I just finished reading Sarah Shephard’s June 2016 release entitled “Kicking Off: How women in sport are changing the game.” As someone whose interest in women’s sports has been piqued lately, I went searching for books about the topic. There aren’t necessarily a ton out there, but this was the first I decided to pick up! My local library didn’t have a copy, but I requested it via interlibrary loan and got one from Waubonsee Community College out in Sugar Grove, IL, and dove right in.
Overall, I found this book to be informative and educational. It was a well-rounded read, in that it looked at a variety of components of women in sports and the challenges and stereotypes they face. From girls & women actually being allowed to play, to looking at media coverage and financial support of women’s sports, to delving into deeper issues regarding girls and sports and body issues – this book covered A LOT of ground. In the end, I think it’s an incredibly important read. I learned a lot from it and it certainly opened my eyes to some issues that even I didn’t really think of beforehand.
Before I go any further, I have to make a note: Shephard largely, though not exclusively, speaks from a standpoint on British women in sport. She does refer to the WNBA, the Boston Marathon (in a profile) and touches on other pieces from the USA, but largely, it is a book referencing women in sport in the UK. Since I wasn’t aware of that before I picked up the book, I felt it important to point out here.
Shephard’s book is broken down into eight chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of women in sport, with profiles of key women in sports (Nicole Cooke, Billie Jean King and Maggie Alphonsi among them) scattered between the chapters.
She starts off the book by examining the ‘recognizability’ of sportswomen and coverage of women’s sports, often as an afterthought to men’s sports. Of course, this is problematic for a number of reasons, only one being that it does nothing to help grow women’s sports. Shephard goes on to highlight several places that have made progress in this area. One I didn’t know about: the NBC national network’s deal with the USGA. As part of the agreement that allows NBC to cover the men’s US Open, they also have to televise the Senior and Women’s Open. The USGA was a key leader in leveraging this coverage and if more governing bodies do this, it can only help women’s sports to grow further. (A lot of this chapter, I read while thinking about leagues like the NWHL and CWHL and how coverage of these leagues often falls off but needs to be pushed for in order to read more than just the niche market.)
Shephard goes on to detail several sports where women, whether currently or in the past, have not been allowed, or where participation has been limited. This includes the golf world, where sexism is still largely prevalent, and boxing. Did you know that the Amateur Boxing Association of England banned women from boxing until 1996, and such a ban existed in the USA until 1993?! Some of the reasons behind these bans were that women were supposedly “too unstable” and, of course, there was the possibility of damage on their reproductive systems. Speaking from a feminist standpoint, this is clearly a case of men trying to control women’s bodies. (Bringing this up to the present time – I just watched my first MMA fight and saw one of the male fighters get kicked in his ‘reproductive system’ to the point where he had to call a timeout. But I doubt anyone ever said ‘Hey, maybe men shouldn’t be doing MMA, their reproductive system might get damaged!’ Again — it’s not about the concern. It’s about the control.)
The author goes on to talk about financial issues in women’s sports, from sponsorship deals to salaries, prize money and everything in between, as well as discusses the culture clash in today’s world where women’s sports are trying, pushing, going for it, but sexism remains prevalent in society.
Perhaps the most interesting & unique part of the book is when Shephard looks at the participation gap in sports, particularly among girls. This was a topic I hadn’t really read much about regarding women in sport, but it’s an important thing to think about. We can talk about everything else that comes down the line, but if there aren’t enough women & girls being encouraged to participate in sport, everything else falls to the wayside. Shephard also speaks about body image, both in young girls doing athletics and in women participating in sport (highlighting issues like anorexia, bulimia, etc.)
She closes out the book by discussing women in leadership positions in sport, yet another factor to be concerned about. From women in the boardrooms to coaching and other positions, this is yet another piece of women in sport that we should be thinking about. (I think during this chapter, what kept popping into my head was the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, with Kim Pegula as their co-owner, and Kathryn Smith as the league’s first female coach.)
Here’s one thing I have to put in this review, to be fair. I’m honestly not sure if this book was edited, and if it was – it was poorly done. Throughout the reading, I noticed words missing here & there. I’d read a sentence and my brain would sort of fill in, but the text wasn’t always there. I can chalk some of that up to perhaps the “British English” as opposed to “American English” that I’m used to, but… only some. For instance, there’s really no excuse for spelling a person’s name two different ways in one paragraph, as Shephard does with Miriam Gonzalez Durantez’s name. (Later in the paragraph, she leaves off the ‘z,’ prompting me to wonder how an editor didn’t catch that.)
All in all, I absolutely recommend this book as what should be required reading for all who are involved in sports or sports media, whether male or female, player, coach, executive, media or fan. Pick it up; you won’t regret it.