The Inequitable Intersection of Gender, Nationality, and Socio-Economic Status in Sports

soccerballThe parade is over. The media has moved on to analyzing Serena’s body. The discussion about equity in women’s professional sports was hot and heavy but seems to be waning after the U.S. women’s soccer team won the 2015 FIFA World Cup in Canada. The issue of women’s sports being less valued and less viewed than men’s sports is not a new issue. The 1972 Education Amendments to Title IX have been credited with raising awareness about the issue of equity for women in athletics. According to the last NCAA Gender equity report (2008), more women are participating in athletic programs, but at the college level the amount spent on women’s athletics is still less than, about half (including coaches’ salaries) what is spent on men’s programs. The Title IX legislation is necessary, it is great, and is helping. Title IX however only applies to colleges and universities in the United States. What about the non-collegiate international picture?

I am passionate about issues related to the advocacy, equity, justice, and inclusion of women. As a woman of color I am greatly concerned with the growth and development of women’s teams in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. At the moment based on the number of FIFA affiliated teams and qualifying teams for World Cup, North America and Europe dominate FIFA. Soccer is the third most frequently offered college sports program for women in the U.S. (basketball is first and volleyball is second). According to the Confederation of African Football, Africa has 54 associations/teams affiliated with FIFA. 17 of those nations had women’s teams participate in the 2015 World Cup qualifier tournament. Only the Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Cameroonian women’s teams qualified for the FIFA World Cup and only Cameroon advanced past the first round. In 2014, five African men’s teams qualified to go to the World Cup in Brazil (Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria). Only one African nation has ever hosted a World Cup (South African in 2010) and no African nation has ever won a World Cup tournament.

The Cameroonian women played with great heart! They were the first African women’s team to make it to a FIFA Round of 16 (in 1986 Morocco was the first African men’s team to reach the Round of 16). It is an awesome achievement. Most of the U.S., Canadian, and European women play for U.S. teams, Canadian teams or for the bigger European teams. Of the twenty-three women on the Cameroonian roster only one of them plays in the United States (Ajara Nchout for the Western New York Flash). Four players, including Ngono who scored the first Cameroonian goal in the tournament play in France. The other eight women play in Slovakia, Romania, Russia, Finland, Belarus, and Sweden. From the countries for which the Cameroonian women play only their home country, the U.S., France, and Sweden qualified for the 2015 World Cup. Six Cameroonian women play for teams whose national team did not qualify for the World Cup, four of those teams have never qualified for the World Cup (Slovakia, Russia, Finland, and Belarus). The lack of opportunities for the Cameroonian women to develop their soccer skills and showcase their talents is representative not only of the lack of equity for women in Africa but also of the lack of equity for many women’s and men’s teams in countries without enough resources and socio-political clout to develop further.

FIFA’s website has a tab that links to their development programs described as “…focusing on four main areas of football development – competitions, management, education and promotion. This includes the Live Your Goals campaign launched in 2011 to inspire more young girls and women to get involved in football.”  On paper the development programs’ mission and goals are exactly what needs to be said about the promotion of women athletes.  The same can be said for the FIFA global development programs which provide support for men’s teams also to “improve the state of the sport worldwide”.  However, when the parent organization and some nation affiliates are struggling with corruption, when some of the participating nations’ men’s teams are under-developed, and when the hype of women’s sports victories lasts a week at best how can the Cameroonian women’s soccer team or any other women athletes stand a chance of gaining equity?  What will it take for women and other under-represented populations to gain international athletic opportunities and recognition so that the playing fields can be equal? Who will address the inequitable intersection of gender, nationality, and socio-economic status in international athletics?

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