Women athletes continue fight for equality in male-dominated sports

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UFC hopeful Leslie Hernandez breaks out in the strawweight division at Phoenix Mixed Martial Arts Lab, where she currently holds a 1-1 record. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Hernandez)

PHOENIX — Stepping into the world of track and field can present daunting challenges for women. Whether their dream is to play for financial gain or to pursue a career out of passion, inequalities are often encountered between male and female athletes on many levels.

For decades, powerful and rebellious women have confronted these issues head-on in male-dominated sports like mixed martial arts, football and soccer. Women are held to higher standards than their male counterparts due to unequal pay and funding, fewer opportunities, and less judgment about their size, age, and sexual orientation. Skill is never enough for a female athlete to succeed and command respect. They need to work extra hard while balancing every aspect of a woman’s life.

“We’re going to fight for a seat at the table, and we’re going to stay at the table,” said Jillian Sowell, founder of the Phoenix Women’s Rugby Club. “We’re here. We’re not going anywhere. So pay us fairly.”

no cents

Rugby’s history of creating a rich culture between teams extends far beyond what happens on the field. For many teams, this looks very different between men and women. While there is a bond and cohesion for women, they spend more time raising money in creative ways to sustain their programs.

“We’re really good at adapting and overcoming (adversity). You don’t want to give us money? No problem. We’ll go sell jelly, shake it, and pile up the bill,” Sowell said. “You either choose to stick with it and show love for the game or you don’t…you just have to be creative. And I feel like women in sports have to be creative masters.”

Phoenix rugby player Jessica Carpenter has played on the women's team since its inception in 2019.  (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rugby Club)

Phoenix rugby player Jessica Carpenter has played on the women’s team since its inception in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rugby Club)

Although rugby as we know it today has been a men’s Olympic sport since the 1800s, women were not allowed to participate until it was canceled in 1924 and reapplied for the 2016 Games. The Olympics sanctioned Team USA almost two decades after the first Women’s Rugby World Cup in Wales in 1991, when they beat England to the title.

As football quickly became one of the most popular emerging sports in the United States, more and more women joined and formed teams. However, women still have less access to financing than men. Of the 58 universities in the United States that offer college football programs, 43 women’s teams and 35 men’s teams. Despite sending eight more teams, the women’s team received $1,000 less scholarship than the men’s team.

“In college, there’s a big disparity in funding between the men’s team and the women’s team,” said Jessica Carpenter, a player on the Phoenix women’s football team and a University of Arizona alumnus. “Even if we’re all (in) the exact ()same sport, same club, under the same leadership.”

UFC hopeful Leslie Hernandez, who trained at the Phoenix MMA Lab, knows the financial difference can be daunting when trying to achieve her dream. Knowing that wages will never be the same as men’s, Hernandez juggles her career pursuits and owning two businesses while also taking care of her family and home, taking training 2 to 3 times a day.

“I think sometimes women work harder than men. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it,” Hernandez said. “I know I’m going to make money, and I probably won’t make as much money as a man, (but) a woman, they always have to be head to toe.”

Hernandez expressed her frustration at not understanding what forces spectators, promoters and administrators to favor men’s combat sports. Women and men follow the same regimen — from training to diet and weight loss — but arrange opportunities differently, not to mention income.

Dustin Poirier and Charles Oliveira join Amanda Nunes and Juliana Pena in the star-studded main event at UFC 269 in December 2021 . While Pena’s shock upset over Nunes grabbed the headlines, Poirer’s and Oliveira’s payouts were estimated at $1 million and $1.5 million respectively, while the The combined payouts for Nunes and Pena totaled more than $1 million.

“You don’t look like a football player”

UFC’s Cortney “Cast Iron” Casey also trained at the MMA Lab in Phoenix, and her career skyrocketed. Beginning with Tuff-N-Uff, one of the largest mixed martial arts amateur organizations in the United States, she was quickly drafted by the UFC after a short stint in amateur combat before quickly moving overseas to compete in the Extreme Fighting Championships (XFC) and Pacific Extreme Fighting (PXC).

UFC's Cortney Casey maintains a 10-10 professional record at lightweight at Phoenix's Mixed Martial Arts Lab.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

UFC’s Cortney Casey maintains a 10-10 professional record at lightweight at Phoenix’s Mixed Martial Arts Lab. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Casey’s quick success still hasn’t given her an advantage over her male colleagues, who outnumber women on pay-per-view fight cards and the main event scene. It’s also trickier to get sponsorship when it’s “sex-trafficked” — a tough pill to swallow for women who place their bodies in the octagon but are expected to expose their bodies outside the ring.

“The chances are different, let’s put it that way,” Casey said. “Our chances of getting sponsorships are more (about) sexualizing ourselves, which I don’t do … You have to adjust your morals to get that.”

The Underwear League kicked off its inaugural season in 2009 after a controversial halftime performance in the 2004 Super Bowl. Later renamed the Legacy League, the women ditched their football shorts and jerseys for underwear and bras, and spread themselves out in front of stands filled with “football fans” and TV spectators. However, the concept of underwear football isn’t as dry and boring as it might appear on the surface.

“At first glance, I thought it was all about exploitation. You know, sex is a big sell, so the less you wear, the better it will be,” said Sareli Utley, a player on the Arizona Outkast women’s football team. “After hearing the point of view (from a former underwear league player), they did it because they felt (like) it was the only way to get attention.”

The most common problem with the Lingerie League is that women feel they have to take off their clothes to get the same spotlight as football men. Negative images can lead girls to think it’s their only option, Utley added.

Women also experience various forms of body shaming, but the negativity increases significantly for women in sports, who work harder to use their bodies to sell their image. Whether appearing too big, too small, too thin or too big, women are rarely accepted as athletes independent of their image.

“You don’t look like a football player,” were just a few words heard by Payleigh Behan of the Phoenix women’s football team.

In addition to body image expectations, women are expected to retire earlier than men. The traditional view of women as stay-at-home wives and mothers is carried into sports, and critics fail to understand or ignore that women can be family-oriented and family leaders.

“Women are fragile. They can’t do those types of things. They’re not as strong as men,” says Arizona Rangers player Stacey Maydahl. “Women are made differently, but we are 10 times stronger than men because we can reproduce and they cannot.”

work overtime

Before UFC president Dana White said in 2011 that “women will never fight in the UFC,” Strike Force was one of the first major opportunities for women to earn a spot in the main event. Less than three months after White’s statement, Endeavor, the UFC’s parent company, purchased Strike Force.

“It’s challenging … because we’re a female fighter, a small percentage of fighters,” Casey said. “Not to mention we have far fewer weight divisions.”

Of the 1,053 active fighters listed on the UFC website, only 161 are women, about 15 percent of the total. There are eight different weight classes for men and four for women.

It wasn’t until 2012, after almost 20 years in the UFC’s run, that they signed their first woman, Ronda Rousey, to a contract. Only one women’s bantamweight (135 pounds) made the cut during UFC 157 in 2013, when Rousey and Liz Carmouche became the first women to compete in the UFC.

Unlike the UFC, women’s soccer has a longer history dating back to 1926, when women scrimmaged in the half court of NFL teams such as the Frankford Yellowjackets, Dayton Triangle and Columbus Panhandle. The 2000s marked the development of the Women’s Soccer League (WFA), the United States Women’s Soccer League (USWSFL) and the Independent Women’s Soccer League (IWFL) as the only three 11-on-11 women’s rugby leagues.

The WFA hosted its first season in 2009, hosting 30 football teams from across the country. WSFL and IWFL production has dropped significantly, further reducing opportunities for women’s soccer programs.

“Women, we have to work 10 times harder to do anything when it comes to equality,” Utley said. “You know, we’re still fighting for that goal.”

Arizona Outkast operates under the WFA as part of its Division 3 program, which is home to 29 other teams and hosts 122 teams across the country. Players are made up of longtime football fans who never got the chance to play in high school or college.

Arizona Outkast running back Jazmyne Reining cuts through the defender, her eyes on the end zone.  Outcast is one of 30 teams in Division 3 of the Women's Soccer League.  (Photo courtesy of Sareli Utley)

Arizona Outkast running back Jazmyne Reining cuts through the defender, her eyes on the end zone. Outcast is one of 30 teams in Division 3 of the Women’s Soccer League. (Photo courtesy of Sareli Utley)

“We (athletics) probably do better (than the men),” Medal said. “Have you ever watched women’s basketball or women’s soccer? We’re more competitive and brutal than those guys.”

With flag football taking off among high school girls in the Valley after the Arizona Interscholastic Association approved the sport last year, Arizona Outkast sees women’s soccer staying on for the next 10 years, which will bring big changes to women’s soccer .

“There’s nothing a girl or a woman can’t do. We can do a lot of things that guys and boys can do,” said Arizona Outkast player Chan Ellis. (There is) no gender. When it comes to sports, we can do all sports like them (they). “



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