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    Uncoupling Athleticism & Opportunity from Gender

    By Jamie Leno Zimron–

    Like music and art, sports are an integral part of our humanity. Every person deserves to happily inhabit their body, and to have equal access to athletic opportunities. Fitness, self-expression and fulfilling one’s potential are for everyone. Gender, race, religion, class, size, age, sexuality, etc. have nothing to do with the human need to stretch, get our breathing and heart rates up, break a sweat, rise to challenges, and go beyond current capabilities. Everyone’s inner athlete can come out and play—and sports are no place for discrimination!
     
    And yet … the sports world persists as one of the hardest arenas for women and gender-non-conforming people to gain entrée, much less find safety or parity. Why in sports is the gender pay gap such a chasm, and are LGBTQ people so especially fearful of coming out? 
     
    Sexist gender roles and homophobia are intensely inter-linked in sports, such that it remains a last bastion of male domination and hetero-normative bias and exclusivity. Even the United States Congress and military have been coming to terms with women and LGBTQ people in their ranks, and are willing to change their thinking and policies. Women’s prolonged diminishment in sports, and the outright dangers queer people face, serve to preserve the domains and privileges of men, hand in hand with “straight supremacy.” The subjugation of women and societal oppression of gender-bending people are perpetuated so long as hetero-sexism persists. 

    These are very significant phenomena, the subject of active research and forward-facing books. Suffice it to say that sports often go on glorifying male values, top-dog toxic masculinity, and testosterone-driven mindsets of “killer” competition. Hetero-sexist language that trashes women and bashes gay and transgender people still flows unchecked. Just locker room talk is used to excuse MeToo abusers, whether “average guys” or high-profile politicians and celebrities. High school to high-paid pro athletes commit emotional abuse, hate crimes, and rape at alarming rates, and with even more alarming impunity from serious legal or financial consequences. That they often command huge contracts and role-model status is only explicable in a still deeply misogynist and homophobic society. 
     
    Fortunately, greater respect and inclusion are taking hold as the 2020s get underway, along with long-needed censure of bigots and abusers. Progress is being made, albeit gradually. Gender-based harassment, limitation and exclusion are still far too prevalent. Players, teammates, fans, and commentators still tolerate the demeaning slurs and threats that go on daily, both behind the scenes and on the playing field. Much conscious work is required to change attitudes and speech, equalize pay, and expand sports options for all people across the board.  
     
    The time has more than arrived to un-couple athleticism from gender. It is up to all of us to make playing fields and locker rooms safe, respectful places for women and LGBTQ athletes. Scholarships, jobs, and pay in sports need to be equally available regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The homophobic and sexist name-calling that all kids and adults face as just sports banter must stop. Spectator, competitor, and media culture need to be freed of gender-based judgment and discrimination, period. 

    Have we come a long way? Yes, thanks to so many brave athletic souls and supporters. Do we have a long way to go? Yes!
     
    On May 6th, 2021, news reports revealed that the men’s PGA Tour has been keeping over 90% of revenue from joint television deals with the women’s LPGA. While women are pushing to end wage discrimination, the gender pay gap in sports remains scandalously wide. The number of out-athletes is not yet more than a trickle. Over 240 anti-LGBTQ bills are moving through state legislatures in just the first half of 2021. Dozens seek to ban transgender girls and women from sports participation, with some already being signed into law. 
     
    It is nearly 5 years since Colin Kaepernick sacrificed his football career as he courageously took a knee during the national anthem, in protest of racism and police violence. Because sports are so human and replete with every societal issue and ill calling out loudly for change, they are coming more and more to the fore as a prime field of social activism and evolution. As the articles in this series make clear, we are all called upon as athletes and fans to make sure that all can play, and work, with equal opportunity and pay. The time is now!

    Jamie Leno Zimron is an LPGA Golf Pro, Sensei, Aikido 6th Dan, Somatic Psychologist, and Trainer. https://www.thecenteredway.com/

    Published on July 29, 2021