Where the boys are

The rise in popularity of women's sports highlights paradoxical intersections between athletics and feminism.

Published July 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Plenty of "Years of the Woman" have been declared before, but 1999 is
truly the year of the woman athlete. For weeks now, huge crowds have roared their enthusiasm for the American soccer team in
the Women's World Cup, cheering on sports stars with names like Mia and
Brandi and Kristine. The Women's National Basketball Association is in its
third season, with record attendance for the opening weekend and a crop of
exciting new players from the defunct American Basketball League (as well
as hyper-hyped rookie Chamique Holdsclaw, who actually lives up to most of
the hype). In tennis, John McEnroe himself concedes that the women's game
today generates more interest than the men's.

The cultural implications are tantalizing. It's not just about
equity for little girls, who can now dream of a career in professional sports, just like their brothers. It's about a new Amazonian vision of womanhood that includes sweat and strength, competitiveness and even ferocity. Individual female athletes, such as
tennis players or runners, have been accepted and popular for some time.
But team sports, and especially contact sports, are much more of a metaphor
for warfare. There's a unique thrill in watching women collide in a dive
for the soccer ball or battle for a rebound under the basket, get smashed
up and go on despite the pain and exuberantly celebrate a successful play.

The rise of women in sports is often hailed as the conquest of yet
another male bastion -- a victory for feminism at its best, the kind that
revels in female power and accomplishment instead of wallowing in
victimhood. Yet it is also rife with paradoxes and ironies that call into
question not only traditional but feminist assumptions about gender.

Take just one: While women athletes are indeed thriving in a "male" domain, they
can do so only as long as they don't compete directly with men. With only a few
exceptions, like equestrian sports and sharpshooting, sports are virtually
the only remaining sex-segregated sphere of activity. Other than the
maverick Camille Paglia -- who quite unfairly dismisses women's sports as boring and lacking in grace -- there are no feminists calling for
integration, presumably because they know that in integrated sports, women
wouldn't stand a chance.

It's not that they have less ability or spirit. Many male
soccer fans have been greatly impressed by the technical skill, finesse
and aggressiveness displayed in the Women's World Cup. Women's basketball
will never thrill those who live on slam-dunks alone, but contrary to the
claims of its detractors, it hardly lacks in athleticism or even
flamboyance. Spectacular no-look passes, running jumpers and reverse
layups, dazzling spin moves and pretty fadeaway shots are becoming staples of the women's game. (Who says watching
the Houston Comets' Cynthia Cooper, the WNBA's two-time Most Valuable
Player, slice through the defense and make an impossible off-the-glass shot
is any less exciting than a dunk?) Some longtime (male) NBA fans say that
they now find the women's game more enjoyable to watch because it has more
intensity. Nevertheless, the simple fact remains that men are bigger,
stronger and faster.

In a new Gatorade commercial, Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan challenge
each other in various sports, to the soundtrack of "Anything you can do, I
can do better." It's cute, but it's bull. Billie Jean King may have
trashed Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" a quarter-century ago, but
all she proved was that a woman tennis player at the top of her game could beat
a guy way past his prime. Venus Williams wouldn't last long against Pete
Sampras; it's safe to say that none of the top five female players
could beat any man in the top 25.

Despite a lot of hype about the
closing gap between the performance of male and female runners, the female
winners of the New York Marathon invariably come in behind more than 40 men.

The "Battle of the Sexes" may have raised consciousness, but in a
way it also set a misguided standard for measuring women's athletic
achievement. If men's performance is the yardstick, women are doomed to
inferiority. As the example of tennis has shown, it doesn't have to be
that way: The women's game can be enjoyed on its own terms. Yet there are
some provocative lessons here for feminists. The existence of women's
sports is clearly incompatible with the notion, popular with some academic
gender theorists, that the two sexes are not distinct biological categories
but merely points on a "continuum" that includes hermaphrodites. (On a
continuum, the women will be stuck in the basement.)

One might also detect
a certain hypocrisy on the part of feminists who endorse gender segregation
in sports but oppose it in the military -- where, surely, the physical
mismatch between men and women can have far more serious consequences --
and downplay the sex differential in strength when it comes to professions
like firefighting.

Women athletes are not only weaker than men but in some ways more
fragile. Anatomical and hormonal differences make them at least five
more prone to anterior cruciate ligament tears, a debilitating knee
injury that sidelined WNBA star Rebecca Lobo for this season and that fells
up to 30,000 female soccer, volleyball and basketball players in high
school and college every year.

These facts could be seen as perfect fodder
for Phyllis Schlafly (innocent girls lured into harm's way in an unnatural
quest to imitate men!) -- or as an opportunity to neutralize female
disadvantage by understanding its biological causes. Physicians at the
Cincinnati Sports Medicine and Orthopedics Center have already developed a
neuromuscular conditioning program that reportedly reduces female athletes'
knee injuries to a rate comparable to men's.

There are other paradoxical intersections between sports and
feminism. For one, athletics exemplify the aggressive "male values" that a
lot of feminists profess to scorn. In a sappy foreword to the
commemorative book for the WNBA inaugural season, Rosie O'Donnell claimed
that the women play kinder, gentler basketball. Well, there may be more
thuggery in the NBA, but the women's games have had their share of taunts,
elbows thrown into stomachs, even choking incidents.

While the play in
the WNBA is said to be more team-oriented, this teamwork is meant not to
nurture but to win; the bonding is based on toughness more than
tenderness. (Last year, when Cynthia Cooper took a nasty blow to the
thigh in a game against the Detroit Shock and writhed on the floor in
obvious agony, a teammate could be heard shouting, "Get up, Coop, you're not
hurt!") Players seem to have no problem going up against friends and
ex-teammates. A team winning by an overwhelming margin will never go easy
on its hapless opponents and let them score a few extra points for
sisterhood's sake.

Those concerned with equal opportunity rather than "female values"
may be troubled by the fact that in sports like basketball, where women are
still battling for a place in the sun, long-term success may require
distressing compromises -- such as relatively paltry salaries and a
truncated season. The conflict between principle and pragmatism was
starkly illustrated by the ABL-WNBA rivalry. The ABL, which went bankrupt
in its third year last December, clearly had a more "feminist" cachet.
Many of its supporters scorn the WNBA (which ABL fans on the Web snidely
dub "the wNBA," to underscore that the women are only an appendage to the
NBA) for kowtowing to men -- most notably by playing in the summer, when the
boys are done using the gym.

The ABL chose to play in the same season as men, albeit in smaller
arenas, and to pay the players relatively high (though hardly NBA-range)
salaries. The WNBA invested in marketing and focused on getting its games
on TV, which was far easier in the summer, when it didn't have to compete
for airtime with the NBA and men's college basketball. The rest is
herstory. In an obituary for the ABL titled, "What's More Important?
Political Correctness or a Thriving Sport?" in the women's basketball
magazine Full Court Press, publisher Clay Kallam argued that while the
uncompromising idealists have helped advance women's sports, only the
hard-nosed pragmatists can help fulfill its potential.

Gender politics can collide with practicality in other ways. Some
WNBA fans are upset that this season, six of the league's 12 coaches
are men, three of them with a background in the NBA rather than in women's college
basketball. The athletes, meanwhile, seem far more concerned with having a
coach who will help them win. (New York Liberty players have been especially
enthusiastic in praising new coach Richie Adubato -- former assistant coach
for the Knicks and head coach for the Orlando Magic -- with thinly veiled
jabs at his predecessor, Nancy Darsch.)

And then there is the issue of sexuality. Controversies over
lesbianism and homophobia flare up periodically in women's tennis (not long
ago, Martina Hingis created a mini-firestorm with a disparaging remark
about a French competitor's male physique and female lover). Some
feminists, such as writer and ex-basketball player Mariah Burton Nelson,
have accused the WNBA of downplaying the presence of lesbians among
athletes and fans while hyping heterosexual players.

Of course, it would
be ludicrous to suggest that Cooper and fellow Comet Sheryl Swoopes,
probably the league's two best players even after the influx of ABL
refugees, are being heavily marketed because they sleep with men. What's
true is that, while single players sometimes refer to boyfriends in
interviews or fan chats on the league's Web site, no one has yet mentioned a
girlfriend. Whether an unmarried player who never talks about any male
romantic interests is gay, unattached or simply reticent is anyone's

If lesbian athletes are kept in the closet, that's a legitimate
gripe. But is it really a bad thing to highlight the fact that some women
on the WNBA players are mothers, or that a few of them are gorgeous -- such
as part-time model Lisa Leslie -- and most of the rest look strong but,
well, female? Talking about the women featured in WNBA publicity, Nelson
sneers at "their fingernails, their makeup, their boyfriends [and] their
babies." But as long as the women's athletic prowess is not downplayed,
what's wrong with that? (By the way, it isn't just heterosexual women who
wear makeup and have babies.)

It's an unfortunate reality that the
perception of athleticism as not quite feminine still lingers. And it's
simply a reality -- as far as I'm concerned, a fortunate one -- that,
feminism or no feminism, most women will always want to be appealing to men. If Lisa Leslie or Sheryl Swoopes can reassure both women and men that
women can be no less feminine for being strong and athletic, more power to
the WNBA marketing machine. One could argue, of course, that women
athletes should not just redefine what it means to be feminine but
challenge the very notion of femininity. But that would be even less
pragmatic than having a winter basketball league for women, and not nearly
as desirable.

The message of female empowerment is part of the appeal of women's
sports, but it shouldn't cross the line into gender antagonism. A TV spot
with the text, "No wimps. No excuses. No compromises. No men. Here's to
the women of the WNBA," is not a good way to win over male fans -- and in
fact, recently, the "No men" line was quietly removed. There are, of
course, men who will hate women's sports no matter what; some of them haunt
women's basketball chat rooms, posting messages like "Who wants to watch
ugly dykes playing a man's game?" or "Why don't these women go back to
the kitchen?" (Some women, alas, feel compelled to respond with
male-bashing.) But the crowds at Women's World Cup and WNBA games include
not only women and little girls but plenty of dads with young sons, teenage
boys and other men.

The truly encouraging news is that this summer, millions of
Americans of all ages and both sexes will watch women's games without
giving a thought to sexual politics. It's too early to tell whether
women's basketball can ever duplicate the ascendancy of women's tennis or
whether women can ever make soccer truly popular in the United States.
For now, these sports have been normalized as a part of mainstream American
culture. For all the compromises, that's truly revolutionary.

By Cathy Young

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."

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