Friday, February 01, 2008

The separate but equal debate

Laura Pappano and Eileen McDonough, authors of the recently released Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports,* have an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor this week. They are good writers and they make compelling arguments.

But they also make generalizations followed by asterik-like comments that we have to take a little more seriously than they seem to. For example, they go through all the arguments and possibilities for co-ed sporting experiences. And they are right. Professional golf could have co-ed tournaments. It would be good sport and good entertainment to watch the top female and male players go against one another in a pairs competition. (Of course you might actually have to start paying the women similarly which is probably a larger impediment to that prospect than women's alleged physical inferiority.) And it's true that not every man can outperform every woman--no matter the skill in question. But their asterik--that it is likely that the top male athletes in a particular competitive sport will outperform the top female athletes--deserves more consideration. Because when we're talking about a popular sport like basketball that fact has a stymying effect on other sports that could engage in co-ed or other alternative practices. Pappano and McDonough cite the historical constructions of womanhood that have lead to the myth of women's physical inferiority. They are not so easy to overcome--whether you are a man or a woman, athlete or not.

Their attention to skill and ability also becomes problematic because society has not stopped constructing women as physically inferior. They argue that skill should determine your placement. The girls who are skilled enough should be allowed to play with the boys and girls who want to can play with other girls. The choice rhetoric fails to acknowledge that girls choosing to play with other girls will not be seen as a choice but a necessarity because they just aren't good enough to play with the boys. Our default has not changed. Girls plays with boys. Not the other other way around.

I am not particularly pleased with the separate but equal status either. I do think there are many sporting practices that could easily be integrated but are not because of lingering beliefs about women's abilities (but not men's, of course). We need to start questioning why there are gendered rules in co-ed softball, or even in recreational mixed doubles tennis. But still recognize that even atempts to change sports and games on a recreational level will be met with resistance--by men and women. And I think that it's pretty obvious that it is the women who lose out (in opportunities, in excessive and sometimes violent levels of resistance, in enjoyment) when attempts to change deeply gendered paradigms are made. Doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying; that there shouldn't be dialogue about this issue. But it just isn't as easy as integrating the youth soccer league. I wish it was.

*I still haven't finished that book--okay I have't even made it through the first chapter. But someday I will finish it and comment on it.

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