“Female Empowerment” Enables Women’s Sports Leagues to Perpetrate Harm

Framing women’s sports as a morality play masks the ways they can perpetuate the same old systemic violence.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Content warning for a brief mention of sexual misconduct and abuse.

The National Women’s Soccer League — the professional league for arguably the most popular women’s sport in America — has been in an ongoing meltdown for most of its 2021 season. As Alex Azzi chronicled in this helpful if dispiriting timeline for NBC Sports, four of the NWSL’s ten teams have seen their head coaches exposed for offenses ranging from sexual coercion, as in the case of former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, to racism, as former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke was accused of, to emotional abuse. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned two weeks ago as more and more reports kept coming out. 

Heads are rolling, but the rot at the core of this and so many other sports leagues looks as entrenched as ever. The NWSL’s players, in the midst of fighting for their first-ever collective bargaining agreement with owners seemingly intent on stonewalling them, are understandably incensed. “Burn it all down,” Megan Rapinoe tweeted amid the fallout — a familiar refrain when it comes to the racist heteropatriarchy in 2021 (and the name of a great podcast) that, especially in light of recent events, is a lot less exaggerated than it might sound.

The NWSL, and the WNBA, and the NCAA, and just about every other organization that hosts women in competition for profit all draw from the same marketing well, presenting their work as a benevolent effort intended to help women — a moral good that will inspire the next generation, or something.

This is a lie.

They stage women’s sports to make money, and the idea that watching and caring about women athletes gives you some kind of ethical high ground helps them do that. Nothing about these organizations on a structural level is different from their counterparts on the men’s side; as a result, the same kinds of abuses of power and collateral damage from pursuit of profit persist — even through their shiny ladies-first glow. 

We will not escape the problems like those currently plaguing the NWSL until we accept that the veneer of “female empowerment” only protects those who would abuse that same power. The very idea of “female empowerment” is patriarchal, insisting on replicating the toxic hierarchy of a broken system; it is fitting, then, that it has become such a convenient rallying cry for the establishment.

What NWSL players are rallying for, and what those watching them must support, is solidarity in the place of hierarchy. Women’s professional sports require building from the ground up anyway — why don’t we dare to imagine something completely different? Maybe a system that puts players first, that prioritizes healthy and safe environments to play and practice and spectate above everything else — one that lives the promise of creating equality right now instead of insisting that it’s just around the next bend. They are not martyrs for the next generation, inspiration for a change that still feels so far away.

Women athletes, and women, and people, deserve fairness and respect this minute.