This is the final post in a series entitled “Women’s Sports Without Illusions” that critically examines the nearly four decades of the women’s sports movement, including Title IX, cultural and social developments, the growth of professional and international women’s sports and current challenges and issues.
All posts in this series can be found here.
I’ve been promising the last two weeks to explain what the above racquet is all about as I’ve made a racket about why and how the women’s sports movement lost its way.
The racquet was inspired by one of the creators of that movement who continues to inspire me and many other women today.
I bought it just days after she beat a self-styled male chauvinist pig in one of the greatest sporting spectacles of my lifetime.
It’s a Wilson Billie Jean King Cup racquet, a fabled relic of its day, wooden with a small head and long handle, frayed strings and a crack along the insignia. It’s completely unusable now, of course; when I last took it out a few years ago to see how it felt making contact with a ball, it shimmied like our family’s old 1969 Buick Riviera when I was learning how to drive.
I keep this racquet on the wall above my writing desk, as much a symbol of what King’s example has meant to me as her feat that night in Houston — and in everything else she has done — has meant to literally hundreds of thousands of women.
I had never been so fired up in my life, or since. Finally, I didn’t feel so all alone as a “tomboy.” The word didn’t sting so much any more. Here was a woman who did so much more than beat an old man on a tennis court in the Astrodome. She gave us the heretical idea that we might actually be able to do something in sports after we had grown into women.
I’ve lost so many things in so many moves in all the years since: gloves, cleats, my red, white and blue ABA basketball, a childhood’s collection of baseball cards. But somehow I’ve managed to hang on to the racquet, without really trying. There’s something metaphorical in all that.
In many ways, this racquet also symbolizes what I think the women’s sports movement has become today: Tough but brittle, successful but chastened, worn down but not without the goods, once refreshed, to spark future generations of females all around the world to get in the game, and to stay.
During this series I’ve explained how the noble intentions to live up to Title IX have been accompanied by hard-edged gender identity politics with little sympathy for displaced male athletes, rants against football and sexual expression, and desperate pleas that girls need to be “saved” by sports. Not only do these leaders ignore the notion that women may just choose not to play, they define equality in sports as based on participation numbers and percentages, and think this can be achieved only by their eternal vigilance in the court system.
Reviving the joy of play
The activists claim they’re only trying to make sure Title IX is being enforced, but as I have written in this series, what some truly crave goes far beyond what the law requires, and has ever been about. For them, this isn’t about sports, but to overthrow a dastardly “patriarchy” that haunts their dreams.
Their attempts to impress these notions upon young women hasn’t been as persuasive as it might have been, and I think I know why.
For years, the Women’s Sports Foundation (that King created), National Women’s Law Center and other advocacy groups serve up a battery of data and studies to illustrate not only how beneficial sports have been to girls and women who participate, but how they must be encouraged for females who have not. Or to underscore the legal rights for females to have equal access as boys to get in the game.
Learning how to compete and cooperate, staying fit and feeling healthy, getting good grades and avoiding teen pregnancy and boosting self-esteem are good things. If young women derive these benefits from sports, fine. If not, that should be fine too. Title IX is the law of the land and should not be repealed. It must be reformed to reflect the times and stop causing harm to men’s teams.
But what’s missing the most from this advocacy is the reason why we flock to sports in the first place.
Instead of being badgered to play for social and career imperatives, or for scholarship offers or fame and fortune on ESPN, both girls and boys need to be reintroduced to the idea of the pure joy of play, perhaps a quaint and even naïve notion in today’s society. It’s the subject of one of my favorite sports books, and it has informed me as I wrote this series.
I’m learning in middle age that extrinsic motivations simply will not work. Corporations keep pushing them on their employees, hoping the offer of a little beer money bonus will prompt more productivity and keep their docile little worker bees in line.
I may be getting older, but I’m no less rebellious about this kind of conformity, and I hate to think that we need to make sports yet another activity marked by duty and obligation, rather than fun and play. And most of all, a passion inspired by people such as Billie Jean King.
But that passion has stir inside the girl, and it has to stir deeply. Nothing else is possible without it.
When I stepped inside the lines, the rest of the world melted away.
Like opening a book, taking the field and the court was for me an act of the imagination, as well as a means of escape. The world of adults — their rules and demands — could be blown off, at least to some degree.
I could hear coaches and parents cheering, and sometimes yelling, and occasionally I let an umpire have it. I could talk back to a grown-up and get away with it, although I came close on one occasion to getting tossed for my big mouth.
At the age of 12!
I’ve often wondered whether I’d be sore today if had I had more talent and ambition than the limited options offered to me at the time, slow-pitch softball and six-on-six basketball. I participated in what I could, and did the best that I could. Playing for the Atlanta Braves, or being the female Pete Maravich, all the way down to my gray socks, were fanciful notions better left for the dream world inside the lines.
I didn’t have a point of reference for any of this. When Donna Lopiano repeats her oft-told story of being crushed as a young girl to learn why she’d never have a chance to pitch for the New York Yankees, I can relate to that. Although I have always hated the Yankees, and always will.
She ended up being a Softball Hall of Famer, playing for the famous Raybestos Brakettes. I gather this might not have been as satisfying for reasons I came to realize about my own experience: Softball was and is a fine sport, but it just isn’t baseball. If your heart is set on playing baseball, the so-called “female” alternative is really no alternative at all.
(Even more intriguingly, Lopiano never fielded a softball team when she was women’s athletics director at Texas; it was added only after she had become the CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation and her old school was hit with a Title IX suit.)
What I can’t relate to is how Lopiano and other women’s sports advocates have allowed those stymied dreams to animate their activism beyond the simple notion of working to tear down the barriers of participation and competition for girls and women. That certainly was difficult and painful enough to do, and they should be tremendously proud of what they’ve done on behalf of hundreds of thousands of young women.
But to parlay that activism into an angry grievance against the so-called “male sports culture” smacks of an embittered sense of vengeance that’s just unbecoming. Even when it attempts to call out the unbecoming behavior of male athletes. The women’s sports movement was not supposed to have been about reflecting matriarchal attitudes.
Even after I became aware of how truly limited my sports options were because of my gender, I never believed that rectifying that meant others had to pay a price. I didn’t envy or hate boys because football and baseball were all-male pursuits, with their standalone cultures. If anything, I grew to love those sports even more, curiously attracted to the reality that they would always remain mysterious to me.
For me, it was all about getting in the game, and staying there, first as a kid on the sandlots of suburban Atlanta, and later as an adult privileged to write about sports from all over the country and the world for my hometown newspaper.
It ranged from collecting names and times of competitors at a youth track meet to watching Brazil win the World Cup in person. In between were lots of high school and college football and basketball, soccer and Olympic sports and quite a bit of women’s sports.
It was a theatre of dreams that will never die.
Billie Jean showed that it wasn’t a place just for boys.
When I stepped inside the lines, I could dream.
What’s Next: On Saturday I’ll post a collection of all the individual posts in this series with a few final thoughts, and explain why I wasn’t able to get to everything I intended. It’s been a thrill to do this, and an honor to have some really thought-provoking comments from readers.
Women’s Sports Without Illusions: The Series.