Sunday, March 13, 2022

Who is your favorite (female) athlete?

As I distributed the viewer's guide for the film Venus Vs., I asked the student in front of me: Who is your favorite female athlete? He went silent. I paused and said "let me rephrase that. Do you have a favorite athlete?" Without hesitation he said "Aaron Donald." I looked at him again and said "that doesn't surprise me. Now is there a female athlete you admire?" I continued to ask the class, in search of a good answer...any answer.

Really? Ronda Rousey?!

We celebrated International Women's Day at Saint Francis with a program: In Celebration of 50 Years of Title IX. Student unable to attend came to class to view Venus Vs. This movie is the first one in ESPN's Nine for IX—a series of documentary films produced and aired by ESPN to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Venus Vs. is the story of Venus Williams’ ground-breaking actions, which served as a springboard for radical change within tennis...and beyond. 

I delight in sharing this documentary with my class because Venus is one of my favorite athletes. Furthermore, it raises great questions about the gender pay gap, hegemony, social class, equality, racism, justice and shed further light onto Title IX—the amendment passed to ensure gender equality in American college sport. By the end of the film, I hope my students will have an answer to the question I kept asking.

I didn't want to embarrass anyone, and yet I wanted to make a point: Why aren't we naming more female athletes among the GOATs? This question led to others: Do female athletes get the media attention they deserve? Why is it that so many people cannot name a female athlete they admire? Should we even make the distinction between male and female athletes? 

Serena Williams challenged this distinction. As written on The Cut "One reporter asked Williams, “There will be talk about you going down as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. What do you think when you hear someone talk like that?” Williams responded, “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time." Just to be clear, Serena's comment isn't about what pronouns a person prefers—it is a call to look at all of sport. Is she right? 

In light of International Women's Day and the celebration of the history of women throughout the month of March, this is not an easy question to answer. But I have one...both/and.

I too believe Serena Williams is BOTH one of the greatest athletes of all time AND one of the best female athletes. Ever. 

If playing one another—and they have throughout the entire lives, I cheer for Serena over Venus. Though I love Venus' long strokes, her class and grace, I prefer Serena's game. It's pure physicality. Though she stands 5'8" to Venus' 6'1" frame, Serena has an unsuspecting weapon she uses frequently: her flexibility. Both women are equally resilient when it comes to the mental game. They calculate every play and their composure is steadfast. Venus and Serena are relentless in exposing their opponents' weakness(es). They truly rank among both the greatest in the game of tennis and of women's tennis. Both/And. Now are they my favorite athletes? They are certainly among them. 

Is this a nuanced debate for sports fans? Sure. But what GOAT debate isn't. I welcome your barstool...and I want men and women there. Yes, International Women's Day is "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women," but there are men to recognize and thank along the way. Richard Williams might be a good one to include.

Photo Credits
Women Athletes

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