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Opinion: Why women in sports matter

The wait is over.

Basketball is back at the Curb Event Center complete with foam fingers, cheerleaders and a court full of talented athletes.

Students fill the stands eager to cheer on basketball standouts Nick Muszynski, Adam Kunkle and Grayson Murphy.

What often goes unnoticed is the game played before the men takes the court. A game of grit and determination. A game played on the same court.

A game played by women featuring three preseason All OVC Bruins players.

Ellie Harmeyer, Maura Muensterman and Maddie Wright have all the accolades, but most students at Belmont don’t recognize their names.

Last year, the women’s basketball team drew only 1,350 average viewers per contest. The men’s team brought in nearly twice as many.

And it’s not like the women’s team is losing games; in fact, they’ve done the opposite, winning the OVC Tournament four out of the last five years, following a 31-game win streak within conference play.

Belmont women’s basketball has seen outstanding players like Darby Maggard, Jenny Roy, Salley McCabe and Kylee Smith pass through the program, building a culture that expects success.

More than just effective, the women’s team is dynamic, said Heather Copeland, assistant athletic director for compliance.

“It is important to me to support our women student-athletes because they are fun to watch, they are competitors and they are successful in the classroom and as athletes,” said Copeland.

So why is attendance so low? Two factors stand out: a lack of awareness and a cultural hesitation to value women’s sports.

Many students miss a women’s game simply because they were not sure when it was going to be played. Now, this wasn’t a failure on the university to advertise the event, but instead a failure of fans to seek out the information and understand why they should go.

“The awareness aspect of things is important, because a lot of people say they would have come to a game if they would have known there was one going on,” said senior women’s forward Harmeyer.

This lack of awareness is a manifestation of a larger problem: sexism in athletics.

Discrimination based on gender in sports is real; ask almost anyone and they will tell you that they don’t think it’s as exciting a game, and that the athletes aren’t as good.

Tell that to Maggard. If there’s a basketball award, she owns it.

Darby Maggard celebrates fourth OVC title (Carina Eudy/Belmont Vision)

The struggle to get fans in the stands for women’s games isn’t solely a Belmont issue. From the University of Kentucky to Iowa State, schools have problems with student attendance at women’s sporting events, said Xavier Humphrey, director of athletic marketing and promotion.

“Even at the biggest Power 5 schools, student attendance at games has gone down. If I knew how to crack the code, I would,” he said.

It’s disappointing that we live in a culture that doesn’t value, celebrate or compensate women athletes at the same rate as men.

It’s a shame that when students at Belmont talk about going to a basketball game, the assumption is it’s to watch the men.

It’s frustrating to the women who see fans walk in the Curb the last minutes of their game to catch the first play of the next.

“Seeing people in the stands of our games makes it all the work we put in worth it. It validates all that we do and go through,” said Harmeyer.

Ultimately, women’s sports matter.

Sports have often been a microcosm for what’s happening in our society.

Athletics has provided athletes with a platform to illuminate injustice. Take for example outspoken women’s rights activist Megan Rapinoe and the US Women’s National Team. The team has taken on US Soccer and made equal pay an international issue. 

And then there’s Simone Biles, the most decorated female gymnast of all time. She courageously joined the chorus of other women who took a stand against Larry Nassar, the doctor who molested scores of young gymnasts.

Sports have given women the power of voice. It’s a voice that has been hard to obtain.

But now that they have it, shouldn’t we honor it and show up to games?

Shouldn’t we support the women who play just as hard as their male counterparts?

If we want to bridge the gap of gender discrimination in sports, shouldn’t it start here, with the fans?

This article written by Ian Kayanja.

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