Women in Sports: Role Models for All

NGWSD-Logo-Web-ElecAthletic talent is not spread very evenly in my family. As I’ve written here before, I hated gym as a boy because I have no sports skills whatsoever. My sister, on the other hand, was an athletic rock star. I’ve never known a man or woman who starred in so many different sports. Soccer, tennis, ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse – she excelled at all of them.

If I didn’t have my sister as a role model, I wouldn’t run, bike, or be as active as I am today. That’s why I’m always happy to see National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD), which will take place on February 5, 2014. NGWSD started in 1987 and has grown into an annual nationwide celebration of girls’ and women’s sports, organized by the National Girls and Women in Sport Coalition.

A summary of last year’s NGWSD can be found here.

The importance of NGWSD is unquestionable. Unfortunately, the event is forced to share the stage (actually, pushed off the stage) by National Signing Day, an event on the same date that, ironically, focuses exclusively on male athletes who don’t even play that day. National Signing Day is when 5-star high school football players announce which university they will attend. It is literally nothing but a fashion show – huge press conferences are staged to watch a teenager put on a hat (of the university he chooses). Sadly, it received far more media coverage than NGWSD in 2013, and probably will again in 2014.

Yes, women in sports are overlooked so that men can try on clothes.

This poor timing symbolizes the fact that we never truly celebrate women in sports on their own. Female athletes rarely receive attention except for a small number of sports in which men’s and women’s signature events coincide (e.g., tennis, the Olympics). We only celebrate women in sports if we’re celebrating men, too; it’s like we take Title IX a little too literally. Sports Illustrated (SI) annually names a ‘Sportsman of the Year’ – an honor that goes to the man, woman, or team “whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement” – but has honored a woman only 8 times in 60 years, and in 5 of those 8 years, the honor was shared with a man.

Why do female athletes always need to share the spotlight? Are we implying that they are good role models for girls and women, but not for boys or men? Anybody who believes that should consider this example:

In 2013, SI named Peyton Manning its Sportsman of the Year. The choice is hard to criticize – Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and broke legendary records in 2013 (he’s also a great Saturday Night Live host.) But if I had a vote, I would’ve given it to Diana Nyad, the woman who swam from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64 last year. Nyad doesn’t play a competitive sport, but she accomplished an athletic feat that no man or woman of any age had ever done. Her achievement transcends Manning’s because it raised the bar on what male and female athletes can do. Someone who wasn’t impressed by what Peyton Manning did in 2013 probably isn’t a football fan; if you’re not impressed by what Diana Nyad did in 2013, it’s because you don’t have a pulse.

Celebrating women in sports isn’t about celebrating them for the sake of other women. Nyad is a role model to any person who has ever set any type of athletic goal, just like my sister is a role model to me. Skip the men’s fashion show on February 5 and recognize how girls and women in sports are an inspiration to all of us.

(This blog was published on January 29, 2014, for the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living)

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. My research has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NPR, CNN, FOX News, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets.

You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest off-the-beaten-path vacation destination (coming in July 2014 – Kyrgyzstan!!)


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