Female participation in international sports has been on a significant increase for some years now. Does increasing female participation in sports portend anything more significant for the nature of competition in both female and male sports? To find out the answer, it is important to examine participatory trends and what might occur as more of those women take on influential positions in athletics after their own playing careers are over.
The Increase of Female Participation in Sports
This summer, for the first time ever, more female athletes than male represented the United States at the summer Olympics. The American delegation was 52.6% female—292 out of 555 participants.
Four decades earlier, in 1976, the female representation on the American summer Olympics team was only 29.8%, and 20 years ago, in 1996, it was 41.9%. One likely reason for this steady increase is Title IX, which since 1972 has provided more female athletes with sports training opportunities through prohibiting discrimination based on sex in any educational program that receives financial aid.
Admittedly, not all female Olympians train at educational institutions, nor could Title IX alone explain why women have increased as a percentage of the Olympic delegation at a steady rate of over 10% for the past four decades. Yet, one could hardly expect that by 2020, this pace will continue so that well over 60% of the team will be female.
So how will female influence on sports evolve now if the percentage of women involved in all sports likely will level? That influence will be seen in the increasing number of former female athletes who go into sports administration and in that capacity have perhaps different expectations out of competition for both women and men.
The Increase of Women in Athletic Administration
Yes, there are now women who are pioneering in traditionally male sports vocations, like Becky Hammon, who started coaching the summer league team of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs in 2015, or Jen Welter, who in the same year became the first woman to coach for an NFL team when the Arizona Cardinals asked her to help oversee the team’s linebackers.
But the persons mostly likely to oversee the next evolution of female influence are the increasing numbers of women in front office positions, particularly those who earn master’s degrees in coaching.
One of the last bastions of traditional male dominance in sports is athletic directorship over NCAA Division I colleges and universities, where men are predominant at about 88%. As the number of women participating in highly visible sports or pioneering roles in coaching increases, the growth impulse is starting to move upward for female athletic directors. These new administrators are likely to draw from their experiences in female sports for suggestions for all sports competition.
According to the Harvard Business Review, more than half of all top female executives were once college athletes, so one can certainly anticipate the large impact that presently large numbers of female athletes will have upon future athletic administration hiring.
One can predict the influence of women in athletics on all sports competition by looking at two gauges: First, what will the concerns be of the increasing number of women who will be drawing from their own competitive experiences upon becoming athletic administrators?
Second, what hopes might female athletic directors have for improving the violent sport for which there is no female parallel to a men’s team, and which is also the biggest money-earning sport for most large colleges, football?
Possible Competition Changes
Primarily, one can expect female administrators to push more stringently for rules changes that limit the possibility for concussions and other serious injuries.
The reason for this is not simply some stereotypical idea that women tend to be nurturers, perhaps mothers, who are less likely to trade serious injuries for profit.
A study in JAMA Pediatrics concludes that high school girls actually suffer higher rates of concussions in soccer and basketball than do boys in those same sports.
Thus, women who move into athletic administration, and who are already likely to be former athletes themselves, will further prove that they are very familiar with the consequences of brain injuries that some might associate only with football or at least with male athletics.
Therefore, one might expect it to be experiences from women’s sports that influence female executives to push for more stringent concussion protocols, quicker timing during games, more research into the technology of safer equipment and any other rules changes that could mitigate vicious contact in order to preserve longer the playing careers of the athletes, both male and female, whose performances fans want to see.
When more former female athletes are in authority positions and lend their sports experiences to the claims of researchers like Dr. Ann McKee, who has urged professional sports leagues to become more proactive against sports-induced brain injuries, then hopefully leagues and fans alike will see the competitive advantage of valuing longevity of athletes over dramatic but crippling hits.