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playing with the boys

13 january 2008

Not even the most reactionary of Americans would now dream of calling for the resegregation of sport along racial lines. Yet very few of us think twice about the widespread, indeed almost universal, segregation of sports along gender lines. Why shouldn't girls play with the boys? Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano make that question far more than rhetorical in their new book Playing with the Boys. Using a wealth of sources from legal and social theory, sport history and cultural studies, they argue that men and women should compete on the same level playing field.

Playing with the Boys has been billed in some notices as a critique of Title IX, but it's actually more an argument that interpretation and enforcement of Title IX has not gone far enough in allowing women access to the highest levels of athletic competition. If there are women who can compete with men, why does Title IX, in effect, still allow for segregation of sports by sex?

McDonagh & Pappano's argument is not really that there should be only one basketball team at each school, and that males and females should vie for its roster spots.

Those women who, as the traditionally subordinated group in sports programs, wish to play only on same-sex teams or within same-sex sports arenas should be able to do so. But this should be voluntary (rather than coercive) sex segregation. (224)
Though they don't explicitly draw this parallel, McDonagh & Pappano's view of sports is that there shouldn't be women's and men's teams; there should be women's teams and open teams: rather like school track meets that feature frosh/soph and open divisions. If a freshman or sophomore is running times or throwing distances that are competitive with juniors and seniors, he or she is free to compete in the open division. In McDonagh & Pappano's dispensation, a female who could be seeded into a men's competition would be free to run in a truly "open" competition.

Such a proposal does away with a somewhat inane and petulant objection to girls on football teams (where several have succeeded, for instance, as placekickers). If women can try out for men's football, some men complain, why can't we try out for women's basketball? Visualize that objection, if you will, in terms of a senior complaining that a freshman has beaten her in the 400, while she's not allowed to run the freshman 400. The recasting of "men's" sports as "open" sports would dissolve such objections.

I stress this point because the obvious practical barrier to coed competition in sports is that it's the rare girl who really can run with the boys. McDonagh & Pappano are more sanguine about her existence than I am, though. Playing with the Boys contains several examples of women who have competed at a high level with men. Michelle Wie has made only one cut in a men's event (in Korea in 2006), and neither she nor Annika Sorenstam has made a cut on the men's PGA Tour; but they have come close, and who's to say how much they could achieve with constant practice from the men's tees and against male competitors?

But sometimes McDonagh & Pappano's arguments are strained. At the USA Indoor Track and Field Championships in 2003, they relate,

Gail Devers finished one heat [of the 60M high hurdles] in 7.74 seconds . . . only three out of 23 men ran faster than Devers. Does it matter that the men's hurdles were higher? Of course. (Never mind that the men tended to knock over more hurdles than the women). (72)
Hmmn. It obviously matters a very great deal that the men's hurdles are higher. (And it matters not at all that the men knocked over more hurdles. Hurdling is not like the pole vault, where leaving the bar as you found it is essential. The hurdle is merely an obstacle, and if you never knock one over, you are going too high and thus slowing yourself down.)

Despite their somewhat sanguine notion of women's athletic achievements, McDonagh & Pappano have a perfectly good point: raise the hurdles for everyone (let women play baseball as well as softball, football as well as field hockey, five-set tennis matches instead of three), and women will get better and better, to the point where extreme outliers among female athletes will quite possibly succeed in open competitions. And since the main venues affected by their argument are local school districts, not national championships, we might see a lot more girls excelling in open sports a lot sooner than we'd think. Wrestling offers the most convincing examples, where weight-class limits allow women to take on men their own size, so to speak, and girls have amassed considerable success wrestling against boys.

In any case, how could it hurt to recast the top level of competition in school and college sports from "men's," as it is inevitably tagged now, to "open?" The principal objection that a "difference feminist" might raise is that women's sports are just getting off the ground. Softball College World Series play, women's March Madness, women's tennis and golf, are growing in popularity every year. Suppose the top 5% of females in these sports could play in open competition – suppose, even, that a really great woman could become an open-competition champion, with all the attendant value of serving as a role model for girls. Wouldn't the outcome be the death of women's sports as we are coming to know them?

Jackie Robinson killed the Negro Leagues, you might say. But very few people have regretted their death, because skin color has absolutely no connection to athletic ability. Sex does, and there are strong arguments to be made for preserving a kind of (voluntary) segregation that allows women to become stars in their own field rather than journeywomen in an open field. I'm not sure what to think of it. But till I read Playing with the Boys, I never really thought of it at all.

McDonagh, Eileen, and Laura Pappano. Playing with the Boys: Why separate is not equal in sports. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.