Gender Equality and the Purpose of Sport

I’m not sure exactly what RTD columnist Barton Hinkle is playing at in a column this morning suggesting that true gender equality in sport would require that men and women compete against one another.

But before turning to that argument, it’s worth pointing out three crucial flaws in Hinkle’s account of the effect of Title IX on gender equality in sport. (The RTD link to Hinkle’s column is broken, but this is a blog posting from last week sketching some of his view.)

First, Hinkle omits the overwhelming fact that the number of female athletes on American college campuses has increased from just 16,000 in 1970 to some 180,000 today, with the average college now offering 8.5 women’s teams, compared to 2.5 teams in 1970. Title IX has compelled colleges to offer many, many more opportunities for women in sport. Academic research suggests that participation in sport increases young female students’ levels of self-esteem and independence (and reduces their likelilhood of getting pregnant or engaging in suicidal behavior); but the massive increase in women’s participation in sports has impacted the lives of female non-athletes as well by helping re-shape gender norms and our expectations of what women can do.

I wish Hinkle had been at the U.S. women’s soccer national team game at UR stadium this past Sunday, to see firsthand the enthusiasm and inspiration that team generates among young female fans in particular. Guess what, without Title IX, which led to the dramatic expansion of women’s college soccer programs (less than 3% of colleges had women’s soccer in 1978, now nearly 90% do) the U.S. would be a backwater in women’s soccer (and many other sports.)

Second, Hinkle asserts (with no evidence whatsoever) that colleges struggle to fill women’s teams with players qualified to take the scholarships on offer. I’m sorry, but that claim is patently ridiculous. As opportunities have expanded, women have stepped up and filled them. And anyone who has spent any time around elite-level college women’s sports will tell you that the competition among female high school students for scholarships has intensified greatly in the past decade. Women’s college coaches are now bombarded with home videos from the families of prospective players, desperate to get attention so they can get a shot at a scholarship (or a roster spot in the non-scholarship Ivy League).

Perhaps Hinkle is making only the more limited claim that the pool of women trying out for a given team tends to be smaller than the pool of men trying out for a given team. That claim would be more plausible, though of dubious relevance to whether colleges should continue to offer equal opportunities for participation. In any case, the dramatic increase in women’s particpation over time is the strongest possible indication that the correlation between gender and sport is at least in large measure a social construction. Now that the opportunities are there, far more women are interested in participating in sport than anyone would have imagined in 1970, and there’s good reason to think that women’s interest in sport is still evolving and still increasing, rather than having hit a ceiling. The WNBA and the women’s national soccer team phenomenon have only been around for 10 years, and it would not be surprising to see the first generation of girls who’ve grown up with the assumption that women can play pro team sports show even more interest in sport than their predecessors as they come of age in the next few years.

Third, Hinkle ignores the elephant in the room when it comes to gender equality and college sports: men’s college football. At the I-A level, college football claims 85 scholarships a year, and 63 at the I-AA level. As RTD sports columnist Paul Woody sensibly pointed out on Monday, reining in the number of scholarships offered in football would make it possible for colleges to keep other men’s sports.

This brings us to Hinkle’s own constructive proposal, that men and women should compete together and against one another on the playing field. That proposal makes some sense at lower-levels of sport, where it’s quite true, as Hinkle says, that “the bell curves largely overlap” between the athletic ability of males and females. Indeed, co-ed leagues for older players in sports like soccer and volleyball are quite popular.

That doesn’t mean that mixing the genders together should be the norm for youth and school sports, however, for two kinds of reasons. Among kids, it surely is the case that many young girls can do just fine competitively playing with boys. But at the youth level, the primary purpose of sport should not be competitive excellence and training top athletes, but providing a valuable social experience (as well as needed exercise) to as wide a range of children as possible. That’s more likely to happen if there are two teams instead of one, both because there are more opportunities to participate, and because an all-girl team is a very different and to many girls a safer social space than a team with boys and girls together would be.

Nor does mixing the genders make sense at the elite level, where differences in speed and strength between male and female athletes that are modest relative to the general population get greatly magnified in importance. Simply put, it’s not realistic to think that more than a handful of women’s college basketball players at the Division I level would be able to play at the men’s level (to take one example), simply as a matter of strength and size. The truth is that arbitary physical characteristics make a difference in ability to play many sports at the elite level. To ignore this, and the fact that physical characteristics of men and women on aggregate differ pretty substantially, is a recipe for shutting women out of top-level competition altogether.

It’s also to miss out on why women’s sport, as is and as it is evolving, is so valuable. For 99.5% of the people who play sports, it’s not about being the absolute best in the world. It’s about doing the best one can relative to one’s set of peers, whether that’s the weekend warriors in an over-40 soccer league or other 20-year old women. The challenge, thrill, disappointment, and rewards of that competition are the same; all that varies is media and fan attention.

Women’s sports also provide something valuable–and distinct from men’s sports–for spectators as well. Women’s soccer is a different game tactically than men’s soccer, due to differences in the physical attributes of the players, just as women’s basketball is clearly a different game than men’s basketball. But beyond the difference in tactics and strategies, the women’s game often a brings a different spirit and sense of team to the table than you’ll find in elite-level men’s sports these days.

To be fair to Hinkle, he says he’s only trying to ask an honest question, not make an airtight case for what would in effect amount to abolishing women’s sports. Hopefully this response has provided some answers.

Published in: on October 10, 2006 at 3:02 pm  Leave a Comment