When Tonya Harding pleaded guilty to hindering the investigation of the assault on Nancy Kerrigan, she was stripped of her titles and banned from competing for life. "That was pretty much the worst thing that could ever happen to me," Harding said in an interview in 2014. "What am I going to do with my life now?"
A lifelong ban certainly sounds like harsh punishment for someone who devoted their entire career (and life) to a sport, though many argue that it was warranted, given the crime. There are a few main reasons why female athletes have been outlawed from sports in the past: doping (or using performance-enhancing drugs), failing a "sex test" (an antiquated test used to determine whether a female athlete has "appropriate" hormone levels), and being a "bad girl" (or committing a crime), according to Bonnie Morris, PhD, a women's history professor who specialises in women's participation in sports and war.
Harding fell into the "bad girl" category.
Sure, plenty of male athletes have also been banned from their sport after various misdeeds. But, in general, men in sports are applauded for being aggressive and/or competitive, while women like Harding who display the same traits are seen as troublesome (see: the long list of men in sports who commit crimes, and then go on to have illustrious careers). That's not to say that Harding's only crime was being aggressive and competitive (she did admit to knowing about the assault after it happened); it's just that her image was set in stone by the time the truth came out and it was time to dole out punishment.
Prior to her conviction, Harding was stereotyped in the press for being tough and a smoker, which fuelled her critics and was seen as transgressive. "At the time [of the Harding case], I felt acutely that a guy in the Olympics could have a bad boy image and be seen as kind of dashing," Dr. Morris says. "Women are not given the same leeway."