The Bias Against Sports Moms

We love hearing stories about the dedication of the mothers of professional athletes, but God forbid they should actually know something about the sport

  • Share
  • Read Later
GLYN KIRK / AFP / GettyImages

Judy Murray, mother of British player Andy Murray, on day six of the 2012 Wimbledon Championships

Oh, how we love Olympic moms. Our fantasy version is personified in a popular series of ads produced by Proctor & Gamble, an Olympic sponsor. A montage of mothers from around the world are shown waking their sleepy little ones, cooking them breakfast, getting them to practice, and then washing, washing, washing — both dishes and clothes. The children grow bigger, the moms keep scrubbing and laundering, and by the end, the young adult athletes are swimming, running, spiking volleyballs, and acknowledging their tear-stained, now middle-aged mothers in the Olympic stands.

When the words, “The hardest job in the world is the best job in the world. Thank you, Mom,” fill the screen, I was just as misty-eyed as anyone else. But I also couldn’t help but wonder what Judy Murray would make of this stereotype of the sports mom.

(MORE: 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch)

Judy Murray is the mother of Andy Murray, the Scottish tennis player who lost to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final last week and is now hoping for a gold medal at the Olympics in London later this month. Those who watched the Wimbledon match might have noticed how frequently the camera panned to Murray’s mother, her face often taut with tension as the competition unfolded. She has described the experience of watching her son play tennis as “a mixture of nausea and heart attack.”

She is not only a fixture in the stands but also a lightening rod for criticism. Judy Murray gets hate mail. She is depicted as a domineering, smothering, controlling mom whose very presence is undermining her son’s game. Boris Becker, a former Wimbledon champion, publicly condemned her last year, saying, “I just question whether a young man needs to have his mother around all the time while he’s working.” A headline in the UK Daily Record summarized: “Andy Murray won’t win a Grand Slam until he stops being a mummy’s boy and cuts ties with Judy.” David Yeoman, a self-described “business and sport behavioral strategist” told a British paper that Murray should force his mother to stay at home to improve his game. Would anyone level similar criticism at the fathers of Tiger Woods or Serena and Venus Williams and the numerous other sports dads who keep a firm hand on the professional athletic careers of their children?

(MORE: Why Women Watch the Olympics But Tune Out Other Sports)

It seems we love sports mothers when they are scrambling eggs, washing uniforms and driving to practice, but not when they are upset when their daughter or son plays poorly and certainly not — gasp — when they actually know something about the sport. Judy Murray was not only her son’s first tennis coach, drilling him in coordination exercises when he was a toddler, but she also now captains the British Fed Cup team. Before that she was Scotland’s national coach. And yet she has been accused of hanging on to the apron strings and acting inappropriately, common critiques for mothers who remain close to their adult sons. She was also vilified for tweeting about the good looks of one of her son’s opponents, making her, as one blogger put it, “the Most Embarrassing Old Dear of the Year.”

The point is not that Judy Murray is perfect, but that she doesn’t fit the image we’ve created of the sainted athlete mom. Recently Matt Lauer interviewed Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and his mom, Ileana, who also coached her son when he was younger. When Lauer noted how proud she must be of her son’s improvement, Ms. Lochte said, “Every time he swam in a big meet he swam best times, except Beijing in the first two races, where…” But Lauer cut her off, evidently deciding that nobody wants to hear what his former coach actually has to say about his swimming. Instead he cut to a spokesman for Proctor & Gamble, who said she was “super-excited” to announce that the company was going to help pay families’ way to the London Olympics, and would also offer athletes’ moms the chance to get their hair done and have makeovers. Lauer exclaimed that Mrs. Lochte could get fresh mascara every time she cried in the stands.

SPECIAL: TIME’s Complete Coverage of the 2012 London Olympics