COLUMN: Stereotypes still exist against women across sports landscape
(WJLA) - Not long ago, a generation of young girls idolized one woman.
She wasn't a model. She wasn't a "Barbie."
She was Mia Hamm, the best U.S. soccer player of her time.
The term "best" isn't an over generalization or gender specific term. By a quantitative value, Hamm really was the best American forward, male or female, having scored more goals than anyone in international competition at one time.
Her record has since been surpassed, but in an historic moment, she, along with her 1999 Women's World Cup champion teammates, proved women could be just as good as their male contemporaries.
"Even 14 years later, it stands the test of time as the moment that the nation fell in love with the girl next door, with the grass stains on her knees," USA Today columnist Christine Brennan said.
Brennan covered the World Cup extensively and saw a phenomenon unfold that has yet to be duplicated.
"After they won the World Cup, the story appeared on the cover of Time, Newsweek, People, and Sports Illustrated," Brennan said. "To this day, no story has made all those covers in the same week."
A generation of women were inspired to blaze their own path as they grew older. While not everyone became the next Mia Hamm, many went on to play Division I, II, and III sports in never before seen numbers. Many excelled scholastically. Similar to Hamm, women forged their own careers in athletics not because of their gender, but because they proved they could be among the best at their profession.
All too often, our society can't accept a notion like that. Stereotypes exist all around us, but in sports they proliferate across the landscape. Obviously, this is not exclusive to just women. But, ask any talented, hardworking female in sports media, and you'll hear stories of the same insults largely based on looks or age.
"I always felt awkward in high school and never considered myself beautiful," Brennan said, "I worked hard though, and I'm on TV more now in my fifties than in my thirties. Looks come, and they go."
Frequently in the hyper-critical and unfairly judgmental world of social media, an unfortunate line of thinking tends to prevail: If a woman is attractive, she doesn't know anything about sports. Yet, if she's not attractive enough, she shouldn't be on television.
My personal favorite is the asinine assertion that hair color correlates with IQ. In reality, several blonde females have held positions of power. An ABC World News anchor, a former Secretary of State, and the first female Supreme Court Justice all share variations of a flaxen mane.
This type of unwarranted criticism is something females are not just told to accept, but also expect in 2013. It's apparently tolerable when a woman realizes the same person flinging chauvinistic comments online is a complete stranger.
The same person telling a former collegiate athlete she knows nothing about sports usually has never participated in high-level athletics in their own life. And, it's debatable whether they actually have a life.
Unfortunately, it's not always a complete stranger. Sometimes, the profiling comes from members of your own profession.
Recently, a male journalist inquired about an article of mine. Apparently surprised to see it, he asked a mutual friend if I had employed a ghost writer. To this man's credit, the inquiry was genuine and meant as a compliment based on a perceived quality of writing.
But, let's welcome the elephant into the room. The translation is this: How can a female television reporter write her own material? Because broadcast professionals, seemingly hired for their looks, can't possibly form two sentences together without a teleprompter.
A mutual friend responded with, "Well, she did go to Northwestern." That is true - a $300 bill from Great Lakes Borrower Services is a reminder of that every month. A Northwestern master's degree is something to take pride in, and it, in turn, takes pride out of your bank account.
At Medill, an aspiring journalist will never survive on photogenic qualities and make-up alone. Some of the best writers in the country teach you the craft with an expertise we all can only hope to achieve one day.
This is just a work in progress. But, like it or not, it's my own work.
When it comes to turning that daily work into a respected career, there may be no better example for young aspiring reporters than Brennan. As the first female beat reporter to cover the Redskins, she's seen inequality first-hand. Brennan, though, maintains that the positive narrative outweighs the negative.
"We always talk about what's wrong," Brennan said. "But my goodness, when I started in 1981, I really never saw another female sports writer. To think, now we have thousands in major positions...the glass is definitely half-full."
Just like Hamm elevated the game of soccer and Brennan pioneered sports journalism, hopefully women in today's media can continue to elevate the profession. Perhaps in 10 years, women in sports won't be as frequently typecast.
But, regardless of gender perception, it's the reality that matters--a reality women have the power to create for themselves.
"My simple answer is this: I want all sports reporters to rely on their brains and their talent," Brennan said. "What we can control is our brains, our preparation, our street smarts."