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Myisha Cherry Headshot

Why Women Are Not Taken Seriously in Sports Conversations and What We Can Do About It

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A woman walks into a bar on a Monday night. She is not there to meet friends or her lover or to drink the night away. Rather, its NFL football season and her favorite team is playing. While at the bar there are flat screen televisions broadcasting the game and soon she finds herself surrounded my men, strangers to each other but yet cordial and comfortable with one another enough to agree and disagree with each other about sports plays when necessary. When a touch down happens, some yell while others groan. After key plays and during commercial breaks, these fans become amateur sports analysts as some argue against the decision of the coaches and others for the brilliance of the players. Emotions are high and football jargon and assumed expertise is being thrown around.

It is in this space that the woman feels comfortable. She loves football, watches every game of her favorite team, understands the game of football, and has enough football knowledge to offer rational opinions and to critique others' commentary. However, when she decides to join in on the conversation at the bar, she quickly notices that she is not listened to as the other men are. Instead her critique is dismissed.

Guys assume her opinions are arbitrary, only repeated information from SportsCenter or that she is only interested because the players are cute. They do not take her seriously as someone who is knowledgeable about football and as a result they do not take her sports opinion seriously, no matter how rational it may sound. The reason is not because of what she says but because she is a woman.

Although some may disagree with my judgment and ask that I produce some statistical, empirical evidence to back this claim up, to some, particularly women sports fans, this experience sounds all too familiar. As a former college basketball player and basketball fanatic who literally watches all 82 games of Miami Heat basketball every season, I have had the same experience as the woman in the bar. When I go to watch and talk sports with men, I am not taken seriously initially and sometimes not at all no matter how sound my arguments are. Or I find that what I say is considered more speculative than what men say. As a result, I find myself asserting myself in conversations, being extra argumentative, and quoting stats as if it was an ESPN Numbers Don't Lie episode just so I can at least be heard and sound convincing. It's annoying, makes me feel invisible, and I always feel treated unfairly because I am a woman.

So how is this sexism and not merely ignorance on the part of the men? Philosopher Miranda Fricker has a concept she refers to as epistemic injustice. For Fricker, epistemic or testimonial injustice occurs when a hearer (men at the bar), because of prejudice, do not take a speaker (woman sports fan) as seriously as they deserve to be. What makes this a "bad" thing is when a hearer does this they are guilty of not respecting or affirming the dignity of the speaker instead the speaker has been undermined as a knower.

As individuals we all have certain kinds of knowledge. Part of our uniqueness as people is being able to be rational and to share knowledge. Also, opinion formation is a combination of not only knowledge but also our reflection and critique embodied in what we call our perspective. This is unique to us as individuals.

When we share knowledge and are dismissed not because of what we say but because of who we are, our individuality is disrespected and dignity withheld. So when someone refuses to listen to my opinion because I am a woman, African-American or a certain age, the offense is not because they did not listen to my knowledge per se, rather it is because they did not listen to me. This experience not only harms me, but the hearer loses out on an opportunity to hear true and useful information.

We must remember people are not knowledgeable because they are men or white or rich. Neither are people smart because of certain racial or sexual biological features. Rather we acquire knowledge through study and experience. What make us credible are not our biological features but the actual knowledge we possess. So what makes Stephen A. Smith a good sports analyst is the knowledge he has cultivated between his ears, not because of the presence of what's between his legs.

This type of epistemic injustice not only happens in bars but in boardrooms and classrooms everyday. When a woman offers an idea up at work she is at times immediately dismissed, but when a man offers the same idea up it is considered brilliant. When a minority offers an intellectual critique in a classroom they are considered arrogant or irrational but when a person in power or of another race says it, people listen up.

So what should we do if we find ourselves dismissing the sports knowledge or any kind of knowledge of another because of someone's identity? We should remind ourselves that everyone deserves the chance to be listened to.

Fricker recommends that we practice giving high levels of credibility to groups you fear you give low levels to. For example, if we are honest, some of us are more prone to read a sports article written by a man than one written by a woman. Fricker would suggest we try to give a higher credibility to that woman writer, since implicitly we have already given her less for no reason other than because she is a woman.

I would also suggest that we should remember that sports are not about penises but about X's and O's. Those X's and O's can be learned by anyone. This applies to other fields of knowledge as well.

And what should women do when they find they are not being taken seriously because they are women? I would suggest for them to keep speaking anyway. Sometimes dismissals are a form of silencing. The more you continue to speak the more you fight against silencing. Also know that you have a right to be a part of the conversation, although you may not feel welcomed.

In addition, as hard as this may sound, I would not take it personally. I would not take it as a lack of your ability to know or communicate but as their lack of ability to understand because of their prejudice.

Most importantly, I would suggest you make a complaint and contest it. This is in no way to make a scene or to turn a sports event into a feminist rally. However, you should contest the act in order to put a name to the injustice and to make the hearer aware of what they are doing. The more aware they are of what they are doing perhaps they will begin to change their habits.

As far as the media is concerned, it has come a long way with women and sports. ESPN has a fair amount of women's representation. Jamele Hill is my favorite. However, I think its important to have more women as sports analysts of men sports and not merely as interviewers, anchors or experts at women's tennis and women's basketball. What this will show is that women have knowledge and an opinion to offer about sports in general and not merely or only when it concerns women specifically.

I hope that these steps will make it so that when "a woman walks into a bar" for a sports event, it will no longer sound like the beginning of a joke but an opportunity for us to practice taking what people have to say seriously regardless of their gender, race, or social standing.

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