Women’s hockey and the never-ending call for more evidence

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I was supposed to present the following discussion on women’s hockey at the 2020 Hockey Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia this spring; however, due to Covid-19, the conference has been re-scheduled for 2021. I don’t anticipate being able to attend that conference but I think this is still a discussion that needs to be shared. So, grab a quarantine beverage and join me for a theoretical dive into the politics of evidence as it relates to women’s sports.

The dictionary definition for evidence (from the Cambridge dictionary) is: “one or more reasons for believing that something is or is not true.” We like to think of evidence as something objective that leads to an objective truth. Enough evidence gives us proof, beyond a shadow of doubt, that something is correct or incorrect. But evidence is far more subjective than we are led to believe.

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) seems to have played a significant role in how we value evidence. In order to challenge harmful clinical interventions that are abundant throughout the history of medicine, there was a push for evidence that was produced from rigorous and systematic reviews and analyses. Still, scholars point out that this new-found desire for evidence does not clearly articulate “what constitutes and defines ‘evidence’ and ‘policy'” and “how evidence is supposed to improve decision-making” (Oliver et al., 2014, p.35). We are encouraged to collect a lot of evidence without necessarily having an action plan for that evidence. Oliver et al., (2014) also noticed that what policymakers define as “evidence” and what academics define as “evidence” differs. Moreover, evidence is supposed to promote instability, in that we are made to react to new evidence when it is provided. In reality, we are very resistant to new evidence because we dislike change in general. Little (2003) argues that if new evidence were to be accepted and accommodated it would be fine “but it is wrong to create the impression that today’s truth will be the same as tomorrow’s” (p. 180). Using this perspective, evidence is always supposed to be under review and, as such, a society that privileges evidence must also be one that accepts conflict over certainty.

We also tend to hold quantitative data as the gold standard (Nolan, 2015). We love numbers that we can crunch and/or things we can touch and feel. Conversely, personal experiences can easily be dismissed as invaluable or biased evidence. We love numbers because we think they are objective, but again, numbers (or at least how we use them and the numbers we choose) contain a lot of subjectivity. Issues around analytics and data bias are evidence of the subjective biases that can inform our love of quantitative data, just as they can affect qualitative data.

Here’s an example of WNBA player, Imani McGee-Stafford, lamenting how the evidence she provides to some people can be dismissed despite her unique position to speak on the issue:

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It raises the question: If someone is not willing to believe a WNBA player about her own experiences in the league and about the issues surrounding women’s basketball, then what kind of evidence might one be looking for? These “doubts about evidence become doubts about persons who are providing evidence” (Ahmed, 2016, para. 5). Do some people lie and embellish? Sure. But their experience should also be taken into consideration into an ever growing landscape of evidence. Unsurprisingly, it is women, racialized folks, and the queer community that never seem to have the “right” kind of evidence.

In 2016, Sara Ahmed wrote the following reflection on her personal blog about the evidence that we accumulate through our life experiences but have no place to take these grievances:

Add it to the archive is an expression that allows us to think that an experience however difficult might have use value as evidence (we have somewhere to put it; we have a place for it to go). But of course when I say “add it to the archive” I say so with a degree of skepticism; if that archive is already stuffed, more evidence might be what we do not need. (para.34)

What Ahmed articulates is a politics of evidence, specifically as it relates to issues such as sexism and racism. If we are supposed to react to evidence, what happens when we choose not to? What do we do with unwanted evidence? How much evidence is “enough” and who gets to decide that threshold? Sometimes evidence is marked as the “wrong kind” of evidence. And, as Ahmed asserts, sometimes “The more [evidence] you have to show the more eyes seem to roll.”

Enter women’s hockey.

We seem to be at a standstill these days between those who see women’s hockey on an upward trend with great growth potential versus those who saw the closure of the CWHL as evidence that no one wants to watch women’s hockey:

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The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. If people liked it, it would sustain itself. One’s existence (or lack thereof) becomes evidence. The underlying assumption is that men’s and women’s sports operate with the same mechanisms, possibilities, and limitations. Thus, what is true for men’s sports must also be true for women’s sports. The problem is not so much that people believe the logic — on its face, it does seem logical. The problem is that when they are given evidence that counters this logic (explained in previous posts here and here) that evidence is still discounted/dismissed. For example, the Buffalo Sabres have been operating at losses of $40-$60 million the past few seasons. If this were a women’s hockey team operating at a loss it would be evidence that it wasn’t worth our time. For men’s sports, this is simply evidence that they need to try a new marketing strategy or to re-brand…or to win. It is easy to devalue evidence that contradicts what we believe to be true.

Supporters of women’s sports have committed to providing as much evidence as possible that women’s and girls sports are systemically under-funded, under-marketed, and under-televised. In short, the emotional, psychological, and literal undervaluation of women’s sports is what creates its precarious position — not its monetary value and/or inherent interest levels. The Tucker Centre for Research on Girls and Women in Sport is solely dedicated to adding value to women in the field of play. It even started the hashtag #HeresProof as a way to showcase that people do in fact like and support women’s sports:

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#HeresProof is the perfect example of Ahmed’s overstuffed archive of evidence. Viewership for women’s basketball and NCAA softball are on the rise, and NWSL soccer has seen increases in attendance. Attendance and viewing for the NWHL seems to increase each season. The Dream Gap Tour arguably drew more fans and sponsors than the CWHL did (albeit with very different metrics). But who do we take this archive of evidence to? What do we do with all this evidence proving that people like women’s sports because it feels like our only option is to continue shouting into the abyss with the hopes that some sympathetic person with deep pockets hears us.

The marginalization of women’s sports is probably one of the most reproductive areas of research there is. Studies have been replicated with the same results time and again: women’s sports are hampered by institutional sexism that manifests as consistent lack of funding/investment, lack of coverage, lack of resources, and fewer opportunities. And, we also have plenty of evidence to show that men’s sports can fail with huge funding, sponsorships, and media deals lined up. Yet, none of this evidence ever seems to be good enough for the powers that be. It’s almost like a lack of evidence is not actually the issue.

The last issue I will raise is that due to the lack of resources made available for women’s sports, there is a lack of quantitative data to provide as evidence…for anything. Whether it’s television viewership, attendance numbers, or on ice analytics, the lack of statistics is a significant barrier to proving value in a society that believes that numbers are equivalent to worth and potential. Case in point, for the last season of the CWHL, the league ran a regular season pool. Participants were sent a Google form to choose their players. My first thought was, “Why aren’t they just using Office Pools?” Then I realized: Ohhh, that would involve some centralized media space where those stats could be aggregated. What we had instead of the computer doing all the work was Chelsea Purcell, GM of the former Markham Thunder, sending us colour-coded spreadsheets every Tuesday with the updated stats. High production media coverage of women’s sports would go a long way in closing the gap for statistical analysis. And, yes, ratings are typically lower for women’s regional hockey games. But, how can we realistically compare 4 games of data to 82 games of viewership data in any given season? Not to mention 82 games aired in mostly prime time slots. It’s like comparing apples to jellyfish. If quantitative data is needed to illustrate some sort of growth or progression, you also need the technology and personnel to be able to collect that data. Women’s hockey is limited by a lack of data because it is limited by the ability to collect data.

The best analogy I can draw to why overwhelming evidence of gender inequality hasn’t seen much change in women’s sports is to compare it to climate change. We have an abundance of scientific evidence about what causes global warming and environmental degradation, and we know how to counteract these changes: stop extracting fossil fuels, reduce overall production and consumption, create and enforce stringent environmental regulation. The problem is not that we lack solutions; the problem is that we (as a society) dislike the available solutions. The solutions provided ask us to change our entire frame of reference and way of life. They ask us to shift power from one group to another (or to share power). The same goes for women’s sports. To invest properly in women’s sports would require us to change our understanding of how men’s sports came to be. Then we would have evidence that men’s sports is not objectively “better” as much as it is better produced, more visible, and more accessible. That can be a tough pill to swallow. As Ahmed warns us, “Evidence of walls does not bring the walls down” (para. 41).

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So what exactly are we supposed to do with all this evidence if no one is willing to listen and/or act? Ahmed instructs that we should not get bogged down with evidence collecting missions. In my early days as a grad student, I believed that if I could present the “right” evidence, in the “right” way, and in the “right” order, surely the trolls would see where they made their mistake. I don’t do that anymore. Eventually, you figure out that no amount of evidence will convince certain people. Yes, we should have evidence at the ready when it is needed and for those willing to listen, but we also need to recognize when we are being given busy work that takes away from the action (and energy) needed to move forward.

Whether you work in the area(s) of gender equality, anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, and/or accessibility, the politics of evidence has consistently been deployed against traditionally marginalized groups to delay instituting real change. Ahmed encourages us to turn our archive of evidence into an archive of rebellion. Our archive “testifies to a struggle” (para. 31). In other words, we collect evidence for ourselves and not for others. We collect evidence of injustice as a form of solidarity and to demonstrate that no one is in the struggle by themselves.

Initiatives such as iHollaback (community mapping of street harassment) and EverydaySexism are good examples that documenting evidence is as much about recognizing each other’s lived experiences as they are about pointing out problems that need to be fixed. When sharing evidence leaves us drained and frustrated that’s a good sign that we are not in a productive endeavour. In 2017, five years after starting the EverydaySexism project, founder Laura Bates reflected on the platform she had provided for evidence of sexism in all its forms: “I have learned that the problem is immense, but the will to fight is still greater.” Thus, the real value in evidence gathering may not be to squash the naysayers, rather it is in finding new allies and learning just how large our army is.

Works Cited

Little, M. (2003). “Better than numbers…” A gentle critique of evidence-based medicine. ANZ Journal of Surgery, 73(4), 177–182. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1445-1433.2002.02563.x

Nolan, K. (2015). Neoliberal common sense and race-neutral discourses: A critique of “evidence-based” policy-making in school policing. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 36(6), 894–907. https://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2014.905457

Oliver, K., Lorenc, T., & Innvær, S. (2014). New directions in evidence-based policy research: a critical analysis of the literature. Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34. https://doi.org/10.1186/1478-4505-12-34

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