Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I wish I played golf like a girl

Yet again, comments have prompted a new post. Heather tried to get me to write about women in sports when I originally wrote the Sabathia post but I resisted because I don't see that as being the same issue. It gets its own mention here.

Sabathia was saying that African Americans are choosing not to play baseball for various reasons and that baseball would eventually suffer because of the shrinking talent pool. For the most part, this is not the problem faced by female athletes. Their issue is a glass ceiling.

There are few opportunities for excellence in women's athletics. Golf, tennis and the WNBA are the only major sporting venues available, and each of these are female-only competitions. Generally speaking, I don't have a problem with a woman attempting to compete on the men's tour. I had no problem with Annika Sörenstam playing Colonial in 2003 and would have no issue if she tried again. She may not have made the cut, but she didn't come in last, either—she finished as good as or better than fifteen men. Should those fifteen be banned from future PGA events? Annika has proven herself on the LPGA tour and deserved the chance. But Vijay Singh shot his mouth off and others with their 'maybe I should play a LPGA event' comments acted the fool, too. Quick reminder, Vijay et al, it's not the MPGA—the lady can play.

But past record and accomplishments is why I do have a minor issue with Michelle Wie playing men's events. I think she would be better served (and would have more credibility) if she proved herself a winner on the LPGA before attempting men's events.

Danica Patrick is another female athlete who has broken into an individual sport. While it is not hard to find references to the fact that she has never won an IRL race, it is not as often mentioned that she finished twelfth in the points standings her rookie year and improved on that her second year, finishing ninth. Not too shabby.

In team sports, however, is where the real problems arise because of a lack of legitimate leagues for women. If a female athlete wants to play, she has to break down that barrier. It's one thing for Sörenstam, Wie or Patrick to compete against men; it is quite another for a female to compete as a teammate.

There are levels of resistance to female athletes competing with men. The first is a gentle nudge. If a female, particularly a young girl, shows an interest in playing a 'boys' sport, they are encouraged to play softball instead, or join the cheerleading squad, or some other 'safe' viable alternative. The next step is resistance. Girls are told that locker room facilities aren't available, or that a proper uniform can't be ordered. Or even worse, they are put through a sham 'tryout' process to weed them out. The next step is outright denial: 'No you can't play. Go away.'

But if the athlete perseveres through all of that and actually make the team, there is one final step: harassment. They can be bullied by their coaches, their teammates, their opponents and their fans. Case in point: Katie Hnida, the Colorado kicker. Charges have never been filed, but allegations of sexual abuse and rape remain. Her former coach Gary Barnett made statements on the record that cannot be denied.

See, it doesn't begin at the pro level. Just as Sabathia implied with African Americans in baseball, it starts with the kids. A kid from the projects who never plays ball won't play ball in MLB. And a girl in the suburbs who is never allowed to play with the boys at the local park, on the playground or on a middle school team is effectively denied the chance to play as a professional.

Please don't misunderstand: I don't think women should be given a free pass to play football or any other sport in a traditionally mens league. But I do think these leagues should represent the best athletes in the game, regardless of gender, and that women deserve a fair opportunity to compete. If she can play, she's only going to make your team better. But this is a deeply rooted barrier in our society that is going to take time to overcome. It's going to take more than Wie making the cut and Patrick winning an IRL title. It's going to take more than Manon Rhéaume playing a couple preseason NHL games. It's going to take more than Billy Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in the 'Battle of the Sexes'. Throughout our history, various women have proved themselves capable of competing on the brightest stages. Hopefully one day, it won't be such a novelty act.


heather said...

Look, back in the day people said it was physically impossible for a human to run a 4-minute mile. Roger Bannister broke the barrier in 1954 and 46 days later another guy beat Bannister's time. Within 3 years 16 different runners had logged a sub-4. The late Harry Wilson has been quoted as saying "It turns out [the 4-minute mile] wasn't so much like Everest as it was like the Matterhorn; somebody had to climb it first, but I hear now they've even got a cow up it."

Cows, but no women. After Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier people said a woman would never run a sub-5. The women's record now stands at 4.12. People are now saying no woman will ever run a sub-4. Why are negative perceptions about women athletes hard to change? Why do myths about women in sports persist? Perhaps there just needs to be one woman and then sub-4s will be as routine for women as they are for men. Regardless, the challenge is exponentially harder because the social-cultural climate is cro-magnon.

The argument that women aren't as physically capable as men is unsubstantiated. I think the problem is rooted in the tendency to see women as T & A (NFL cheerleaders and SI Swimsuit Issue models) rather than as athletes.

heather said...

I just remembered something else that happened when I was younger. There was a girl in an area soccer league who was a phenomenal player. She was far and away a top athlete (but not allowed to play in a boys' league). Parents of her opponents were so threatened by her talent that they made public accusations that she was male. At one point a mob of parents from an opposing team wanted to take her into the bathroom after a game and make sure she didn't have a penis. Somebody tell me this isn't cracked up! Boys who grow up playing sports don't face barriers like this.

Kevin said...

That's pretty interesting stuff, Chris. You obviously put a lot of time and thought into that. I agree that women should be given the chance to compete, but in some cases I think mixed competition actually thwarts participation by the fairer sex.
Case in point: in Washington state, they created a high school girls' wrestling championship. They've been piloting this for a few years, and this year it was the real deal (only the third state in the country to do so). Anyway, participation has grown something like 500% in the four years since they introduced a separate tournament for girls. It wasn't that they weren't allowed to compete before, but most of them physically couldn't.

BTW, thanks a lot for reading and posting on my blog. It's nice to get people that aren't friends or family checking it out!

Chris said...

I completely agree, Kevin. My wife (that's her above) and I discussed this and she took issue with my statement that Wie should prove herself on the LPGA before moving to the PGA, saying this implied the LPGA is a 'minor league' tour. Well, that's a negative side effect of allowing the elite women into the traditionally men's leagues—the women's league is a step below, competion-wise. She agreed, then said Wie should play on the Nationwide Tour with the male hopefuls. I argue that, knowing how this developmental tour works, it would be to Wie's benefit to play the LPGA—competition at the top is probably better there, plus she could make the leap to the PGA when she was ready, not when she meets certain qualifiers. However, the best and most ligitimate option for her might be Q-school.
All this doesn't mean that the women's leagues should not exist and all sports should be co-ed. Female-only comps are great for encouraging participation, including the Washington HS girls wrestling championship you mention. But if that rare girl comes along who can compete with the boys, she should have that option.
Thanks for the comment and keep checking in. I am enjoying your work, as well. I'll toss up a link to you.