NPR commentator Frank DeFord today asked why women in individual sports more often get widespread public attention (and favorable media coverage) than do women in team sports.
Deford contrasted the recent hype around Olympian Lindsay Vonn, tennis star Serena Williams, and racing driver Danica Patrick against that surrounding the UConn women's basketball team to support his thesis that we're generally not willing to support women in team sports.
Deford is right -- women who play in team sports in the U.S. generally don't reach the same kind of "star" status as those who play in individual sports such as tennis. But the issue is more than whether women compete as a team or as individuals.
Team sports are usually contact sports, and that's the bigger issue, I think. Women in sports that involve varying degrees of contact -- from the individual sports of boxing and wrestling, to team sports such as basketball -- challenge traditional ideas about femininity. And that's why they don't get the media attention or public attention they might otherwise deserve. (Danica Patrick, who participates in a highly masculine, contact (car-to-car) sport, gets attention primarily because of her foray into a men's arena. Would we expect that an all-female auto racing circuit would get much media coverage?)
Sports like figure skating, gymnastics, tennis, skiing and snowboarding don't challenge gender norms for women nearly as much. To varying degrees they support them, from an emphasis on aesthetics in performance to the allowance for athletes to dress in feminine attire when they participate in these sports.
And that makes many people far more comfortable watching -- and cheering for -- these athletes.