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Co-ed recreational sports rules & other random weekend ramblings about female participation in sport

Please forgive me: this post has little to do with the WNBA. I am subjecting you – my pseudo-anonymous (invisible?) readers -- to my random sports order to spare the friends in real space who already tolerate me daily. If you think this sucks, feel free to use the little star rating system below to tell me; that is much easier to swallow than nasty emails. ;)

This was the weekend I was supposed to not just get "back in shape" but also really get back to the level of a recreationally competitive athlete – I was supposed to play co-ed soccer, basketball with a female friend, and co-ed softball.

That never really happened. And I’m sort of disappointed.

But a lot of other sports-related thoughts entered my mind in the process and I thought I would share.

I did actually play soccer and that, I suppose, is what inspired this post. I was playing in one of those co-ed leagues in which the rules are tweaked a little as a way to correct for gender bias and perhaps gendered differentials in athleticism.

In basketball, the way that usually plays out is that women get three points for any shot they hit on the floor and there might be some limitation on what men are able to do in the key.

In soccer, women’s goals count for 2 points whereas men’s count for 1. That ended up being the difference in my game on Friday – a woman on my team scored midway through the second half, which made the score 3-0 and effectively put the game out of reach.

I usually hate these rules. I think they’re demeaning and completely disrupt the flow of the game. Then again sometimes I remember why they were instituted to begin with.

As ridiculous as the rules are, they do open opportunities for women on the field/court/diamond. And sometimes, that’s all that’s needed – an opportunity to show what you can do. Without those micro-opportunities, it’s sort of hard to break the entrenched notions of female athletic inferiority. To me, there is an analogy and there to the promotion of women’s sports… but first, the narrative…

Friday: Defense wins…but so do two-point goals

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon, perfect for either doing nothing or playing soccer. I did a bit of both.

I was laying out on the quad chatting with a friend about why the hell we’re in graduate school when my friend Mia walked by on her way to the game.

I had recruited Mia for the team because we were short a woman in the last game and had to play a woman down. Playing 7 on 7 soccer a person down is difficult because there are holes all over the field. We ended up losing 3-1, which is impressive considering that they should have run rough-shod all over us. We started looking for women – any women – to fill out our rotation.

Mia had played soccer in elementary school, but really hadn’t touched a ball for a while. She opened up her bag and started showing off some of her new gear that she got. Shin guards are required, but she skipped out on the cleats because they were too expensive. Soccer without cleats, I thought, is ok as long as we don’t have to play down again.

We eventually got up, changed, and headed to the field. Mia had some concerns that her gear wasn’t stylish enough, but I assured her the cuteness of one’s equipment really doesn’t make much of a difference. She disagreed – and I really couldn’t say much given my wanna-be intimidating all-black matching Adidas outfit. We settled that her knee socks gave her enough "pitch-cred"…despite the lack of cleats.

It was good that she came – we only had two women to start with: some undergrad I’d never met and another grad student who I had known for a while but had not realized she played sports. She played on a club team in the area and I made some silly (unfunny) comment about how she could probably show me a thing or two.

The game started and since we had twice the number of guys we needed, I sat out the first part of the game. Actually, the real reason I sat is because I had embarrassed myself in the previous game -- I got schooled one-on-one by some super fast guy who ended up beating me and scoring a goal. Demotion sucks, but I put the team first. Mia had to play and was scrambling around trying to figure out the rules and where to play. I told her not to worry – "just throw a few elbows and you’ll be fine".

Game started and we were doing alright. Our women were hanging in there despite having no subs which I still find unbelievable – a five minute run for me and I’m done (someone used my asthma as an excuse, but that’s not valid…that’s why I have the inhaler). But by halftime we got two female subs – more undergrads who I didn’t know, but they looked like they were ready to play.

Ebony sat for a while quiet on our sideline, not really saying much or even telling us she was on our team. She was no taller than 5’ 3" with a slight frame and looked more like she was pleasantly enjoying the weather than preparing for a match…and really I looked the same way. By that point, I think I had even taken my cleats off and just reclined in the grass.

When the second half started, Mia came out and both Ebony and I went in. She asked where I wanted to play and I said I could play midfield or defense if she wanted to play striker. She paused for a moment and said, "I can play up" and headed to take the kick-off.

Once the whistle sounded, she sort of dropped the shy act. She was sort of everywhere. I was marking the other team’s "star" and just trying to keep him from scoring. We eventually scored to go up 1-0 and I just wanted to help hold the lead, especially after blowing it in the previous game. After chasing this dude for a bit, I was gassed. I called for a sub. Mia gave me a high five and I was just desperately searching for oxygen.

Ebony stayed out there a little longer and it just seemed like she was more and more aggressive with every passing moment. At some point I commented to one of my buddies that Ebony easily had the most shots on goal – she was getting the ball and scoring position and firing whereas the men on our team were playing with the ball as though they wanted to dribble past the goalie. But about half way through the second half Ebony actually scored a truly amazing goal.

One of our male players had a breakaway up the left side of the field and Ebony patiently ran with him, perfectly avoiding any chance of an off-sides call. The ball was crossed high across the box just over the goalie where Ebony was there waiting for the ball. Rather than trapping the ball and trying to make a move with it, Eboni volleyed the ball with a flick of her foot high over the goalie and it dropped perfectly over the goal line. The goalie stood there frozen with nothing to do but watch the two point ball roll into the net. We all jumped up on the sideline and someone yelled, "Whoa! She’s good!" Up 3-0, we were able to coast to a 3-1 win.

After the game, we all congratulated Ebony of course and she quietly stood there until she said, "Sorry I came late." To which of course we all said whatever, we needed you. And apparently we needed her for more than just filling a spot.

Saturday: Basketball, masculinity, and foolishness

On Saturday I was slated to play basketball with my friend Kay, who is a 6’3" former NCAA Division I basketball player who played for a prominent women’s basketball program.

We texted in the morning and she agreed with one of my earlier texts: "I’m just feeling old and lazy today." Besides just feeling old and lazy, Kay was not feeling the court she normally played at after getting into a little argument with some dude two days prior in which she left the court half-way through one game.

As I was on the bus down to the court, Kay texted to say that she was heading over early because she had plans later in the day. So when I got there, she was already playing. She was easily the tallest player on the court, which unfortunately just draws one of two reactions from men eager to assert their masculinity on the blacktop.

One, they will do the typical thing that men do with women on the court and just play her soft. But after experiencing one or two of her shoulder fakes and jump hooks low in the paint, it becomes clear that the "play gentle" strategy is just ineffective. Others will do the polar opposite and play her hyper aggressive, throwing elbows and trying to just physically overpower her – she once remarked, "It’s almost like they get some kind of sexual satisfaction out of dominating me."

On this particular day, a guy was playing her rather soft and she got position on him a few times and got the hook shot going. He didn’t appear to be someone particularly inclined to play defense anyway and focused on offense. He was a guard and probably the best player on his team. As a forward, she had no business guarding him but she took him because none of the other guys on her team would. He burned her a few times since you don’t really expect help defense in a street ball game, he ended up scoring on her and her team lost.

They came off the court and we talked a bit. She had to go soon and probably wasn’t going to wait for another game. She broke down who was good and wasn’t and who I should think about guarding when I was on the court. "That guy is fast, you should take him." Eventually she got to talking about an incident that occurred when she showed up to the court the previous week.

Apparently, she came on the court to play and some dude just flat out said, "No. She ain’t playin’." She laughed at first but apparently he and his teammates are adamant – she was not going to play on the same court as them. One of the other guys she was just playing against looked over to our conversation and said, "For real? Here?" She said, "Yep. So I just said f--- it and left." We all shook our heads and laughed.

A few moments later, the team who had next called over to the sideline to get another player. She spoke up quickly, "I’ll run!" No response. "You need one? I’ll run," she yells again. Again no response. One of the guys who was just laughing with us glances over and walks onto the court. I was just slow getting ready – needed my standard inhaler puffs before playing – so I didn’t even bother saying I would play this game. Assertive as she is, she just popped up off the wall we were sitting on and jumped in. She did end up playing and continued her back and forth with Mr. Soft D.

Saturday Part II: Softball training

Kay left after that one game I watched…and then pretty much all but two of us left. So now I had this huge chunk of time left in my day and just decided to find something else to do.

It was a nice afternoon, so I didn’t want to be inside doing studenty stuff. That’s what nights are for.

So I texted another friend of mine, Jessica, who had a rough week and had wanted to walk and talk. We decided to go to a park with a little beach area by a lake. As we walked, we talked for a while about work, school, life, whatever and just sort of enjoyed the weather and the scenery. She wanted to knit and I just wanted to relax for a bit so we sat on the beach for a while.

I was supposed to play in a co-ed softball game the next day so I picked up a piece of driftwood and started swinging it like a bat. I never really have been a baseball player so I need all the practice I can get. She was a pretty talented high school softball player who decided not to play at the college level to focus on academics and has strong feelings about mechanics.

She gave me some advice on driftwood swing and noted a few small things I do wrong. I tend to open up my shoulders too quick. I tend to let go of the bat too early and take one of those major league baseball homerun swings rather than going for solid contact. "But that’s just what I see on TV," I complained. Oh well.

She relayed a story about how she was at a baseball camp as a teenager one time and they got to swinging drills. Her dad was pretty hard on her in terms of mechanics, so she was always pretty confident about her ability to swing a bat. Of course, the coaches at the camp just saw her as one of two girls at the camp and when she first stepped up to bat they would pull the gentle babying thing on her – throw her a slower pitch and tell her not to worry if she didn’t hit the ball. They quickly realized that she indeed could swing a bat…and eventually had the other boys in camp watch her swing to teach to the proper mechanics.

Think there was a little resentment amongst the boys?

Of course, she eventually drew the ire of the other boys desperate for attention and sort of became the outcast of camp. We laughed and just sort of kept on talking about whatever we were talking about.

Sunday: Missed the softball game

After all my efforts to practice my swing, I ended up missing the softball game. There was a scheduling mix up – think it was my fault – but I didn’t get a reminder email because I was out at lunch. Oh well.

A friend of mine, Doug, is a huge Portland Trailblazers fan and wanted to watch the Portland-Houston game later in the evening. So I headed to a coffee shop near the bar to wait for game time.

We hadn’t seen each other for a few days so we spent some time catching up, laughing about relationship problems, and talking about some random academic stuff. We eventually got all the serious stuff out of the way and started talking about sports…then stats…then whipped out the laptops (the bar has wireless internet access, a perfect place indeed).

As we were independently perusing the web during halftime (over nachos and beer) he came across a New York Times article from Friday about how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had to cut eight sports teams. "Alpine skiing??" he said mockingly, "Who even competes in that? Who do they play against?"

Of course, I don’t really know but asked if the article mentioned anything about Title IX. "Good point," he said nodding and continuing with a sarcastic tone. "But really, it’s not like women need to be playing sports anyway." He and I laughed at the absurdity of his comment, having known each other for a while and knowing a number of talented female college athletes.

According to the Title IX blog, it appears that no Title IX issues have come up with regard to MIT's recent action.

Nevertheless, although he joked about it, we as a society are a long way away from truly accepting female athletes as legitimate. I’m really not even saying the stories of these three women I just highlighted are exceptional – women who do play sports are likely ignored, dismissed, and underestimated on a regular basis, whether it be at the interpersonal level or the larger societal level of how women’s sports are promoted and discussed.

But now that women do have opportunities to play, develop as athletes, and compete professionally, I wonder what it will take to make the next step of being respected as athletes.

It would be relatively easy for us in the U.S. to look at places like Saudi Arabia and say, well at least we aren’t preventing women from playing sports – everyone in the U.S. has equal opportunity to play sports! But it seems like it’s time to look past equal opportunity and look toward equitable participation – equal access to inequitable participation is not sufficient to consider ourselves a "just" society.

While we don’t all have the power to change the structures that maintain gender inequality, it seems like we can shift the way we interact with one another. So I won’t pat myself on the back for playing co-ed sports or taking instruction on my swing from a woman without feeling resentful. The real test, it would seem, is whether I as a man perpetuate sexism in athletics by subconsciously dismissing, remaining silent, or not "expecting great(ness)" from female athletes…or women in general.

And yet, acknowledging and reflecting upon my own shortcomings is probably a necessary but hardly sufficient condition of strengthening my own gender politics.

And the verdict on those crazy co-ed sports rules in the meantime? It’s hard to say as long as we remain surprised when a woman can have an impact on the pitch, the court, or the diamond.

Related Links:

First Saudi Women's Team Plays in Amman