College Sports & Female Objectification

Within numerous American universities, and likely the world, athletic departments and teams are a major force. In many cases, athletic teams bring universities millions of dollars. Stellar teams and individual athletes also bring universities high social status, serving as recruitment tools for future students – athletes and non-athletes alike. In addition to being an economic force and even behind four decades of institutionalized gender equity efforts, university athletic departments still emit heavy patriarchal values. In this post, David Mayeda examines the role objectification played in the recent recruiting of Andrew Wiggins – North America’s top high school male basketball player.

Florida State University’s (FSU) basketball team probably doesn’t stand much of a chance to contend for a national title this year, as indicated by their recent, lopsided loss to intra-state rival, Florida. Still, FSU appears to be in the running to sign North America’s top high school basketball prospect, Andrew Wiggins, largely because Wiggins’s father attended FSU. So if FSU doesn’t have an elite basketball team this year, how might groups within the university try to entice Wiggins?

As shown over at Yahoo!, female cheerleaders were holding signs for Wiggins that read, “FSU Has Hotter Girls” (presumably “hotter” than “girls” at Kentucky, the other university Wiggins is considering attending). Another group of FSU female students wore shirts that spelled out “We Want Wiggins!” Okay, so what? Isn’t this simply part of normal, fun university life? Well, yes, and that is precisely the problem. Here at SIF, we’ve discussed how sexual objectification infiltrates sports media in the past. In this case, we see a major American university perpetuating and trivializing the practice.

Recall, sexual objectification happens when people (most often women or girls) are rendered inanimate objects, void of emotion, feelings, intelligence, and valued only for their sexual accessibility to men. There are a number of strategies taken that can contribute to sexual objectification, including cases where “image[s] suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person” (see here for an excellent overview). In the case with FSU and its attempts to lure Wiggins, the female students holding signs represent an alleged widely available range of attractive FSU female students, their supposed primary characteristic being a willingness for Wiggins’s sexual indulgence.

The social ramifications of women and girls being systemically and repeatedly objectified in such manners are considerable. To begin with and as seen in this case, women are more likely to internalize a male gaze and treat themselves as sex objects, appraising their own self-worth on their ability to attract men (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). But the repeated sexual objectification of women also increases victimization in the forms of sexual harassment and sexual assault, while a variety of psychological consequences also rise, such as “habitual body monitoring, body shame, internalization of the thin ideal, lowered introceptive awareness, and disordered eating among both lesbian and heterosexual women” (Szymanski, Moffitt, & Carr, 2011, p. 11).

The recruiting tactics seen at FSU also normalize and maintain the gendered behaviors of young men. Within the pervading athletic culture, women continue to be presented as disposable, interchangeable objects for male athletes, who may further cement such ideological perspectives. What’s more, using female students to persuade an athlete in this manner assumes the male athlete is heterosexual, promiscuous, and values women in such superficial ways. And male athletes who do not hold these views must cope with being socialized into a world where women’s objectification is the social norm.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think about people close to you – friends and family. Have you noticed objectified images in the media impact their mental and/or physical health? If so, how so? How have objectification media tactics impacted you, irrespective of whether you are female or male?
  2. Reflect on educational institutions you have attended at different stages in your life. How have you seen sexual objectification occur through some of these institutions systemically, on a regular basis?
  3. What policies and procedures could be developed that might help to dissuade sexual objectification in education?
  4. University athletic departments frequently have massive budgets and can bring extensive resources into university campuses. This gives athletic departments extensive power within universities. How then can athletic departments be altered, such that they operate in socially responsible ways? Should university athletic departments wield so much power? Why or why not?

Photo via Wikicommons.