We Are No Birds: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: The Gendering of Sports Fandom

Last weekend, I took my boyfriend to his first Washington Capitals hockey game. As we wandered around the concourse looking for pre-game snacks, we were stopped by a twenty-something young man who appeared to be there with his girlfriend.

“First time coming to a game,” he said, referring to himself. “Quick question. What does the A stand for? Assistant, or Alternate, or something?” He pointed to the “A” on the front of my boyfriend’s jersey.

“I have no idea,” my boyfriend said with a shrug. Without missing a beat, I stepped in. “Alternate,” I told the man. “It means ‘alternate captain.’ He stands in when the captain isn’t able to fulfill his duties.”

“Oh, okay,” the man said, maybe surprised that I was the one answering. He turned back to my boyfriend. “So number eight, that’s Ovechkin, right? And he’s the captain?”

I told him he was correct. When he asked if I was also wearing an Ovechkin jersey, I told him no, I was wearing the jersey of someone who no longer played for the Caps. I spun around and pointed to the last name on my back. He thanked us for our help and we went our separate ways.

I didn’t think much of the interaction at the time, other than being excited that I was able to show off my hockey knowledge. Thinking back on it now, I realize how wonderfully it illustrates the microcosm that is being a female sports fan.

Sports fandom, regardless of the sport, is incredibly gendered in favor of straight men. From how fans interact with each other to how teams market merchandise, sports fandom works within highly-specified gendered lines. For starters, men are always assumed to know more than women about sports. Like many other fandoms, this leads to gatekeeping before women are “allowed” to be fans of a sport. Women are subject to a kind of relentless quizzing by men that other men aren’t to “prove” their status as “real” fans. Additionally, a number of stereotypes exist to delegitimize female fans. Perhaps the most prevalent of these is that women only watch sports out of heterosexual desire, either for the players themselves or as a means of impressing other men they may be attracted to.

Let’s look at some examples. Marketing is an especially good indicator of social norms and values. When we see advertisements featuring sports, they always contain a cast of mostly (if not entirely) men. Men are expected to be both the producers (players) and consumers (fans) of sports. When the Super Bowl rolls around, for example, there are countless advertisements targeted toward men to buy beer and chips for the game. These ads depict groups of male friends gathered on a couch around the TV to watch The Game together. I capitalize The Game because we don’t even have to be talking about the Super Bowl: how many ads do we see throughout the year that feature the same thing?

In-game experiences also have a tendency to be gendered in favor of straight men. Many hockey teams still employ “ice girls” to clean the ice during commercial breaks in skimpy outfits. Melissa Geschwind sums up the issue well: “No teams have half-dressed men shoveling the ice, nor would anyone expect them to. Why should they? There are plenty of places for gay men and straight women to go for that kind of thing, and a hockey game just isn’t one of those places.” In other words, a professional sports area in a male-defined, male-targeted space.

Let’s revisit the interaction I described earlier. Even though we were both wearing “A” jerseys (and thus theoretically able to answer his question), this stranger chose to ask my boyfriend his question rather than me. Although it became clear after this first question that I knew more about hockey than my boyfriend—he did not know what the “A” stood for but I did—the stranger did not direct his second question to me. Does that make him sexist? No, not necessarily. In fact, he did not display any of the gatekeeping methods that male fans often do: he did not tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about, nor did he belittle me for stepping into the conversation. He took the information I provided him as truth.

Interestingly, though, this man had never been to a hockey game before. He may have watched on TV or been to other sporting events, but he had not been to a game. This means that to some degree, this man was not well entrenched in hockey culture and all of the social norms I mentioned earlier. And yet, despite this, he still chose to question my boyfriend instead of me. I think this speaks to how deeply gendered sports fandom is.

Why do male fans choose to ‘gate keep’ and exclude female fans from sports? There are a number of theories. The most obvious is that they may feel women’s entering and enjoying a male space threatens their masculinity. If sports are something that only men are supposed to like, then what does that say about men if women like sports? Esmonde, Cooky, and Andrews take this theory one step further: “…Sexuality is always present in sport, but it seems that only men’s heterosexuality, which is simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible, is acceptable. This serves to exclude women sports fans…and erases the highly erotic aspects of athleticism while upholding sports as a masculine space. Furthermore, this hyper-sexualization of women displaces the homoerotic tension that men experience in the act of consuming sport as fans, wherein the male gaze is directed at men, not women.” Most men, of course, do not consciously think this way. And telling people how they can watch sports and participate in fandom is still gatekeeping, even if it is with egalitarian intentions. Even so, any fan should feel free to watch sports without fear of criticism or harassment—or for being ignored as a possible fan in the first place. Anyone interested in the sport, from those that know every piece of obscure trivia to those who have never even been to a game, ought to be included and listened to. Isn’t that what sportsmanship means, anyway?

Works cited:

Esmonde, Katelyn, Cheryl Cooky, and David L. Andrews. “‘It’s Supposed to be About the Love of the Game, not the Love of Aaron Rodgers’ Eyes’: Challenging the Exclusions of Women’s Sports Fans.” Sociology of Sport Journal, vol. 32, 2015, pp. 22-48.

Geschwind, Melissa. “The Institutional Sexism of NHL Ice Girls.” https://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/the-institutional-sexism-of-nhl-ice-girls-184301561.html.