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30 Years In, NCAA Continues Its Woman Of The Year Award

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Aug. 3 2020, Published 3:20 a.m. ET

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It is easy to forget the hard fought rights women enjoy in the sports world. It is also easier to ignore how much work still needs to be done to achieve equality. Unfortunately, reminders like a recent Washington Post article about the Washington D.C. Football team’s sexual harassment culture and Netflix’s documentary Athlete A demonstrate how far we have to go for women to have equal footing in this arena.

These important revelations disappeared from headlines as quickly as they made a splash. Thankfully, organizations like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have spent the last five decades working on ways to better include, support and celebrate women in sports. While far from a perfect system, collegiate sports have come a long way in their appreciation of how powerful women can be on the court, in the classroom, and in their communities.

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Women In Collegiate Sports: A History

One of the most important pieces of federal legislation for women in sports was the passage of Title IX nearly 50 years ago.  Title IX came to fruition in an attempt to protect individuals from exclusion of any educational program that receives federal funding on the basis of gender. The most significant development from this historic ruling was women earning the right to be scholarship collegiate athletes just like their male peers.

Title IX literally opened up a new world for women to take over. It provided women an opportunity to prove they could be tough, train hard and be rewarded. It also helped dispel the notion that women could only be more than wives, homemakers, and mothers. Lynnette Woodward (the first female Harlem Globetrotter), Lisa Leslie (a record holding basketball player in the WNBA), and Mia Hamm (women’s national soccer team) were among many other trail blazers who showed young women they can do anything. These incredible women revolutionized collegiate athletics, and woke society up to the idea women can be athletic, competitive and entertaining.

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 Celebrating Women College Athletes

Almost 20 years after the introduction of Title IX, the NCAA took their celebration of collegiate female athletes even further. In 1991 the NCAA began recognizing the best collegiate female athlete with their Woman of the Year award. For the past 30 years, this award has celebrated outstanding women who go above and beyond in their sport, school and their communities. The women recognized by this award are leaders who continue to fight to open up new possibilities for women everywhere.

In mid July 14, the NCAA announced their 2020 Woman of the Year nominees. A record 605 student-athletes were recognized across all three divisions of collegiate sports (DI, DII and DIII). By September, the Woman of the Year Selection Committee will whittle that number down to a top 30. The selection committee then will select nine top candidates. Finally, the Committee on Women’s Athletics will vote on a winner later this fall.

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NCAA woman of the year

Utah Gymnast, Kim Tessen, 2020 NCAA Woman of the Year Nominee.

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Changing How We View Women Athletes

Similar to previous years, this announcement went under the radar in mainstream sports media. A study from the Tucker Center for Research on Women and Girls in Sport recently noted that 40% of athletes are female. Unfortunately, despite making up nearly half of athletics, female athletes only receive about four percent of the media coverage and are often sexualized when they do get recognition.

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What makes this year different than most is the growing demand for better treatment for women not only in sports, but all circles. Athlete A, and the Washington Post article make clear people are ready for these brutally honest conversations.

If women make up almost half of all athletes they need to get just as much media coverage. It is also time to cover female athletes in a way that doesn’t exploit them as sexual objects. We need to recognize women as competent, savvy forces at whatever they do. Sports are no longer just for the boys. They haven’t been for 48 years and the media.

Celebrating the NCAA’s Woman of the Year award is more important than ever. If changes in how women are viewed in society are to happen, we have to acknowledge their accomplishments with the same importance as their male counterparts.

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