Gender Divides in the Language of Disc Golf

Six examples of gender bias on the disc golf course.

By Josh Woods, PhD ~

Cover art 2

The M in MPO stands for “male,” right?

MPO is an abbreviation for “male pro open,” a PDGA tournament division for professional male disc golfers. I walked around with this idea for months. Walked around knowing, without question, what the M means.

Of course, I was wrong. The M stands for “mixed,” not male. Both men and women can compete in a PDGA division that has M in the code. There is no men’s division in disc golf.

It’s easy to take words for granted, even when their meanings are misunderstood.

Here’s another example:

The other day, a friend of mine jokingly called me a “wuss” after my less-than-courageous attempt at a downhill putt from twenty feet.

I wasn’t offended. I didn’t think much about it, really. For many disc golfers, wuss qualifies as low-grade smack talk. Lots of people walk around with the idea that saying wuss is no big deal.

The problem is, wuss insults some people. Among other things, it associates a weakness or lack of courage—an ineffectual downhill putt—with women or their private parts. As Mike Damone explains in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a wuss is “part wimp, and part pussy.”

Not great.

Sure, there are worse things to say, but the overuse of words like wuss can spoil the camaraderie of co-ed sports groups and generally discourage the participation of women in athletics.

Let’s consider a few more examples of bias in the language of disc golf.

Dudes as the Default

In most cases, men occupy the root category of sports. For instance, male basketball players compete in “the Final Four” and join the “National Basketball Association,” whereas women play in the “Women’s Final Four” and become members of the “Women’s National Basketball Association.”

Following suit, disc golf has the “United States Disc Golf Championship” and the “United States Women’s Disc Golf Championships.”

Gender marking
Logos for the US Disc Golf Championship and the US Women’s Disc Golf Championships.

Gender marking implies that men’s sports are the norm, and that women’s sports are a subcategory, an add-on, an afterthought.

In a way, disc golf itself faces a similar plight. Disc golf is a subcategory of traditional golf. It’s lower on the linguistic pecking order. The distinction is subtle, but it’s there.

For instance, if you want to offend traditional golfers, call their sport “ball golf.” Traditional golfers enjoy the status of the master category. Evoking ball golf takes that away. It flattens the hierarchy and puts all the variations of golf on equal footing.

And so, golfers reject the name ball golf. Golf is golf, and everything else is derivative.

Don’t Buy Generics

Another type of bias involves the use of words like “mankind,” “sportsmanship,” and “man-to-man defense.” Although these false generics are losing popularity, at least one example can be found in disc golf’s recent past.

Prior to 2018, the Las Vegas Challenge was known as the “Gentlemen’s Club Challenge.” For some observers, the moniker conjured up images of bachelor parties and strip clubs, as opposed to a high-profile disc golf tournament featuring top pros among both men and women.

Las Vegas
Logos for the Gentlemen’s Club Challenge, 2011 and 2015.

Separating the Women from the Girls

Research has shown that sports commentators are more likely to call female athletes “girls” than refer to male athletes as “boys.” These studies typically focus on the commentating of televised sports.

Scanning disc golf commentary on YouTube, I couldn’t readily find cases of this bias. As a bibliophile of disc golf journalism, I rarely, if ever, see male writers referring to women as girls.

Yet, I do see more references to “ladies” than to “gentlemen” in disc golf media. While I’m reluctant to see this as a harmful double standard, the term lady does have a traditionalist connotation.

Some critics argue that the disproportionate use of the term lady creates an unfair standard for women. It implies that women should be … well, ladylike. But what does it mean to act like a lady? And what does it mean to act like a woman? If your answers to these questions differ, the terms are not interchangeable, and shouldn’t be used as synonyms.

Ultimately, the meaning of lady depends on who is using it and in what context. When an adult, female disc golfer refers to her friends as ladies, the meaning and consequences of this reference are not the same as when a male tournament director consistently calls women ladies and refers to men as men.

“Too sexy for my shirt, so sexy it hurts”

You don’t need a PhD in sociology to recognize that media often sexualize female athletes. For those who study this topic, there’s little doubt that women receive more of this treatment than men.

Strong is beautiful
Photos from the WTA’s “Strong is Beautiful” advertising campaign.

Consider, for instance, the Women’s Tennis Association’s “Strong is Beautiful” ad campaign from the early 2010s. The creators sold the project under the banner of women’s empowerment, yet featured female tennis stars in full makeup, impractical hairdos and sporty lingerie, swatting tennis balls that exploded in bursts of rainbow-colored dust.

Although the campaign created a new standard for comically bizarre advertising, it did little for the advancement of women in sports. (For the full experience, check out the footage that appeared on TV here).

While some observers have rightly argued that media objectify male athletes as well, it suffices to say that men’s pro tennis, despite its glut of hunks, did not respond in kind. The ATP Tour’s “Strong is Handsome” campaign never got off the ground.

Strong is handsome
If the WTA’s “Strong is Beautiful” campaign celebrates the strength and grit of tennis players, why didn’t the men’s side create a “Strong is Handsome” campaign?

In my version of reality, there’s nothing wrong with people showing off their wares. But the consequences of doing so are not always the same for male and female athletes.

When the media sexualizes a star from the NBA or NFL, the athlete has his money and status to fall back on. His wallet is often so thick that falling doesn’t hurt at all.

But when fans and commentators sexualize lower paid female athletes, they not only reduce them to objects, but also delegitimize their sport. As the emphasis on aesthetics increases, the value of the performances decreases. The gender pay gap in sports encourages women to accept an unfair beauty standard and trade on good looks instead of great shots.

Using sex to sell disc golf does not appear to be a popular strategy for growing the sport. Yet, some examples exist.

One of the few glaring cases arose during the dubious and short-lived American Disc Golf Tour in 2016. The tour led up to the American Open, which was the first disc golf tournament televised on ESPN3. Among its many flaws, the organizers hired waitresses from a Hooters restaurant to carry scoreboards throughout the broadcast.

The company that sponsored the tour filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

Hooters-Girls
Women from a local Hooters restaurant carried scoreboards at the American Disc Golf Tour’s headlining event in 2016. Photo Ultiworld Disc Golf.

The Takeaway

Gender bias is not simply a matter of word choice. It’s not about men being mean. And it’s not about women being vulnerable. It’s about the bigger picture. It’s about history and traditions. It’s about the economy and culture—those powerful, albeit vague, social forces that make the happenings of our daily lives seem normal. It’s about a system that encourages us to walk around knowing things, without question, even when we don’t.

The most immediate point of this article is not to shed light on blatant, intentional acts of sexism in disc golf. Rather, it is to show that some of the most obvious, important and troubling aspects of life are the hardest to see and talk about.

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Josh Woods is an associate professor of sociology at West Virginia University. He is working on a book called Disc Golf Land: Rise of an Unknown Sport.

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Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

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