect was felt on school yards across the country. What saddens me is that all these years later, the sexism hasn't diminished, it's just found new justifications.

Just about any woman and/or girl who competes in sport has heard it, felt it, seen it - the urge and push to be 'pretty' and 'appealing' to a male gaze all the while you're trying to sink a basket, get the goal in the net or even hit a tennis ball. I heard it as a teenager when I took up shot put and discus but the men in my life - my father and my brother -didn't lay that at my feet. I got it from other people who felt that somehow I wasn't feminine enough. Feminine enough for whom? What are people so afraid of? Homophobia feeds into this (and anyone who tries to deny that needs to look at Penn State and the women's basketball coach there a few years back or the strident denial of coaches around the country "Oh no, no, no, no lesbians here!!") and there's some hinky racialized readings that can also be explored but there's the basic fear that still needs to be addressed. Fear of women achieving something that makes them happy, makes them feel damned incredible.

@ junior gumm
Studies about women and sexism in sport go back at least 30 years - in fact, a lot of them talk about what happened with Babe Dedrickson Zaharias when she became popular/famous as a multi-sport athlete in the 1930s-40s. The lessons still apply today. Google is your friend.

One last thing - if you have a daughter who was an athlete, would you tell her her sport wasn't good enough because it didn't provide you with 'eye candy'?

Boo hoo

Of all the sports where the female athlete has no moral high ground, it is tennis. As of 2007 the prize money for the men's and women's Wimbledon winners is equal. Sounds great, right? Wrong.

Not only do women play best-of-3 sets, rather than the best-of-5, but having the shorter format likely results in 2 things, both evidenced in this year's finals. When Federer beat Roddick, the set scores were 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. That means a nominal 5 sets, but with 2 tiebreakers and a marathon final rubber set wherein the two played the equivalent of more than 2 complete ones. It took more than 4 hours to complete.

Now let's look at the women's final. Serena defeated her sister 7-6, 6-2. That's 21 total games vs. 77, not even including the tie breakers. Yet the 2 champs get equal pay.

Figure in laws of average whereby unless the talent is really lopsided, a best-of-3 is more likely to wrap up in 2 sets than a best-of-5 is in a straight 3. The weekend's match even demonstrates this, as Serena faced a familiar foe with Wimbledon wins under her belt and swept her out of a possible farewell appearance. Meanwhile 5-time champ Federer could not sweep nonchamp Roddick.

So we have established that women play anywhere from 40-67% of the number of sets their male counterparts must for the same pay, which sounds like a guy who cons his boss into receiving full time pay for working 24 hours a week while his colleagues must work 40, then complaining because he got stuck with the crummy office. For years men were paid more per tournament on the grounds that the prizes were awarded by sets played, not per tournament. Women's tennis could have lobbied to play 5 sets like the men, since the 3 was a sexist throwback to the mindset that women were too frail to last through 5. While that could have been true in the pre-Navritilova era, it certainly is not in the years since, when female players spend the off-season conditioning. Getting equal pay for less while leaving the arcane format intact suggests that the female players are content to tolerate one sexist policy if it benefits them--i.e. allowing them to finish singles matches sooner, with the possibility of playing doubles later that same day.

Back to the original point about the court assignments, though, playing on center court is a privilege, not an entitlement. The seedings do not change, and this has not even been accused. The perceived attractiveness of the competitors affects where and when a player will be seen, not whether said competitor makes the tournament, nor whom she will play. Win enough and you get top court, prizes, and all the spoils. Plus, when you win a bogus fight over the most important issue, you lose credibility over tedious ones.

Misogynist Gibberish

Your posts are the ramblings of a Neanderthal - I can hear your knuckles dragging on the ground from here. Another "red-blooded" American male pounding his chest, howling in the abyss. You actually used the term "red-blooded men." Dialogue from a cartoon character.

And then here's the beauty part - you actually proffered the idea of women as "eye candy" to further your diatribe, attempting to prove your sad and pathetic argument.

And Zirin did not sound defensive. Nice try, but your gibberish, as usual, falls well short of the truth. In fact, like most American Neanderthals, your discourse defines arrogant ignorance.

And now for a normal point of view...

I'm a guy, and I like women's sports just as equally as men's. Yep, I said it. I'm a fan of both MLS and WPS, for example.

Last week when the Washington Freedom played the LA Sol (WPS), one of the Sol players (cant remember her name) took a very vicious injury from a highly-aggressive Abby Wambach, which caused her shin bone to break, and the shin actually bent upward, as if it had its own knee. I dont think any of you other people would play that aggressively, much less be able to withstand that injury without crying.

This might be an entirely different example, but you all remember the concurrently-running Hercules, and Xena tv shows right? I remember that they were both about equally popular. But lemme ask you this: all these years later, which of the two is better remembered? Thought so.

If you like a sport then delve yourself into all dimensions of it, and dont limit your experiences.


Do you have some sort of pent up anger inside that causes you to lash out at everyone whose opinions differ from your own? Believe it or not, not everyone who disagrees with you is a "Neanderthal."

In short, the McCain/Palin ticket, widely regarded as having waged one of the most vile election campaigns in American history, looks quite benevolent when matched up to your rhetoric.


Neanderthal refers to your "red-blooded" thoughts of reducing female athletes to "eye candy" and not the fact that we disagree. Nice deflection, but as Marv Albert used to say, "Kick save and a beauty."

And then, once again, you're off base defining my post as "rhetoric" - rather, it's a clear-cut reaction to your obviously misogynistic statement, which I love for its simplicity (so let's read it again)

"Does she actually know any red-blooded men? From a personal perspective, every guy I know 18 years and older is much more likely to watch a women's sporting event is there is a little bit of eye candy."

If you're going to venture out from the pedestrian world of sports, it would help if you educated yourself. Regarding the issues you have with women, start with "Intercourse" by Andrea Dworkin.

Yes, Rhetoric

Actually, I did use the word correctly. As in, your post was filled with "loud and confused empty talk", which is after all one of the dictionary's definitions of rhetorics. Or, as Will Shakespeare might have said, yours is a tale "told by an idiot/Full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing."

Back to the point--as far as my supposed misogynist attitudes, I am stating a simple fact--deep down, most men that I (and be honest, probably you) know are more likely to watch Maria Sharapova play tennis than Elena Dementieva, and the ratings back me up. Is it right? I don't know, I can certainly see how it would sound unfair. But I also know plenty of women who would take a Haas/Nadal match over Djokovic/Murray, solely based on the physical appearances of the players.


A bunch of dudes arguing over women's sports.

There's still a long way to go.

Hey Tom

What do you think these reader forums are for? Standing around, holding hands, and singing Kumbaya?

Discussion, controversy, arguments, and some humor - like Junior's Shakespeare line.

There's always a long way to go, especially on the road to kingdom come.

Nice deflection, Steve

Or as Marv Albert may have said, "Kick save and a beauty." I know you're probably upset that an intellectual such as yourself wasn't fully aware of the definition of "rhetoric," but yet again you failed to respond to my actual argument, despite the clarification presented in my last post.

I, too, like the discussions on these forums--especially when they are just that, discussions, and not a series of sarcastic responses from an arrogant man such as yourself.

Leave Marv Out of It

Take your head out of your ass - you're the sports maven denigrating female athletes (admitting your circle jerk fantasies about "eye candy") and you got called on it.

We obviously disagree - you see the value of women from a cosmetic standpoint - you and your other "red-blooded" American males... the same machismo cement-heads sitting at home in their underwear thinking they have a shot with the Madison Avenue vixens dancing on their 150-inch flat screens. As an alternative, I see incredibly talented athletes fighting against a corrupt system... as evidenced by your grunting POV.

As well, deal with sarcasm and arrogance - I employ the same approach with racists and war mongers as I do with those who insist on subjugating women as objects, or to use your jargon - eye candy.

And then of course you're dead wrong regarding "rhetoric" on two fronts. First, as I've already written, my first post was a reaction to your bouts with misogyny. Secondly, if it were indeed rhetoric, there are various definitions of the word; here, take a look (Merriam-Webster):

1 the art of speaking or writing effectively: as a: the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times, b: the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion
2 a: skill in the effective use of speech b: a type or mode of language or speech ; also : insincere or grandiloquent language
3: verbal communication : discourse

And since you like definitions so much, here's a proud one to hang on your resume:

misogyny: a hatred of women.

Re-Read My Post

Actually, I do believe your prose could be categorized as "grandiloquent", but on that we'll just agree to disagree.

Back to your post, did you just learn a new word today? While I'm sure it makes you feel really good to throw around accusations of misogyny, if you go back and read what I wrote you may see that you were a little too quick to respond. Like it or not, the word "eye candy" has made its way into our language--I can specifically remember hearing either Kornheiser or Wilbon on PTI use the term to describe female sideline reporters on Monday Night Football. In fact, I never even condoned Wimbledon's decision to give better-looking women more prominent matches. Personally, I would rather watch the Williams sisters than Anna Kournikova. All I said was that, everything else being equal, most men are more likely to watch a women's sporting event if the females are better looking.

Finally, I do appreciate that women put just as much effort into their athletic events as men do. No doubt the players in the WNBA are extremely talented. Personally, I prefer the NBA and men's college basketball to any level of women's basketball. However, I am no more a misogynist for such opinions than John Wooden is misandrist for his choices.

Missing a major point

I agree with your article entierly Dave but I think you missed a central issue, that the the form of "Beauty" that Wimbeldon is pushing, is inheriently racist. The reason the Willams sisters don't rate as "eye-candy" (as Junior so crudely put it) is because of their racial/ethnic background. Blond haired, blue eyed, aryians are promoted above any other form of feminine beauty. Beauty comes in many forms, promoting the physical beauty of the athletes body is as old as sport itself and I belive should be celebrated but pushing the coockie cutter media created form of beauty is obscene. Women, and male, athletes come in all shapes sizes and colors, and should be celebrated for there strength grace and form, and if they wish to expose that beauty in magazines then more power to them, but who are these people to define attractiveness for the rest of us. It is related to the same standersation of attractivness in all aspects of american media culture and it needs to stop before it destroys the self esteem and confidence of another generation of young women who can never live up to this artificial standard but are none the less attractive in there own right.

That's right Harv

That was in my first draft. Absolutely positively, I agree.


that we don't watch sports in which women are better than men, that no man could possibly compete with a woman at the same level - no matter how good they are. of course this always gets left out of the argument by red-blooded, sexists who only see sport as a place for men, but conveniently disregard the truth that the sports we 'care' about are organized around what the above-average male physiological body can do better than the above-average female body. it's an inconvenient truth, that is sorely overlooked.

Aaron's Post

Why no comments or responses to aaron's post?
That's the best post in this thread.

I thought equality was all about "equal pay for equal work." If so why is no one upset that women only play best of 3 sets?

equal pay

so the one time women get paid more for the less work, even though they often get equal or greater crowds you're complaining? further, women don't make the rules. are you equally outraged that women get paid 70 cents on the dollar for doing the same work men do in virtually all other occupations? go ahead though, and play the victim, it's a typical strategy for the dominant subject to feign victimhood to subvert the focus from what's really going on. in other words no one commented on that "great post" because it's a joke.

Thanks, Ryan...

For putting that "great post" to bed...

Who's the greatest soccer player in the world?

It's not Beckham, but he's certainly the most famous. Men and women appreciate physical beauty, and it effects every aspect life. So why would sports be different? We all "objectify" what we are appreciate, and btw Steve, people are objects. How can we not "objectify" an object? Shall we pretend that people don't have forms, and that we have no preferences? That would be delusional.


So far the detractors of women's sport cite the boring games in comparison to the male equivalents. Having watched the men's final at Wimbledon this year I can tell you that watch an 'ace-fest' didn't exactly make for compelling T.V. Long gone are the long rallys and net play we saw when Borg, Mc Enroe, Natase and Connors played. Where are these dramtic points in tennis today? - the women's game.

Dave you are one my favorites but I believe you are wrong

I know I am late to the party.

First, the ACL issue is not developmental but physiological. The female hips (generally speaking) are wider than male hips (again generally speaking) causing more torque action on the knees and lower body leading to more injuries such as ACL tears. Until a major break though in training is seen female athletes will always be at greater risk of these types of injuries. This of course is not an argument that women and girls should not play sports but it is a valid concern.

Second, I think you are over stating you case. An attractive match up will always be the goal of promoters of an event and the TV producers and that is because it does produce better ratings and ticket sales. That attractive match-up can take many different forms from two power houses and stars to physically attractive players and stories. You point out the study by Kane but the key point of that study was selling sex hurts the core market the problem of course being the core market for most sports is extremely small. To reach a larger market sex appeal sells the ratings Womens Beach Volleyball in the Olympics for example was was higher than pretty much every thing except Michael Phelps and Usin Bolt and much higher than the mens version. This despite that the American men where almost as dominated and won the gold but featured well two average at best looking men. In the US a Williams sister match will have higher ratings than pretty much any other female tennis player because we know them and they are "ours". Its really no different than in say F1 where the BBC coverage of the race is pretty much on 2 drivers, Brits, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton even in races where German driver Vettal is dominating.


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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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