Compliance and Coachability: On the Problem at the Heart of Women’s Sports Culture
Lauren Fleshman Examines the Enduring Inequities Facing Women Athletes
Today women make up 40 percent of the athletes in the United States but receive only 4 percent of the sports coverage, about the same as it was thirty years ago. The front page of the sports section is more likely to feature a male sports fan than a professional female athlete. Less than 1 percent of endorsement investment in professional sports goes to women.
So, it’s not surprising that until 1996, when the Olympics came to Atlanta, I had never watched pro women’s sports on TV. The modern Olympics has a structure that is amenable to promoting and showcasing gender equity, should a sports network choose to. There is a women’s and men’s version of nearly every sport, and it is common to see coverage of both in succession.
Many women’s and men’s sports share one governing body, like track and field and swimming, and marketing rights are often sold as a package to sponsors, eliminating the economic reasons to push one sex more than the other in the broadcast. Olympics coverage in 2021 had a remarkable 58 percent of coverage dedicated to female athletics.
The rest of the quadrennium, not so much. A USC/Purdue University study that examined sports coverage on three LA network TV affiliate stations and on ESPN from 1989 to 2014 found that only 3.2 percent of highlight shows were devoted to women’s competition in 2014—and no, it didn’t get better with time. The percentage actually declined over twenty‑five years, even as participation rates in girls’ and women’s sports rose.
But men’s sports? Those were always dominating the living room in my home, turned up loud enough to accommodate my dad’s table saw–induced hearing loss. Football, basketball, and baseball marked the seasons more reliably than the Los Angeles weather. We had the Atlanta Olympics on for hours every day.
For two straight weeks I saw women and girls mixed into the coverage. In the pool. On the diving board. Carefully placing their manicured fingernails on starting lines of the track. When my dad saw one woman walk out to the track, a middle‑distance star, a blond, white woman with a big laugh and a Crest smile, he sat up straighter and said, “Most of them are dogs. She’s smokin’ hot.”
I paid attention to which women got camera time. Which women had stories told about them. Which women were featured in the commercials. They were pretty. They were nice. They smiled. They put effort into presenting themselves. The Olympics was a reliable avenue for a female athlete to become famous, and I wondered if I would grow up to be pretty enough or charming enough to be celebrated if I qualified. I ran my tongue over the gap in my teeth.
Still, the biggest global sports spectacle in the world had women in it, and that was exactly what I needed to see. My favorite sport to watch was gymnastics. Perhaps it was because the athletes were teenagers like me. Perhaps it was because I had loved gymnastics the one time I got to try it, but the fees were too expensive to make a habit of it. But mostly it was the gymnasts’ skill—the mind‑blowing tricks they did with their bodies. The way they seemed to fly. The micro‑control over every movement on the beam that made me twitch reflexively. The precision. The high stakes while all those eyes were on them.
I remember wondering why the girl gymnasts wore leotards when the boys wore loose‑fitting shorts or pants. Wouldn’t the leotards go up their butts? Before and after their routine, they smiled at the judges. But when they were in action, they were pure power, explosive, total marvels.
Kerri Strug became a household name that summer, just three years before I’d find myself dancing next to her at a frat party in college. The all‑around team competition was at its climax. Kerri busted her ankle on the first vault, clearly injured. Her coach talked to her, and she limped out for another try. The announcers seemed worried. Everyone seemed worried. I was worried. I asked Mom, “Why aren’t they stopping her?” She came and stood beside me to watch.
While Kerri Strug was encouraged, as she had been thousands of times before, to ignore her animal instincts and her well‑being and perform that final vault, I watched along with the rest of the world. I watched her hop on one foot on the landing, saluting the judges and then collapsing in agony. I watched her get scooped up like a child—which she was—by her coach, Bela Karolyi, who was proud of his girl.
You’ve probably seen this clip. It’s in the highlight reel of all‑time Olympic moments of inspiration. I would study it in a Sports and Society class at Stanford a few years later. And it’s a moment that’s representative of how we talk about the ideal female athlete. All my life, that sports highlight has been played with the musical score of a superhero movie, when it should have been played to the soundtrack of Saw.
When the Larry Nassar case was revealed and documentaries about all the abuse showed up on Netflix, it became clear that many of the gymnasts who seemed to be living the dream were living in hell. The Karolyis reportedly shamed them for their weight and controlled what they ate, creating an environment where girls were eating toothpaste to satisfy their starvation response. Compliance was expected in all circumstances: You don’t decide when you’re hurt, Coach does. A medal for your country is worth any price.
A culture of compliance leads to disassociation from yourself, from your body’s signals of hunger, fatigue, and pain. Today, when I see that highlight video of the 1996 USA gymnastics team, I see Kerri’s incredible determination and skill, but I also see my friends and peers and countless women from lots of different sports who’ve shared their stories with me.
I see the years of hard work required for reintegration of the self, relearning your body’s hungry and full cues, relearning to trust yourself when your body says slow down or stop, relearning to trust yourself when a practitioner like Larry Nassar says he needs to put his fingers in your vagina to help with your sprained ankle. Over five hundred women and girls were sexually abused on Larry Nassar’s treatment table. A culture of compliance and coachability muted the alarm bells going off inside the minds of countless parents and other adults who could have intervened.
The message to me at fourteen was that compliance, coachability, and even beauty might be more important than health and safety. As I watched the gymnastics team hold their bouquets, medals draped around their necks, it became clear what it took to be beloved.
Excerpted from Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World by Lauren Fleshman. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company.