Women's sports includes amateur as well as professional sports.
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- This undervaluing is nowhere more evident than in the media coverage of women’s sports. According to one study of sports television coverage in Southern California, women and girls account for over 40% of athletes, yet they receive less than 4% of the coverage on news shows. The study’s authors—Cheryl Cooky, Michael A. Messner, Michela Musto—found a “stark contrast between the exciting, amplified delivery of stories about men’s sports and the often dull, matter-of-fact delivery of women’s sports stories.”
- Carrie N. Baker, Emma Seymour, Andrew Zimbalist, “Female Athletes Are Undervalued, In Both Money And Media Terms”, Forbes, (Apr 10, 2019).
- [T]he participation of women and girls in sport directly challenges gender stereotypes and discrimination, and therefore can be a platform for promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. This can, and ultimately will, reshape attitudes toward women’s capabilities as leaders and decision makers, especially in traditional male domains . . . I would not be the person I am today without the skills, training, and self-confidence I gained from my participation in sports.
- Judi Browne Clarke in Barbara Kotschwar, "Women, Sports, and Development: Does It Pay to Let Girls Play?", Peterson Institute for International Economics, (Mar. 2014) Kotschwar, supra note 10 at 9., https://www.piie.com/publications/pb/pb14-8.pdf
“BRIEF OF OVER 500 WOMEN ATHLETES, THE WOMEN’S NATIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, THE NATIONAL WOMEN’S SOCCER LEAGUE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, AND ATHLETES FOR IMPACT WHO HAVE EXERCISED, RELIED ON, OR SUPPORT THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO ABORTION AS AMICI CURIAE IN SUPPORT OF RESPONDENTS”
David A. Barrett, Joanna Wright, Lauren Goldman, Lindsey Ruff, Boies SchIller Flexner LLP; (September 20, 2021), THOMAS E. DOBBS, MD., M.P.H., STATE HEALTH OFFICER OF THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, et. al., Petitioners, v. JACKSON WOMEN’S HEALTH ORGANIZATION, et. al., “BRIEF OF OVER 500 WOMEN ATHLETES, THE WOMEN’S NATIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, THE NATIONAL WOMEN’S SOCCER LEAGUE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, AND ATHLETES FOR IMPACT WHO HAVE EXERCISED, RELIED ON, OR SUPPORT THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO ABORTION AS AMICI CURIAE IN SUPPORT OF RESPONDENTS”
- Amici believe that, like themselves, the next generation of women athletes must be guaranteed bodily integrity and decisional autonomy in order to fully and equally participate in sports. These constitutional protections supported the extraordinary accomplishment of American women in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, where they won nearly 60% of Team USA’s world-leading 113 medals. Were these rights to be abrogated, Amici understand firsthand that women’s participation in athletics would suffer, including because some women athletes would not be able to compete at the same level—or at all—without access to abortion care and without the knowledge that the decision whether to continue or end a pregnancy remains theirs.
- Athletics “have become part of the fabric of America. ”Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n v. Alston, 141 S. Ct. 2141, 2168 (2021) (Kavanagh, J., concurring). Women’s ability to “participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation”—including through high school, collegiate, and professional sports—“has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” Casey, 505 U.S. at 856 (plurality opinion). Absent the right to access safe and legal abortion care, and the ability of “the woman to retain the ultimate control over her destiny and her body,” id. at 869, women’s sports would not be the enormous success they are today. Among other reasons, women’s ability to participate and excel in athletics would decline, severely impairing the vitality of sports in the United States. Further, women and girls would be deprived of the multitude of collateral benefits that result from athletic participation, including greater educational success, career advancement, enhanced self-esteem, and improved health.
Athletic prowess depends on bodily integrity. The physical body is a critical tool for athletes, and its condition determines elite athletes’ futures and livelihoods. High school and collegiate athletes use their bodies not only to compete, but also to secure higher education through recruiting opportunities and athletic scholarships that may be otherwise unobtainable. Professional athletes use their bodies for their livelihoods, including to access lucrative sponsorships and advertising opportunities. Amici depend on the right to control their bodies and reproductive lives in order to reach their athletic potential. Indeed, Amici are united in their belief that the physical tolls of forced pregnancy and childbirth would undermine athletes’ ability to actualize their full human potential.
- All athletes—men and women—have a narrow window of time to achieve their greatest athletic potential. This reality is magnified for women athletes for whom childbearing age coincides with their competitive peak in athletics. If the State compelled women athletes to carry pregnancies to term and give birth, it could derail women’s athletic careers, academic futures, and economic livelihoods at a large scale. Such a fundamental restriction on bodily integrity and human autonomy would never be imposed on a male athlete, though he would be equally responsible for a pregnancy.
- Participation in sports generates myriad benefits for girls, women, and society at large. Athletic participation is associated with positive educational outcomes, including better attendance, higher grades, fewer disciplinary issues, a greater desire to go to college, and higher advanced placement enrollment rates. Girls who participate in sports are more confident, have higher self-esteem, and better body images. These trends are “especially striking among girls from minority groups, who appear to experience greater social and economic mobility, more confidence, and even more personal safety if they have participated in sports.” Indeed, girls who participate in sports may realize even greater academic gains than do boys.
An “overwhelming majority of women executives (82%) had participated in sport at one time in their lives beyond the elementary school level.”
- Women executives credit sports participation with preparing them for professional success, including being more disciplined than others (86%); having leadership skills (69%); having the ability to deal with failure (69%); and having a competitive edge (59%). As Olympic swimming champion Donna de Varona emphasized: “Competition— celebrating wins, surviving losses, requiring teamwork, rewarding persistence, resilience and discipline, these are the experiences we need in leaders and these are the experiences they gain in sport.”
Finally, “encouraging women in sports isn’t just good for women and good for business, it’s good for countries.” Not only is support for women’s sports associated with stronger women—it is also associated with stronger economies. Research from the Peterson Institute found “that investment in girls and sport has significant development payoffs and contributes to economic growth overall” and “if we were to empower women in our economies, according to McKinsey research, we could add an astounding $12trn to the global economy by 2025.”
- See Ponts, supra note 18. TheWomen’s Sports Foundation reported a ten-fold increase—from 4% to 40%—in the number of girls playing sports. See Women’s Sports Foundation, Title IX and the Rise of Female Athletes in America (Sept. 2 2016), https://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/education/title-ix-and-the-rise-of-female-athletes-in-america/ (“Before Title IX, one in 27 girls [4%] played sports. Today that number is two in five [40%].”)
- Footnote 19, p.13
- Women’s ability to participate and excel in athletics— and to enjoy the enormous resulting benefits—has dramatically increased in the last fifty years. In 1971, before Roe was decided and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) was enacted, see 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681-1688, Pub. L. 92-318, Title IX (June 23, 1972), less than 500,000 girls participated in high school athletics, and well under 50,000 women participated in intercollegiate athletics. By 2018, however, nearly 3.5 million women participated in high school athletics, and over 200,000 participated in intercollegiate athletics. By 2018, women comprised 44% of NCAA student-athletes.
Women’s increased participation in sports creates network effects at all levels of athletic competition. More women competing means more women pushing each other forward and raising the bar for athletic achievement. That, in turn, creates a wider pool of elite women athletes to represent our colleges and our country in sporting events. In the 1972 Olympics in Munich—before Roe was decided and Title IX took effect—“American women won 23 medals compared with 71 for the U.S. men. The women didn’t win a single medal in gymnastics and had no golds in track and field.” By the London Olympics in 2012, women athletes “outpaced their male counterparts” for the first time, winning 58 medals compared with 45 for men. The 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games were the third consecutive Summer Olympics in which U.S. women won more medals than U.S. men, and in which women outnumbered men on the U.S. team. Simply put, American women excel at the highest levels of athletic competition because of constitutional and legislative protections ensuring women’s rights to equal opportunity and access to organized sports.
- The demands of athletics and pregnancy are physically and emotionally intense. If women were to lose the agency to make individual, personal choices as to if, when, and how to balance these competing demands, many will be forced to sacrifice their athletic aspirations and pursuits. Compelled pregnancies would allow the State to “conscript women’s bodies into its service, forc[e] women to continue their pregnancies, suffer the pains of childbirth, and in most instances, provide years of maternal care.” Casey, 505 U.S. at 928 (Blackmun, J., concurring). Often this will be at the expense of women’s athletic careers, as well as their educational goals and professional livelihoods. Such “governmental intrusion” is “unique to the [woman’s] condition,” id. at 851–52, as only women’s bodies are essential for both athletic participation and pregnancy and childbirth. Depriving women of the opportunity to make autonomous choices about how to use their bodies—a matter “of the highest privacy and the most personal nature,” id. at 915 (Stevens, J., concurring)—would gravely harm equality in athletics, and elsewhere.
- The physical realities of pregnancy inevitably affect women’s ability to participate and excel in athletics for a minimum of nine months during pregnancy, as well as the additional time required to recover from giving birth and to breastfeed, for those who choose to do so. The decision whether to take on the challenges of pregnancy and athletics simultaneously must be left to the individual athlete to determine, rather than to the State.
- The decision to become pregnant, thereby risking long-term health and career consequences, involves “the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.” Casey, 505 U.S. at 851. The decision belongs to the individual to make. Forcing athletes to bear the unknowable risk of when and whether their bodies will recover from pregnancy and childbirth would violate their most fundamental liberties.
- Even though some women might be physically able to return to their sport post-partum, the competing demands of parenthood can continue to impede their ability to pursue athletics. When reflecting on her choice to return to racing shortly after giving birth, Olympian Kara Groucher said: “It took such a toll on me mentally and physically, for myself and my child . . . Returning to competition so quickly was a bad choice for me. And looking back and knowing that I wasn’t the kind of mother I want to be— it’s gut wrenching.” Kara Groucher made the difficult decision to try to meet the demands of parenthood and sport simultaneously, but not all women athletes want— or are able—to make that same decision.
- In short, elite athletes—men and women—must dedicate tremendous time and physical and emotional energy to their sport. Pregnancy and parenthood require comparable dedication, if not much more. Not all athletes decide to do both at the same time—particularly because for many athletes, a pregnancy would upend their athletic careers.
- The rigor of elite athletic competition, requiring constant training, with athletes pushing their bodies to new limits daily, is an all-consuming physical, mental, and emotional task. For women’s athletics to continue to thrive, women must maintain the freedom to determine when and how to dedicate their physical abilities and mental energy—to sports, pregnancy, or both. Without “the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child,” Casey, 505 U.S. at 851 (citation omitted) (emphasis in original), women’s ability to fully and equally participate in athletics would inevitably deteriorate.
- Jodie Grinham, a para-Olympic silver medalist, explained the complexities of timing a pregnancy while aspiring to participate in the Olympic games, which occur only a handful of times during an athlete’s career:
I don’t get maternity cover for my career; no- one is going to be able to go and compete and shoot for me.
In order to have a baby, I’d need to have it the year after a Games year, or going into the European year, so I can recover—because I need to be back the year before a Games year to win a quota place to then get ready for the Games.
The concern I’ve got is if I don’t follow that structure and have a baby at the wrong point, then I’m showing that my career isn’t the priority. Why would I be selected? If I was going out partying every weekend, I wouldn’t be seen to be a committed athlete. For me, if I decide to have a baby a year before a Games, then I’m not committed to going to the Games. We have four months and if we can’t do it in four months then we wait four years!
- The complexity behind the “right time” to have a child also arises for high school and collegiate athletes, since they have only four to eight years to take advantage of the immense benefits of organized sports. For a student-athlete, being pregnant, taking the necessary recovery period, and having likely-changed physical capacities— as well as the realities parenthood would impose on a student—could easily derail not only her potential athletic career, but also her future educational and professional opportunities. See, e.g., Casey, 505 U.S. at 928 (Blackmun, J. concurring) (“Because motherhood has a dramatic impact on a woman’s educational prospects, employment opportunities, and self-determination, restrictive abortion laws deprive her of basic control over her life.”).
- If forced to carry pregnancies to term, many women would have no choice but to sacrifice playing their sport—a sacrifice not required of their male counterparts, despite their equal role in engendering a pregnancy. Absent the right to access safe and legal abortion care, women’s ability to participate and excel in athletics would inevitably decline and the movement toward gender equality in sports would reverse course.
- The right to bodily integrity and decisional autonomy is of heightened concern for women athletes who become pregnant from sexual violence. If forced to carry their rapist’s child to term, these women would not only be forced to make the same physical, emotional, and athletic sacrifices that would be required of all athletes who would have to endure compelled pregnancies, but they also would be re-traumatized by the repeated deprivation of control over their bodies—not only by their assailant, but also by the government. This intrusion can be acutely devastating for an athlete, given that control over her body is inextricably linked to her identity, career, and educational pursuits.
The prospect of forced childbearing is particularly poignant for collegiate athletes, given that nearly one in five women are sexually assaulted during their time in college.
- Access to safe and legal reproductive healthcare— whether women actually use the services, or rely on the knowledge that they are there—can be critical to a woman athlete’s ability to physically and emotionally recover from a sexual assault.
- Women’s increased participation and success in sports has been propelled to remarkable heights by women’s exercise of, and reliance on, constitutional guarantees of liberty and gender equality, including the right to reproductive autonomy. Continued access to, and reliance on, those rights will empower the next generation of girls and women to continue to excel in athletics and beyond, strengthening their communities and this nation. If women were to be deprived of these constitutional guarantees, the consequences for women’s athletics—and for society as whole—would be devastating.