Opinion: It is non-negotiable that we must increase school spirit for female athletes

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Emma Lord/ The Occidental

Female athletes face a double standard in sports. Commentators often say they either appear too aggressive or aren’t entertaining enough — both critiques demonstrating how women’s sports always exist in comparison to men’s. Fans and sports organizations dictate which teams are commercially successful through viewership, fan rivalries and coverage. In college, this success is often promoted by school spirit in the form of tailgates, spirit wear and rowdy student sections. However, the discrepancies in attendance widely differ for women’s teams versus men’s teams, including here at Occidental. One has to wonder: is it due to the men’s game purely being more entertaining, or are subconscious social norms influencing our attendance?

Before the pandemic, Saturdays at Occidental usually consisted of packed cement bleachers, and fans adorned in tiger face tattoos and choreographed heckles at opposing teams’ sideline players. Once the school made the decision to cut the football team, men’s basketball and soccer became frontrunners for the weekly game to watch. According to Occidental Athletics’s crowd attendance page, men’s basketball games round up an average of 142 spectators, as compared to the 91 spectators at women’s basketball games. For soccer, men’s games saw an average attendance of 306 attendees, while women’s soccer retained an attendance of 87 fans.

There is no argument to be made that the women’s game must align to the physicality and aggression we see so often in men’s games. Women’s sports and men’s sports are related, not parallel. Perhaps the lack of school spirit for women’s sports can be attributed to our subconscious, internalized dissatisfaction with women excelling in sports. This is evidenced by many prolonged versions of seemingly unconscious gender bias in the sports industry. Soccer players on the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) spearheaded a movement calling on the soccer industry to equalize pay. Their motto, “Equal Play. Equal Pay,” symbolizes the root issue of women in sports: the constant need to prove themselves in order to gain equal recognition. If women’s sports at the highest professional level are not seen as equal and do not gain the same traction as their male peers, it is callous to assume a small Division III institution like Occidental will challenge that narrative.

I have been guilty of going to whatever sports games are better suited to my schedule. I do not always make the effort to equalize my viewing time between women’s and men’s events. Although I would always rather support and uplift fellow female athletes at Occidental, I have to put in twice the amount of effort to rally crowds at women’s games. At the men’s basketball games this semester, student-athletes and non-athletes alike can be heard poking fun at opponents in the stands, heckling male players for their clearly inaccurate roster height or superstitious free throw rituals. In men’s soccer games, unruly penalties and general physicality are met with approval in the roaring stands. At women’s games, it is rarely anyone else but other female sports teams seeing and appreciating the game at hand — and they are often more reserved in their heckling and cheering.

My favorite game I have attended this year was the women’s basketball game Feb. 5 against CalTech when the team went into a five-minute overtime, ultimately losing, but not without a daunting fight. The stands were electric, with students banging their feet on the bleacher plastic, accompanied by nervous fans covering their mouths in astonishment. I participated in “you can’t do that” and “hey ref, your phone is ringing with that missed call” chants, alongside the entire lacrosse team. An overtime game is a pure show of equal competition, unwavering athleticism and undeniable grit until the bitter end. Sure, a men’s game that went into overtime would have been exciting, too, but uplifting women in sports and showing school spirit for less-attended games felt incredibly necessary and monumental. All athletes know, you better impress when people come to watch your game, and the better attended that game is, the better you play. Therefore, not only are you improving your overall sports knowledge, but your attendance could have a direct impact on the energy and results of the game.

I urge you, if nothing else, to show support for both men’s and women’s games. Get excited at women’s sports games when baskets and goals are made, and heckle the opposing team’s female athletes just like you do male athletes. Sports are a space for shared experience across identities. So ask yourself why you are more inclined to attend a men’s game, if the only difference is a rulebook. Attend women’s games because you want to, not because you “feel bad” or there is “no other option.” And remember, you as the spectator, determine the crowd’s energy and which games are viewed as popular to attend. We each have the ability to choose which games to go to, so support as many women’s teams as you can. You just might find yourself impressed to see how dynamic Occidental female athletes can be.