The photograph of Muhammad Ali flexing over a fallen Sonny Liston is one of the most famous in sports history. The moment, and the image, are iconic, sold in every format imaginable, while also helping mythologize an athlete, a sport and even an era.
I hadn’t thought much about this photo, or sports photography in general, until a year ago when I stumbled upon the work of Lynn Johnson, who in 1998 had intimate access to the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. Johnson had captured dozens of photos of Summitt that I’d never seen before, which was surprising. Like most girls’ basketball players who came of age in the 1990s, I have a deep affection for (read: mild obsession with) Summitt.
My favorite Johnson photograph is a ground-level shot of Summitt in a crouch, a full arena at her back. I wanted a high-quality print for my office, signed by the photographer, numbered. If I wanted to mythologize Summitt the way Ali had been I’d need to search the image online, license it, send it to an online print shop, reach out to Johnson for a possible signature, put the print in the mail … well … you get it.
When you’ve made a life, as I have, of considering the place of women’s sports in our society, you assume you’ll eventually run out of insight. But there it was, anew: Ah, I’ve found another piece of the puzzle of what limits the growth of women’s sports.
Some of the differences between the way men’s and women’s sports are represented are absurdly obvious: the hours of bombastic TV coverage, the expensive ad campaigns, and the spectacular halftime performances. But others, like this realization, are more subtle: Time, instead of adding to the luster of women’s sports as it does men’s, erodes it.
One generation to the next, we’ve heard the stories of Babe Ruth and Jim Thorpe, of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Jesse Owens. These stories are told, and retold, passed down through movies and documentaries and photography. They made us feel like we’re connected to something bigger than ourselves because they allowed us to believe that maybe someday we’d be present for an iconic moment when we can point to a photograph on the wall and say, “You see that picture there — I was there when that happened!”
The history of men’s sports is uninterrupted mythmaking, the kind through which momentum is created. We can see the lineage that connects one player or coach to the next until we arrive at present day. James Naismith invented basketball and was hired to coach this new game by the University of Kansas, where he had on his team Forrest “Phog” Allen, who would then go on to coach Dean Smith, who then coached the University of North Carolina and Michael Jordan, whose résumé is regularly compared with that of current N.B.A. superstar LeBron James.
Take a second to think about those connection points, how they flow into one another and create something larger. The Kansans who began following Dean Smith, who maybe then fell in love with a young Jordan, who maybe then tuned in for his career with the Bulls, maybe now watch the N.B.A. to see if anyone will ever be as good. (Blasphemy, they say!)
Most women’s sports, if you search long enough, also have a rich history — it just hasn’t been metabolized into trivia, and it certainly hasn’t been uninterrupted. Did you know that in England, the Football Association (the F.A.) effectively banned women from playing soccer from 1921 to 1971? Or that here in the U.S., women’s college basketball began, to much coverage and fanfare, with a game between Stanford and Cal at the San Francisco Armory in 1896, only to be later shut down (“for the good of the student’s health,” ’twas written at the time) by the leadership of Stanford? Most programs didn’t start again, or begin for the first time, until the 1970s, and couldn’t find momentum — there’s that word again — until the ’80s and ’90s.
That is, if they found momentum at all. And by “momentum,” I mean the threads that tug fans along and create generational inheritance in sports. Why is there a certain level of fame and prestige that comes with putting on a New York Yankees uniform? Would we agree it has more cultural currency than, say, wearing a Miami Marlins jersey? (Sorry, Marlins faithful.) And could that difference be roughly summarized in one word: history? Time creates a kind of supreme hierarchy in the men’s sport; imagine how much the lack of that hierarchy impacts women’s sports.
Of the many explanations that exist for why men’s sports are more popular than women’s, the most prevalent is that men run faster and jump higher. Ergo, men are more exciting to watch. This isn’t a meritless argument; it’s just simplistic and incongruent with — and this is just one of many examples — our obsession with the Little League World Series.
What we don’t consider often enough is how stealthily men’s sports intertwines with history. Teams (and players) become time capsules for eras: the Michigan Fab Five and the rise of street fashion, or baseball’s Ted Williams representing the service and sacrifice of The Greatest Generation.
In other words, nostalgia. And nostalgia is a byproduct of history. Actually, more precisely, nostalgia is a byproduct of shared history. Maybe, just maybe, the issue isn’t an athlete’s vertical leap, but rather the rapid decaying of women’s sports history — its much quicker half-life.
Most people talk about the 1999 Women’s World Cup as the pivotal moment for the U.S. Women’s National Team. As if, after that, it was a straight line upward. But that isn’t true. We forget, or never knew, that 12 years later, in their send-off match before the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Red Bull arena was only half filled and the players could sense that the rocket fuel of ’99 was gone, that they were running on fumes. A few weeks later, when the team was trailing Brazil late in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals (potentially its earliest-ever exit) it seemed the program would be back at square one. In fact, it took one of the most stunning moments in soccer history — a soaring, last-second header from Abby Wambach on an epic cross from Megan Rapinoe — to resuscitate the team.
For a men’s team, one World Cup victory earns you immortality; for the women of the U.S., three gets you a shot at stability. To borrow a line from Jay-Z, women’s sports is always trying to reintroduce itself. Or rather, being forced to.
But should it?
The today of women’s sports is exceptional. Just spend a few minutes watching the University of Iowa star Caitlin Clark inside a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena, or Chelsea Gray of the Las Vegas Aces shimmying free for a jumper. (It is most likely true, of course, that women’s sports have always felt exceptional to the women playing, if not to the culture writ large.) The project now is preservation, which will lead over time to mythicization.
I may never get my Pat Summitt limited edition print, but I recognize that for a generation previous to my own, there’d have been no photos of her at all. And the good people of Knoxville, Tenn., they even get a statue.
Kate Fagan is a journalist and author of What Made Maddy Run and Hoop Muses.
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