By Erin Gabriel
Austen Hilt and Paige Feikert have a long history of bonding over sports. The two friends grew up playing softball together, and now the pair is hosting a podcast elevating women’s sports and advocating for an even playing field for all genders.
The podcast, JerseyGirls, @jerseygirlsict on Instagram, was inspired after Hilt and Feikert started conversing about the lack of coverage for the women’s NCAA basketball tournament coupled with the observation that Wichita State University’s Women’s Softball team was having an amazing season, yet producing very small crowds at games.
With loads of experience in sports, Hilt—a former collegiate softball player who also played volleyball, basketball, and golf and has coached a variety of girl’s softball teams—and Feikert—also a former collegiate soccer player who also played softball and is a former sports journalist—use their air time to discuss topics such as coverage of women’s sports, how sports can power successful careers, life lessons from a NCAA Division 1 Athlete attending an HBCU, and more.
Tell us about your podcast and where the Jersey Girls podcast idea came about.
Hilt: JerseyGirls started about a year ago when we started noticing our opinions and frustrations were aligned in part because of the discrepancies in women’s sports including lack of media coverage. After the NCAA March Madness tournaments earlier this year and watching how the push for more coverage on the women’s side led to more interest and viewership, we wanted to share that energy and find our own way to contribute. The podcast is a forum for athletes, coaches, sports journalists, organizers, and even fans to share their observations, experiences, and calls for action. The podcast is just the beginning. We want to eventually host fundraisers, participate in outreach opportunities, and grow the JerseyGirls community from coast to coast and even beyond.
What do you hope to achieve with your podcast?
Fiekert: Tangible change–that means changes to the attitudes around women’s sports and non-cisgender male athletes, more opportunities for athletes on all levels (from youth to professional), and much more. Currently, women are severely underrepresented in athletic director positions at major NCAA Division I universities, coverage of women’s sports on all levels is lacking, women’s professional sports lack funds and roster positions, and the general attitude in this country is that women’s sports are not exciting or not worth our time to watch and support. That attitude is limiting the growth of women’s professional organizations and opportunities for athletes beyond high school or college (and in some cases even in youth sports). If we can change the mind of one person, we are doing something right.
How can we—as listeners and readers—help elevate women’s sports?
Fiekert: Do just that–listen. Share our message, support our podcast and our mission, and show up for the athletes in your life. The next time you hear “I don’t watch women’s basketball because it’s slow,” reframe that to “some of the greatest NBA players of all time support women’s basketball, and if it’s exciting for them, how slow can it really be?” And challenge your own thoughts and views around women’s sports. Youth, high school, and college athletes need our support, too. Go to a game if you can. It might be a matter of showing up an hour early to the boy’s basketball game to support the girls.
How has your involvement in sports shaped the people you are today?
Fiekert: Honestly, I used to have a bad temper growing up when I’d play sports—particularly toward my coaches. I think the biggest takeaway for me is learning how to respect and effectively communicate with authority and even peers, particularly when there is a difference of opinion. I’d also say learning how to take care of my health and my body. Sports taught me the importance of being active and enjoying it at a very young age. Aside from that, I made so many friends and connections through sports and was able to travel and have new experiences because of sports. I’m also a huge sports fan now and can find pretty much any sport exciting.
Hilt: It’s every part of who I am. Discipline, time management, social skills—you name it and sports has shaped it in some way or another.
How does women’s sports fit into the bigger conversation of women’s rights and women’s issues?
Fiekert: This is a great question because of something our first guest said to me, and I’ve repeated it ever since: sports is just the hook, and that opens the door to so many other topics of conversation. Sports is just one place where we see disparity as women. It’s also a place where women’s issues are often mixed in and presented as a new problem. Take transgender women in sports as an example. The outrage over transgender women playing women’s sports is just another way to control women. If it weren’t, then why is there no outrage over transgender men playing men’s sports? Instead of celebrating transgender athletes or having a conversation about changing the way we view sports in a binary gender system, protesters and lawmakers are calling for efforts to keep not only transgender athletes from participating in sports, but also many cisgender women. Requiring proof of biological sex by any means is a form of control, and something men will likely never have to grapple with. This is just one of many issues translated from the rest of society to women’s sports.
Who is your female sports icon and why?
Fiekert: Do I have to pick just one? I have so many idols including the entire USWNT who are just a bunch of amazing women standing up for what’s right, but if I had to pick one, I’d say Allyson Felix. Not only is she an incredible and highly decorated athlete, but she is working every day to make the lives of mothers more practical and pleasant. Allyson Felix was one of the first women to stand up to Nike and USATF about dropping athletes from endorsements and not paying them when they become pregnant. She’s been an advocate for black women and maternal care, which is an enormous problem in this country due to the major disparity in treatment between white women and women of color. She’s even started her own company with many efforts to support mothers both on and off the track. She’s incredible.
Hilt: Growing up, sports were a mainstay in my house. The names that come to mind first are Jackie Stiles, high school and college basketball phenom; Jennie Finch, All-American and Olympic softball gold medalist; Serena Williams, grand slam tennis star; and Shawn Johnson, Olympic gymnast. Women athletes, regardless of sport, were always people I was drawn to. I loved watching the Olympics, college athletics, etc. I don’t really remember “deciding” to be an athlete, it was just who I was and what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember. These women and countless others made me believe that being an athlete was the prime example of what it meant to a strong, healthy, and confident woman.
Particularly with women athletes, women sportscasters, and other women in the industry. We often find people talking about their looks and not their accomplishments. How do you think we change this for the future generation?
Fiekert: Stop doing it. I think sometimes subconsciously people look at a professional woman and say something about her being beautiful or cute, but is that necessary? The underlying problem is that society still places a very high value on the way a woman looks in all walks of life, even higher than the value society places on intelligence, ability, talent, hard work, and many other accolades. Call people out for it, and call yourself out for it when you catch yourself making similar comments.
How do you feel this phenomenon with girls quitting sports correlates with body image issues, diet culture?
Fiekert: We do have plans for an episode discussing body image and diet culture, but I will say as a 32-year-old woman who is finally at a very secure place in her life, let’s trash diet culture. I recognize times in my life where diet culture led me down some dark paths involving hyper exercising and lack of nutrition, and it breaks my heart that many women continue to focus on that. Women deserve to exist in a society that celebrates them for who they are, not what size they are.
Hilt: I think everyone has their reasons but predominantly, unless you are extremely successful, there is no motivating culture that rewards participation in sports for girls. There aren’t as many roster spots, (compared to football, for example) and given that girls typically mature physically earlier than boys, it lessens the expectation that hard work, extra practice, and weight room commitment will result in playing time as high school progresses. Yes, there is also the factor of “girl athlete” stigma—Do I look cute in this outfit with bulky muscles? My hair is always in a ponytail. Boys don’t take me seriously as someone to date. People assume I am a lesbian. I don’t have time to socialize, I have practice, etc.This is why the culture of girls in sports has to change.
Have you experienced discrimination in sports?
Fiekert: I can’t say that I recall a specific time where I recognized I was discriminated against during my athletic career. I will say I felt it as a sports journalist in my early 20’s where coaches would suggest I date their sons or organizers would make creepy comments and stare at me while I was working. For me as an athlete, I did notice the differences in culture around sports.Where men’s sports were often celebrated, women’s sports were often disregarded. That’s hard as an athlete—to look into the stands and see a handful of people at your game and then to sit in the stands for the men’s game with a sea of supporters.
Hilt: I think that people believe that if discrimination isn’t something huge and obvious, it doesn’t happen. But to me, it’s the little things. For example, in the high school where I played the baseball team had its own field with banners and emblems everywhere. The softball team plays at a city park with not a single indication that the high school team plays there. The football team has at least six different uniform combinations, softball has one, and that one uniform is worn for 7-8 years at least. What makes all of this important is that nobody even seems to notice or think this is unusual. It’s just the way it is.
There are many obvious benefits to women’s sports physically, mentally, and socially. Why have women’s sports been so meaningful in your life?
Fiekert: For me, it’s been most meaningful because of the fun I’ve had and the memories I’ve made. Nothing will ever compare to working together with your friends and making the impossible possible.
Hilt: Participating in sports shaped my identity, taught me about teamwork, and how to succeed and fail. I know that a team is only as strong as its weakest member. I learned that hard work before the game pays off. I was forced to embrace time management skills that didn’t come naturally to me. I had to prioritize my team and be very clear what my goals were and how to achieve them. Sports taught me how to win and how to lose with class. I experienced great pride but also great humility. I had experiences that were some of the best moments of my life, and I am so grateful for them. And those moments that weren’t so great? I had to learn to dig deep. Nothing built my character more than those lowest moments.
What do you think is the biggest issue in women’s sports currently?
Hilt: The biggest issue in women’s sports is that not enough women are making the decisions that make an impact. This includes coaching, college administrators, donors/benefactors, media, and government–women need to lead themselves. Apply for that coaching position, fundraise, use whatever platform you have available, run for office.
Erin Gabriel (she/her) is an educator, writer, social media manager, and former digital journalist for CNN. Erin currently lives in Denver and loves anything health & wellness/professional development related as well as reading, being outdoors, and traveling. She is passionate about social justice issues but has specifically worked in the realms of improving the quality of public education, fighting for immigrant/refugee rights, and advocacy for disability rights.