Female athletes have struggled for decades to gain the attention and support of fans and sponsors. You have to look no farther than the four-time World Cup winning U.S. women’s soccer team and their struggles to gain similar pay as their male counterparts, who have never won a World Cup title, to see that the playing field is not level.
So, when the Kent State University athletic department cut short a field hockey game between the University of Maine and Temple University, so that fireworks before the school’s weekend football game would not be delayed, the outrage was quick and widespread.
To be clear, we don’t know if the Ohio university would have stopped a men’s soccer or lacrosse game for the same reasons, so it is hard to know if sexism was at play.
But the university’s poor planning left women’s teams feeling like they didn’t matter. That is a wound that will be hard to heal.
The University of Maine field hockey team is consistently among the school’s best performing teams. The team is currently ranked 24th among the nation’s Division I field hockey programs. Last season, it had the highest winning percentage, along with the University of Albany, in America East. It also led the conference in goals per game, points per game, scoring margin and scoring average.
“First and foremost, it is offensive and upsetting to think that because of your gender, your sport is looked upon as less,” senior midfielder Riley Field said at a Monday press conference in Orono. “We work just as hard as the men’s teams.”
The two field hockey teams were tied at 0-0 at the end of the first overtime on Saturday morning. Before the start of a second overtime, Kent State officials told both teams that they needed to leave the field, which is next to the school’s football stadium, so that a fireworks display could be set up for the football game, which coincidentally went into overtime.
Field hockey games involve four 15-minute quarters followed by two sudden-death 10-minute overtime periods and then a penalty stroke shootout, if necessary to resolve a tie.
The game began at 9 a.m. and both schools had in May been informed that they would need to vacate the field by 10:30 a.m. due to fire marshal regulations. It was 10:45 when the first overtime ended.
However, University of Maine Athletic Director Ken Ralph said the written contract for the game had no mention of a 10:30 a.m. stop and that Kent State failed to communicate what steps would be taken if the game was still in progress at that time.
Games go long for many reasons — a player injury, coaches using every timeout, equipment malfunctions — so as host of last weekend’s games, Kent State had a responsibility to be prepared for these situations.
It didn’t meet those expectations and that failure left female athletes feeling justifiably undervalued.
“While we understand that the fireworks were deemed to be an important part of Kent State University’s Family Weekend festivities which featured the home football contest, we cannot understand why the university would seemingly prioritize a daytime fireworks display over the completion of a Division I Women’s Field Hockey contest,” the National Field Hockey Coaches Association said in a statement. “The optics and the messaging to every field hockey program and to every field hockey player are that while they matter, they don’t matter more than pre-game football festivities.
“We see this as a terrible message being communicated to female student-athletes in this year of 2019,” the association added. Its executive director, Jenn Goodrich, was the head field hockey coach at Kent State from 1994 to 1996 and received her MBA from the university.
After the school first defended its decision based on “ safety” considerations, Kent State Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen made an apology on Monday. “In hindsight, a different decision should have been made to ultimately ensure the game reached its conclusion,” he said in a statement. “We hold ourselves to a very high standard and, in this situation, we failed.”
That admission is important, but the proof will come from changing behavior.