If you need an example of just how deeply rooted sexism remains in sports, take a look at a word frequently omitted from league names, tournament descriptors, and media coverage: “men.”
Society continues to treat men’s sports — often referred to just as “sports” — as the norm, with women’s sports relegated to a lower tier.
The YWCA of Canada is highlighting this ingrained gender bias with a new campaign that launched in March. Dubbed “Add the M,” the campaign asks people to consider the way men’s sports are continually treated as the default by “adding the M” to the logos for the NBA, NHL, MLS and PGA, the four largest North American sports where there is a comparable women’s league.
“When men’s sports are treated as the default for all sport, women’s sports get left out of the conversation,” Canadian soccer player Christine Sinclair said when the campaign was launched. “It’s time to add the M to shift perception and create change.”
Adding the ‘M’ doesn’t just challenge gender norms. It can also makes sports coverage factually correct.
The idea for the YWCA campaign was sparked in September 2021 after Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo became the top international scorer in men’s soccer history by scoring his 110th goal. Despite the fact that Ronaldo broke the men’s scoring record – Sinclair has the overall record with 189 international goals – many organizations (including UEFA) failed to include the word “men’s” when describing Ronaldo’s achievement.
Even today, when you Google “top international goal scorer soccer,” the first result is Ronaldo:
Men’s sports being centered as the norm is a widespread issue and the omission of the “M” is even more problematic when the organization leaving the letter out is the same one overseeing both the men’s and women’s events. Here is a partial list of sports organizations where this practice is currently in place:
Ice Hockey (IIHF)
United States Golf Association (USGA)
While many leagues, governing bodies, and federations have the excuse that the men’s version of the event has been around longer and has thus always had the default non-gender-marked name, the resistance to adding an ‘M’ is still telling.
It was only this year that the NCAA added the word “Men’s” to the “Men’s Final Four” in basketball and “Men’s College World Series” in baseball. (Of course, the comparable women’s event in both basketball and softball has always included a gender modifier.)
The term for this is “asymmetrical gender marking,” according to Purdue University professor Cheryl Cooky, who has written about the role media plays in further perpetuating this unequal language.
Rather than waiting for the “M” to be added, some women’s sports have instead removed the “W.”
In 2019, World Rugby announced that it would remove the word “women’s” from the World Cup competitions in order to match the name of the non-gender-marked (men’s) World Cup.
While this move was seen as progressive, it should be noted that World Rugby isn’t typically considered a leader in the field of gender equity. A recent report from the Women’s Sports Foundation compared the governance of each of the 33 international federations that oversee summer Olympic sports. World Rugby ranked second-to-last in women’s representation, with just one woman serving on the organization’s 12-member executive committee. The organization has also come under fire for its outright ban of transgender women, considered the most exclusionary policy of any international sports federation.
The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) also opted to “remove the W” when it was rebranded from the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) in 2021. In addition to lifting the gender modifier, the name change was also a way of distancing the organization from many previous negative headlines that occurred under the NWHL umbrella.
There is also Athletes Unlimited, which was founded in 2021 and has organized women’s pro tournaments in basketball, softball, volleyball, and lacrosse.
In general, sports and competitions that feature men and women competing at the same event on the same days tend to be the most equitable, both in terms of calling men’s sports “men’s” sports, but also in terms of equity in resources and prize money. For example, many of the sports that lead the way in providing equal (or mostly equal) prize money (surfing, alpine skiing, tennis) feature events where women and men compete side-by-side. They also have comparatively long track records of referring to men’s events as “men’s” events.
On a smaller scale, some organizations have “added the M” unofficially.
This week in Germany, the best male hockey players under the age of 18 are competing. But because they are men, and because the tournament is organized by the IIHF, there is no gender marker in the official tournament name or hashtag.
USA Hockey, however, has been adding the M, anyway — both in the organization’s tweets and news coverage.
Credit where credit is due.
Really appreciate @usahockey “adding the M” to the hashtag it is using for the U18 (Men’s) Hockey World Championship: #U18MensWorlds @IIHFHockey, however, is using #U18Worlds for its coverage of the men’s tournament. 🤔
Cont… 🧵 pic.twitter.com/0nwHFewkC5
— Alex Azzi (@AlexAzziNBC) April 24, 2022
While the omission of the “M” is often a strong indicator that an organization isn’t providing equitable treatment to its women’s events and athletes, the solution unfortunately isn’t as simple as just adding a word or letter to a league name or event. It’s investing in women’s sports.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC