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April 20, 2012

A major hidden ideology that runs through sports and that affects all women participants is the need to appear feminine, according to research that I've conducted in the United Kingdom. My study leads me to conclude that the fight to gain equality in sports will mean addressing the enforcement of a heterosexual norm.

Sport, of course, is based on rules, norms and values. These exist not only on the field, court or track, but in attitudes about sexuality, gender, (dis)ability, ethnicity, religion, class or age. Women coaches in the UK talked to me about their professional experiences and personal stories, including issues that affect their sense of self. They described the constraint they feel from trying to conform to hidden rules and practices.

One of those hidden rules, according to the interviewees, is appearing "feminine." Femininity is often a code word for "heterosexuality." In the case of sports, heterosexuality is institutionalized as the status quo, and sexism and compulsory heterosexuality create the pressure to portray feminine images and behavior, regardless of one's own sexual orientation. This hidden standard affects women in sports at all levels -- whether athletes, coaches, officials or administrators.

Media sexualization of women and the pressure on women involved in sports to appear as "real women" means wearing make-up, appearing and acting feminine. Some researchers blame homophobia in sports for the need to present heterosexual images. Driven by fears of being labelled as lesbians, women athletes seek to project an over-emphasized heterosexual, feminine image.

But the (hetero)sexualization of women athletes keeps women in their place, whether they are playing or coaching in "male" sports or ones considered more "feminine appropriate." Compulsory heterosexuality and the sexualization of women are very effective tools in the treatment of women athletes as second-class citizens and they also diminish women's talents as athletes and coaches.

The process also becomes self-perpetuating and, ultimately, self-defeating. Historically, women have occupied a marginalized position in sports. To combat this, the profile of women in sports needs to be raised. However, the only method seemingly available is the promotion of the sexuality of the women athletes themselves, appealing to an audience that is male-dominated.

The coaches that I interviewed often supported this dynamic by forwarding their most "feminine" and "attractive" players for media interviews, photo shoots and other opportunities to represent their sport. By offering this form of "female apologetic," the coaches complied with the hidden rules of sport. But these actions also undermine transformative action, which will require a conscious recognition of the reasons for women's oppression.

What is needed to bring about change is a deeper education about the historic struggles of women and the current efforts in society to challenge the ideologies that suppress women. One way to do this is through curricula for coaches so that they can learn to champion women as strong and able athletes.

In the United Kingdom today, current education for coaches contribute to the elitist, sexist and unequal culture of sport by focusing on scientific and technical concerns. But coaches should be studying social justice, ethics and the sociocultural elements of sport. Coaches should know how their methods of practice, both implicit and explicit, can affect the sports environment, and they need to be conscious of marginalized groups and the interacting forces of that can serve to oppress them.

Sociocultural education will also benefit athletic performance. Coaches who apply social justice education will enhance the attitudes of athletes in their programs. The result will be improved performance through greater satisfaction, commitment, team cohesion and overall enjoyment in training and competing. It will also enhance the world of sport, building upon an ethic of care and self-actualization.