The rise and struggle of women in sports in the 1990s

It is the most famous sports bra in history. No one really remembers the score, or who scored those other goals, but they definitely remember that bra. Brandi Chastain was not trying to overshadow her U.S. teammates when she took off her shirt to celebrate her winning World Cup goal over China in penalty kicks on July 10, 1999. It just happened.

You probably read that Chastain “stripped” or “tore” or “ripped” off her shirt. A moment of pure glee turned into a sexy statement, not female empowerment. The U.S. women were champions of the world, and all anyone could talk about was a boring, black undergarment. They deserved better, and pundits would say as much in the days to come, pointing their fingers at Chastain.

Women in sports made great strides in the 90s, but you wouldn’t know it if you picked up a newspaper during that time. Tennis player Anna Kournikova managed to become the unofficial face of women’s tennis without winning a tournament because of her sex appeal, but the WNBA was largely ignored because it didn’t have any. The media coverage of the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team emphasized how the squad was all about teamwork, but that all changed when Chastain took her shirt off. Suddenly, all anyone could talk about was her sports bra, not what she (or her teammates) did on the pitch. Despite the gains made by successful female athletes in this era, women were forced into two categories: hot or not, no matter their talents.

How could Chastain take a moment of American glory and make it about herself? Did she have some sort of deal with Nike? It must have been for money. That was the thinking after her infamous celebration. It wasn’t conceivable that a woman could view herself on par with the men. That would destroy everything.

The media often described Chastain as boisterous, loud, and exuberant. This isn’t to say that Chastain isn’t any of these things, however, it’s no coincidence that a woman who challenged our idea of gender norms (in sports, no less) is described as a pain in the ass.

But it was also the crux of the problem: The idea that the only reason she took off her shirt in that game was to get male attention. Forget that we’d seen men do it hundreds of times on television, this was different. Because she’s a good-looking woman, any small movement or sneeze should be perceived as an Act of Sexiness.

Essentially, Brandi Chastain single-handedly ruined America in 1999. But the real problem of female perception in the 90s started much earlier, with the WNBA’s struggle to be taken seriously.

It was 1997, and the new professional women’s league was going to do things differently. Instead of focusing on sex, the players were presented as ...well, real women, for once. It was argued that this was just a different kind of sexism by implying that all women are mothers, or interested in family. But uniforms don’t lie: The WNBA made sure they wore similar uniforms as their male counterparts. The league wanted to focus on the athleticism of female athletes, and their clothing on the court consisted of baggy shorts and loose jerseys. That is equality. That is switching it up. That is considered progress in that era. And that didn’t fly. Finally, they had their own place to play. But they were never accepted, never treated like real athletes. Imagine reading something similar about Michael Jordan or Karl Malone:

“The vast majority of WNBA players lack crossover sex appeal. That's just the way it is. Some are uncomfortably tall and gawky, while others lack the requisite, um, softer qualities to captivate males between 18 and 35. The baggy uniforms don't help. Neither does the fact that it's tough for anyone to look attractive at the end of a two-hour basketball game,” ESPN columnist Bill Simmons wrote in 2006, nine years after the WNBA’s debut.

“Then again, maybe these realities don't matter as much as one would think, because Sue Bird is downright adorable -- even when wearing Rip Hamilton's Schnozzaroo -- and I wouldn't watch 10 minutes of a WNBA game because of her. If Sue was walking around at the ESPYs in a cocktail dress, I'm watching. If she's running a pick and roll with Lauren Jackson, I'm flicking channels.”

Forget skill: If you don’t look good while doing it, just don’t do it at all. The 90s looked like they were going to open a door of possibilities for the next generation of female athletes, but even in 2014, they struggle to be taken seriously.

"I hate how they try to use sexy on us," WNBA rookie Brittany Griner said about the league’s potential new uniform changes. "Like that's the only way women can get people to watch our sport or see anything we're doing. You'll never hear a guy say, 'I gotta be sexy.' You'll hear a guy say, 'I gotta go hard, be raw, be fierce.'"

Perhaps the WNBA players of the 90s could have learned something from the media’s coverage of tennis star Anna Kournikova. She was one of the most recognizable women in sports during that time period, but not for what she did on the court. Lindsay Davenport won three Grand Slams in this decade, but Kournikova was on a beach in Spain, so who really cares about tennis. It was one of the few sports featuring women that appealed to a broader audience, but the conversation was often steered towards hemlines and short skirts.

But even today, with the treatment of track-star-turned-bobsledder Lolo Jones, who was torn apart by the media for no other reason that she happened to be beautiful and one of the fastest hurdlers on the planet, you can see that no one really learned from the slut-shaming of the 90s. It’s still alive and well: Women are fragile, and should be treated with kid gloves compared to the men of sports. ESPN released their Body Issue just last week, featuring prominent athletes in various states of undress. Everyone lauded Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder for his risque (yet powerful) cover shoot, but the women were placed in your typical soft, feminine poses.

It’s clear that two decades later, we still harbor the same idea that female athletes fit into one box. Being mind-numbingly gorgeous and a great competitor is not mutually exclusive.

Wearing baggy shorts does not make her less of a woman. Taking off her shirt in a moment of passion does not make her an attention whore. No one expects male athletes to have the same cookie-cutter personalities, so let’s actually learn from our mistakes over the past 25 years, and start treating female athletes like they belong.

The rise and struggle of women in sports in the 1990s
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