Taylor: The land of the free, the forefront of women’s sports

April 8, 2013, 11:29 p.m.

Sometimes it’s hard to see prejudice or lack of access to opportunity quite so clearly when it’s not really personal. I’m white, I’m male, I’m middle class, and I grew up in a comfortable part of a first-world country. The struggles that I’ve faced have been unfortunate and tough, but none were predicated on my place of birth or my DNA.

But last summer my brother and his girlfriend had their first child, a girl, technically my niece even if I refuse to accept that I’m old enough to be an uncle–I will never be that old. Living on the other side of the world means I still haven’t met the kid, and I have to admit being slightly scared by small children. But as I started to write my feature for The Daily’s women’s sport series, due out this Friday, suddenly I realized I had a stronger connection than ever before to this issue.

Last year’s U.S. Election seemed a little crazy to this impartial observer, especially with respect to the issue of women’s rights. For all its many flaws, it made me feel good about my own home, the U.K. How could such basic human rights be challenged in a modern, open and free society?

But when I look instead at equality in my chosen field of interest–sports–I have to admit feeling far less comfortable about the U.K. when it comes to the issue.

Title IX has no equal back home, perhaps in large part because college sports there are virtually nonexistent. With perhaps the lone exception of the rowing teams of Oxford and Cambridge, the idea of varsity sports just doesn’t really exist. Unless you’re on one of the many club teams, you would never care about that specific team. They’re not on television, they get no appreciable funding and no one gets an athletic scholarship to go to school.

Talented athletes don’t, as a general rule, go to universities–why waste several years of your professional career getting a degree?

As a result, after high school, women’s sports are left to the mercy of this professional world, which doesn’t exactly have a good track record in acceptance of new sports.

In the US, even the biggest and most important sport on this planet–soccer–has struggled to gain its place alongside the Big Four. Vice versa, none of America’s favorite pastimes have managed to eke out more than a specialist niche in the U.K.; the indigenous sports–soccer, rugby union, rugby league and cricket, to name but a few–are just too popular and too powerful.

However, the key difference between these two countries is that the U.S. college system provides, effectively, a professional outlet for amateur high school players. As a direct result of Title IX, it also generates a huge number of professional women athletes, making it much more likely that professional women’s leagues can build a following and compete on talent and ability with the men’s.

The WNBA, while being considerably smaller and poorer than its older brother, the NBA, has still operated as a professional league since 1996 and recently signed a new TV rights deal with ESPN that will bring in $1 million per team annual

The same cannot be said of U.K. professional sports, which remain a distinctly male affair. There are flashes of equality every time the Olympics roll around, but even the highest level of women’s soccer in England, the Women’s Super League (WSL), remains just semi-professional.

Where the WNBA draws in average crowds over 7,000, the WSL struggles to pull in even 700.

It is easy in such an environment to be unintentionally and unconsciously sexist, and I will hold my hand up and admit my own personal guilt in that respect; until stepping foot on U.S. soil, I had pretty much zero interest in women’s sports. Luckily, though, Stanford’s Athletics Department showed me the error of my ways.

But too many back home haven’t yet seen that light and too many girls growing up with athletic ambitions will never be given the chance to succeed. The Land of Opportunity for women’s athletes is the United States, and any dreams of athletic stardom are American Dreams.

Tom Taylor’s niece shrieked the first time she saw him on Skype. If you have the same reaction when you see his mug shot in the paper, email him at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.

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