Line Change: It’s Time To Do Away With Female Sports

Female is a scientific term referring to the sex of a species that can bear offspring or produce eggs.

Using this definition, why do we refer to athletes as ‘female?’

It doesn’t make sense, and it’s time to do away with the use of the word female when referring to women in sport.

We’ve made the mistake ourselves in the past dubbing Male and Female Athletes of the Year. We are sorry and sincerely apologize for our ignorance in the use of these exclusionary terms.

Of course this issue also involves the use of “male” as well, but we don’t often hear ‘male hockey player,’ it’s typically only ‘female hockey player’ that comes up in coverage and classification.

The use of the word female reduces athletes, and humans to their reproductive parts. It also ostracises a population of gender-nonconforming people, transgender people, and other non-menstruating women. Female can also refer to any species. It’s not a term reserved solely for humans.

So what should we be saying? Woman or Women.

A woman refers to a human being.

Look at the heading below from an NBC Sports article, titled NHL Players: Marie -Philip Poulin is the world’s best female hockey player.

It is dehumanizing to one of the best players on the earth to relate and tie reproduction to hockey ability. It might not be the intention of the author, but it is the result.

The article has other issues. First, in a world where men’s hockey leagues and players are overanalyzed at every step, the method for deciding the best hockey players in the world who are women, is to let men vote? Yikes.

But the article begins with the “female” faux pas.

It steps it up a level by referring to Marie-Philip Poulin as the “female Sidney Crosby.”

In this manner, the term is used to imply inferiority.

No one writes an article referring to Sidney Crosby as the reproducing male version of Marie-Philip Poulin.

Language matters.

Even media outlets, who typically show savvy in inclusive language like Canada’s own CBC make these mistakes. Take this June 2020 Article.

And with language in mind, female is an adjective, not a noun.

For example, you can still use female to describe a group of biologically female women.

But you can’t use the term female to describe all women, because reproduction is not what makes someone a woman.

Woman and women are nouns. Making even the use of a phrase like “women athletes” grammatically frightening. Linguistically, it makes no sense. It’s another error we make all the time on CKSN, and will be working to correct.

When we use woman or women as an adjective, it is demeaning to all women, as we’ve effectively stripped women of agency, or attributed their personhood to something else.

Let’s look at Amanda Kessel for example. How many times has Amanda Kessel been referred to as Phil Kessel’s sister, compared to how many times Phil Kessel has been referred to as Amanda Kessel’s brother, in identifying them to others in media.

Take a look at this horrific article from ESPN, stating Amanda Kessel’s accomplishments, and then saying “of course, she’s also the sister of Pittsburgh Penguins winger Phil Kessel, which adds some name value.”

It goes on to tell that Kessel is addicted to coffee, and that she loves to shop.

While we have a long way to go in terms of inclusive language on many fronts, let’s start by getting rid of female from our sporting vocabulary.

After that, let’s refer to women in sports by their names, and accomplishments, not by their brothers, reproductive traits, or the variety of demeaning descriptors used.

Whenever we publish an article like this, we inevitably get the “stick to sports,” or “keep politics out of sports” comments (first nothing in this article relates to politics and everything in this article in fact relates to sports…but that aside…). Trust me, we’d love to stick to sports. So let’s all work together to make change on issues impacting people in sport, and create a space where all humans are truly and freely invited to participate in sport safely, with their personhood intact.

Line Change is an article series produced by through the contributions and consultation of various authors and academics, looking at social issues in sport. The series, which aims to open discussion with sports fans, will focus on issues of inequality, and serve as a portion of our anti-oppression education and reporting. Line Change will look at issues related to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, socioeconomic divides, and much more, as they relate to sport and athletics.

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