Gender equality is not new. It’s not even semi-new. But, while it is being focused on in the workplace, there seems to be a normalization of it in sport at all levels: Professional, Collegiate and Amateur. It becomes an issue more so because the gender separation can prevent children from playing or being involved in sports. Lillian Jacobson grew up playing baseball. She played it as a child, through high school and part way through college. As a child on the little league team, it didn’t matter that she was a girl. But as she points out in an interview with Team Snap  when she joined Ruth League, things got a little more challenging, both physically and personally. “I’m still just a 13 year old kid just wanting to play my sport” was Jacobson’s bewildered response to the constant haranguing she received from umpires and the fathers of the other boys. As she grew up, they asked her when she was going to switch to softball and why she would take these valuable positions away from the other boys. The dads were often the coaches, and never offered her the chance to play to the best of her ability.

Though she faced adversity from their dads, the boys on her team expected she would continue on the team with them come highschool, “because [she] always had.” But she was cut from the team because she was not, “big enough, fast enough or strong enough” although at the time, the 14 year olds did not show much physical advantage over one another. Jacobson responded to this by switching high schools by joining the International Baccalaureate program and trying out with a much more supportive coach, who encouraged her and saw her potential in pitching, training her to be a pitcher– resulting in her go to curve ball.

When Jacobson went into playing women’s baseball post-secondary, her time and training with the men’s teams all her life gave her a competitive edge. And as she points out in the interview, there were both negatives and positives that will be further explored. Let the record show though, that this post is in full support of gender integration in junior, youth and amateur sports. Having the two genders play sport together at a young age creates new patterns of thought. Jacobson’s team accepted her as one of their own because of her merit as an athlete, and the team was strengthened in their personal game play through it.

Rethinking the Norms & All the Issues

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Image taken from google images

A little more background and context might help make my point. When you’re young, gender doesn’t matter in sport. But once things become competitive, it begins to matter, and that system of thinking creates issues that run deep in the sporting world and have consequences for both men and women regarding: the ideas of masculinity and how women belong and are treated in sports. Once you are old enough to understand privilege and “underlying gender ideologies and the frailty myth” (Marin and Whiteside) and those values are instilled into you, problem arises. Sport as a whole is an arena (I know-another pun) that is steeped in a history of gender ideologies that continue to be damaging to society on a greater level.

Such presumptions are limiting and, ultimately, harmful, since they construct social and cultural barrier to participation and engagement in personally beneficial and socially prestigious activities. . .Concern is greatest during childhood, as girls’ early experience often provide the foundation for future participation. (Wellard 2)

These constant ideologies that “[suggest] that ‘gender’ is still a factor in a young person’s ability to take part and plays a significant part in their experiences once engaging” (Wellard 2). Sport is a sphere dominated by the idea of what is masculine. This doesn’t only excludes women, but also other identifying or LGBTQ+ individuals. The stereotypes are only further perpetuated and projected with a consistent attitude of sexism towards both genders.Like Jacobson, Sean Walsh and Phile Govaert were crossing the gender divide in sport. The boys were on the Rye High School Varsity field hockey team but had to secure approval to play in games (Haggerty). After having a girl on their ice hockey team, they wanted to try hockey on the field. Their struggle to play on a girls team enforced archaic gender biasese by strength testing them to ensure that they were not “too skilled, strong [or] fast to play with girls” (Haggerty). The Rye team coach was frustrated that her players were being tested,

Legitimately trying, they may have done too well on the fitness test; that maybe one or both, ran (just as many girls do) a mile in under six minutes. Forget the fact that field hockey is all about starting and stopping and bursts of speed, not running a mile. (Haggerty)

The issue herein lies in the message this continues to give merit to that, “the built-in assumption is that boys are better and girls need to be protected” (Haggerty). Having boys on the girls field hockey should have been allowed as it offers them new opportunities to learn new skills. Having them skill tested to see if they test “low enough” to play with girls is based on a problematic social conditioning that has become normalized within sport.

In an interview with Dave Zirin, it was argued that “sports talk radio banter broadcast reflects and reinforces dominant discourses about race, gender, and sexuality” (King 333). There are certain performative expectations that are necessary for men and women to conform to as athletes, and that continues to drive the divide. Women have the struggle of toeing the line between being strong and muscular but also remaining idealized and a glorified representation of femininity (Couture) while men are expected to be strong, muscular and dominant. These images of both hetero-normative and “accepted” ideas of men and women are exploited and used by the media to enforce these gender rules. Jacobson is not the only one playing in different gender arenas and going against the performative expectation.

We all know that there are differences in strength and ability when it comes to men and women, but that does not necessarily mean that one is stronger or more capable than the other, there are strong men and strong women, just as there are weak men and weak women. The fact that we, as a society, can sit down on any given day to watch any array of men’s sports coverage but not women’s is sad, but not shocking. At some point in our lives, we are told that boys and girls cannot play, let alone compete on the same level as boys. This is reinforced so blatantly in sports and sporting events in every aspect. Female sport journalists are not treated with respect, nor offered the same opportunity or playing field (pardon the pun) when it comes to reporting on a game;

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Female sports journalist Julie DiCaro receives dozens of hate tweets and aggression from male sports fans.

female athletes still make much less than men in the same sporting events;

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The pay gap exists outside the realm of sport, but is clearly seen in sport as well.

under-representation or misrepresentation in the media that is grossly sexist; and less opportunities to pursue a career in professional sport. “Even though female students comprise 57% of college student populations, female athletes received only 43% of participation opportunities at NCAA schools which is 63,241 fewer participation opportunities than their male counterparts” (Women’s Sports Foundation). Because of these consistently held beliefs and ideologies, it becomes a challenge to even enter into the sporting arena as a female.

Problematic Approaches

The thing is, there is no easy way to fix any of this. You know that and I know that. As a fairly active woman,who grew up playing sports (both co-ed and female only), and as an avid feminist, I think that the approaches to this issue have been less than impressive. That’s not to say there were not good intentions behind them, maybe there were a few. I just think that, in every approach (that I have come across, no generalizing here) it just seems like some kind of justification. Whether its justifying that “enough” of a solution has been reached, or justifying that changes are in the works, its not enough. My approach, which will follow these problematic ones, will hopefully do more than put a bandaid on the issue.

In a piece written by Marie Hardin and Erin Elizabeth Whiteside, they pointed out the cultural ideologies about women and gender roles surrounding Title IX.

Title IX is a federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal funding. . . It has precipitated a virtual revolution for girls and women in sports. (Brake 3)

And while it has increased participation in competitive sports drastically and given women’s teams more funding and time and opportunity for success, it still acts as a problem for women’s teams. When groups of young collegiate athletes were interviewed regarding Title IX,

[their] ideologies. . . [demonstrated] the acceptance of male values (such as revenue generation) as objective, acceptance of lower female participation rates in sports as evidence of their lack of interest and assumptions that female athletes are inferior. (Hardin 267)

there was a lot of disdain towards their fellow female athletes and their teams regarding them as buy ins basically to meet the standards that Title IX laid out. They believe that the money used to support the female teams was taken wrongly from the stronger, more well attended, male teams. This is not unlike the dad coaches on Jacobson’s baseball team telling her that she was taking the spot of another boy, instead of seeing that she had earned that spot. As well, Title IX brought with it a salary increase for coaches which meant, “women were not considered to be qualified candidates anymore to run these programs” (Thomas). So while the media coverage of Title IX shows the dramatic increase in women’s sports, they fail to show the other side of the coin in which women again get the short end of the stick. It seems that in a lot of ways, Title IX offers very little at the expense of many.

In 2004, the International Olympic Committee established the “Stockholm Consensus” which meant, male-to-female athletes could partake in women’s events at the Olympics (Cooky 32). Although this was a large step for the LGBTQ+ community, it still did not offer equal gender variance and therefore reinforced again, the societal expectation of gender norms.

Another factor that perpetuates this cycle of masculine dominant normativity are gender/ability/culturally exclusive mega-events. These events, while they do pose some positive aspects, serve to further alienate and justify the current state of things. The events are about creating a spectacle that shows the world that change is happening (Compton). Jacobson sheds some light on the Women’s Baseball World Cup which is one of these aforementioned events. It is an all woman’s league and the competition is recognized by the International Olympic Committee. In her interview, Jacobson says it was comforting to play with other female athletes of her caliber, because, all she knew was playing with the boys. It took the pressure off of her to be the only female athlete in baseball. At the same time, the reason that this event is a thing is because  there was a problem of under-representation in the first place and this is the solution to that inequality. Because of low media coverage, there is not a high interest or knowledge of these games and that holds women back in many ways: wage and further opportunity to progress in their athletic careers.

Throwing the (Learning) Curve

This is not the be all end all solution, but a mere consideration, a suggestion even, to help combat these issues. Let boys and girls play sports together at the amateur level. While there is a lot to take into account once you involve contact sports, muscle and dexterity, etc. Gender inclusive amateur level sports allow for equal training and can begin a change in mindset. It isn’t a set in stone change, nor would that be the best way to approach it. But it is a learning curve.

Here is the thing. The way I see it, encouraging boys and girls to play together at a young age will:

  • Help girls become stronger players as they are challenged physically and mentally and it helps boys learn to collaborate and encourage teamwork
  • It will start the norm of gender equality earlier to offer respect towards women as fellow athletes
  • It gives the players a different skill set and new opportunities for learning and expanding their sport.

Allowing Jacobson to play high school baseball with the boys team prepared better for college ball. It challenged her to be faster and stronger to match with those who were more naturally, physically built. It also challenged the boys on the team to include gender inequality into the game.

Equality in sports means each side benefits. The current programs in place to combat gender inequality in sport seem to have too much of the fine print that no one knows about, or is at the expense of another. Lillian Jacobson is proof, as are many other athletes, that co-ed sport can only improve your game and that Athlete has always been the ultimate genderless pronoun.

Works Cited

Brake, Deborah. “The Struggle for Sex Equality in Sport and the Theory Behind Title IX” University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol 34. Pittsburgh: Pitt Law. 2007. Web.

Cohen, Emily. “Should Girls Play on Boys’ Teams?” Team Snap Blog. Nov. 17, 2011. Web.

Compton, J. “Mega-events, Media, and the Integrated World of Global Spectacle”. Mega-Events and Globalization: capital and spectacle in a changing world order. New York: Routledge, 2015. Web

Cooky, Cheryl and Ranissa Dycus, Shari L. Dworkin. “’What Makes a Woman a Woman?’ Versus ‘Our First Lady of Sport’: A Comparative Analysis of the United States and the South African Media Coverage of Caster Semenya”. Journal of Sport and Social Issues. West Lafayette: Sage, 2013. Web.

Couture, Jesse. “Triathlon Magazine Canada and the (re)construction of female sporting Sociology of Sport Journal, 33(2), 124-134. 2016 Web.

DiCaro, Julie (JulieDiCaro). “hopefully this skank @JulieDiCaro is Bill Cosby’s next victim. That would be classic”. Sept. 23, 2015. 10:24 pm. Tweet.

“Episode 15: What Is It Like For Girls Who Play On Boys’ Sports Teams?” TeamSnap. Aug. 13, 2014.

Haggerty, Nancy. “The Politics of Boys Playing a ‘Girls’ Sport”. USA Today. Sept. 3, 2015. Web.

Hardin, Marie and Erin Elizabeth Whiteside. “The power of ‘Small Stories:” Narratives and Notions of Gender Equality in Conversations about Sport” Sociology of Sport Journal. 26, Issue 2. Pennsylvania: Penn State University. 2009. Web.

“History.” WBSC. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

King, C. R. “Toward a Radical Sport Journalism: An Interview With Dave Zirin.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 4 (2008): 333-44. Web.

“Pay Inequity in Athletics – Women’s Sports Foundation.” Women’s Sports Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

Thomas, Jeffrey. “Equality in Sports Participation Benefits All, Says Expert”. IIP Digital.

Wellard, Ian. “Rethinking Gender and Youth Sport”. London: Routledge, 2007. Web