Bad sports, or when sisterhood isn’t so powerful

A recent coaching acquaintance, who’s experienced in the thankless task of gender equity mediating, offers this perspective about the continuing battles between some men and women in college sports:

“It’s not about who’s right, it’s about what’s right.”

Yet this wisdom goes largely unheeded, as evidenced by some of the disturbing developments this week on the women’s sports front. Into the second decade of the 21st century, there are still so many raging debates about “what’s right” means:

• For the first time that most experts can remember, the courts have been asked to determine what’s a sport to be counted for Title IX purposes. Federal district judge Stefan Underhill ruled that cheerleading does not apply because it is “not developed enough.” Quinnipiac University will instead add women’s rugby, which is offered by even fewer schools than cheerleading. The women’s volleyball team that had been dropped may end up going away anyway in a maddening dispute that doesn’t have any winners. The school was reckless in trying to subvert Title IX enforcement in other ways, defiance that was guaranteed to bring out the worst in everybody.

Title IX activists are — ahem — cheering loudly, thrilled that a traditionally feminine activity that doesn’t fit their ideal of women’s athletic competition isn’t getting sanctioned. Former Women’s Sports Foundation President Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic swimming champion and now the organization’s legal adviser, demonstrated all the characteristics of a poor winner:

“I would hate to see viable sports that lead to Olympic possibilities, international opportunities, thwarted in favour of a sport that doesn’t lead to any of those.”

I thought the purpose of Title IX was to enable females to participate, regardless of their skill levels and athletic ambitions. I’m not sure I consider cheerleading a sport either, but this question never would have arisen had a women’s team not been dropped. Women’s activists have not lost a major Title IX case for the better part of two decades now, and they tend to get very indignant when anyone challenges their orthodoxy. The dismayed Quinnipiac cheerleading coach discovered how sharp those elbows can be:

“I think what offends cheerleaders more than anything is other women degrading them and knocking what they do.”

• If that case wasn’t dispiriting enough, USA Today reported this week on a blockbuster conflict at Lock Haven University in which a female athletic director has filed a defamation suit against defenders of the men’s wrestling team at the same time the black men’s basketball coach is suing the school for racial and gender discrimination. The gripe against AD Sharon Taylor is that she’s keeping men’s sports down; a former underling says she one displayed a picture of — ahem again — a lighted male athletic supporter in her office:

“To me, a jockstrap on fire represents the downfall of men’s athletics. It says what she really believes: ‘I want men’s athletics to go away.”

It’s impossible to make this stuff up.

• But the ugliest thing I read all week was some reaction to the retirement of USA Softball standout and swimsuit looker Jennie Finch, who’s long been in the crosshairs of gender-and-sexuality sports feminists.

Says lesbian sports activist Pat Griffin:

Women athletes have always needed to prove their femininity and heterosexuality. They have always needed to compensate for their athleticism by highlighting their ‘normality,’ that would be their girly-girlness and their interest in men. The acceptance of women athletes has always depended on their ability to project conventional femininity and heterosexuality: She can strike out big league baseball players, but, by gosh, the ribbons in her hair are so darn cute, her make-up is impeccable, and not a hair out of place.”

This for one of the most decorated players in the history of the game, who’s won NCAA championships and Olympic gold. But wait, there’s more:

“Though it will be a real loss for the game as all those men who tuned in and came out for games to see Finch and her ‘toothpaste commercial’ smile will now abandon the game as it loses its sexiest star. Oh wait . . . sex appeal doesn’t sell women’s sports . . . never mind. Maybe the loss of Finch will make the game a little less heterosexual?”

If you just close your eyes, you can let this drift you back to the 1970s. I hope Griffin wasn’t watching the USA-Canada match Thursday in the World Cup of Softball in which Finch clobbered a two-run homer. It’s not just Finch who should rouse her ire; the rest of the American lineup looks to be a Murderer’s Row of the tools of the patriarchy.

Former Vanderbilt basketball standout Chantelle Anderson — who’s a terrific example of what it’s like to be strong, athletic and unapologetic about her looks (she prefers a traditional feminine appearance) – had an eloquent, respectful response to all this:

“You are not helping women’s sports, or female athletes, by yelling ’sexism’ or ‘homophobia’ every time someone highlights how hot and feminine a particular athlete is. Don’t you see . . . you’re making the problem worse for all those girls that aren’t gay and really want to play sports. Girls that desperately need the lessons, guidance, and benefits of playing sports, yet don’t want to feel they have to dress and act like boys, or forfeit all dreams of ever having a boyfriend, to get them. You can choose to make this a never-ending campaign defending the right for gay girls to be who they are, but in doing so, you’re hurting other girls that just want to play.”

You can imagine the flak she’s catching for this; read some of the comments. Sheesh.

And so it goes, more than halfway through 2010. . .

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