Friday, July 28, 2006

Girl power?

The other day, I was reading this article by Zoe Williams in The Guardian. It's inspired by a petition to change FA rules that require youth teams to be segregated into boys and girls by age 11, as well as a mediawatch report from the Women's Sports Foundation.

Here's what Williams has to say:

Unless you start shooting barbiturates into your eyeballs, the measures and judgments of sport are utterly transparent and objective. Who is the fastest and who is the strongest? I can think of a really good way to work this out - let's get those ones to run somewhere, and those other ones to pick up heavy things. Job done. Yes, women can play football and cricket, and I'm sure the standards they attain would astound us all, since we never see them on the telly; but we are still dealing with pursuits at which men are better, and not because they've had more practice or more sponsorship. To insist that women get the same airtime as men is to insist that people are as interested in watching them; given that people watch this stuff for the spectacle of physical excellence, naturally they want to watch the most excellent, the fastest and the biggest.

I'm not quite sure what her point is here. Because it sounds like she's saying that female athletes are fundamentally inferior to male athletes, and so of course it's ludicrous to expect them to get as much media coverage -- or as much support and sponsorship.

And if that's her argument, it's bullshit.

First of all, anyone who's watched a soccer game and been incensed over a refereeing decision would disagree with the statement that "the measures and judgments of sport are utterly transparent and objective." Not to mention that sports are about far more than simply being the fastest or the strongest. They're about skill as well, and I don't see any reason that women can't develop that skill -- in whatever their chosen sport may be -- if they're given the opportunity.

The problem is that a lot of the time, they're not given that opportunity. This may surprise you, but I don't think that doing away with segregation is the answer. One of the leagues I play in right now is technically co-ed, but in practice about 95% of the players are men. It is more competitive than the women's league I play in, and playing with the men has made me a better player (although that's not why I joined the team -- it's because I want to have fun and play with my friends). This same league also has a women-only division, and frankly, they suck. Any of the women who are any good play in the coed division, and the level of play in the women's division suffers accordingly -- and I suspect the same thing would happen if you give girls the option to play on a boys' team.

By way of comparison, when I was growing up, I played in a city-wide recreational league -- there were also competive teams for all the age groups -- with separate teams for boys and girls from age six and up. There were just as many girls' teams as boys' teams, and as far as I know, they both got an equal amount of support from the club. And you know what? Those girls' teams were good. They won tournaments, they had sponsors, they got covered in the local media.

That equality, though, only lasted up until the end of high school, when all those girls -- some of whom were fantastic players -- went off to college or university and became, apparently, second-class athletes in the eyes of the world.

As Williams says,

This sporting world is not fair. It is not the kind of unfairness that two sides could argue about, each using the statistics differently to its advantage. This is crazy unfair - when you try to draw a graph of male to female sporting coverage, you have to tweak the scale just to get them both on the same page.

Yes, it is unfair, and I don't have a good solution to it. Part of the issue is that the sports media naturally tend to cover the big professional leagues -- in Canada, it's hockey, baseball, football (the North American kind) and basketball, roughly in that order. With the exception of the WNBA, there isn't a female equivalent to any of those, and the WNBA barely rates a mention on the Canadian sports pages. Then again, neither do other men's sports -- like soccer, for instance. So part of the problem is that there simply isn't a women's sports league of sufficient stature to get media coverage, and that of course is a vicious circle -- people don't care about the games, so the media doesn't cover them, so people don't know what's going on, so they don't care about the games, and so on.

On the other hand, even when men and women are competing at a relatively equivalent level, the male athletes tend to get more media coverage than the women. Take the Olympic ice hockey competition, for example, where both the Canadian men's and women's teams were expected to have a good shot at winning the gold medal. I don't have any statistics for this, but I'm sure that there was way more coverage of the men's team crashing out in the quarterfinals than of the women's team actually winning the damn thing. Now again, part of this goes back to Williams' argument about the superiority of mens' sports, and it's true that the men's hockey teams were faster and stronger -- and yes, generally more skilled. But I don't think that means we should throw up our hands and say "That's just the way things are, so don't worry about it." I think that means we should try to change it.

(And as an aside, check out this article about the possibility of a professional women's soccer league being resurrected in North America.)

1 comment:

Jones said...

What the hell is that woman on about? For one thing, anyone who thinks that boys and girls have equal opportunities and encouragement to develop in sports is living in a dream world. For another, in a sport like soccer, I don't see how men's physical advantage makes a big difference. The top men will always beat the top women in the 100m, but I don't know of any professional footballer who runs the 100m in sub 10 seconds, and anyway does that extremely small speed difference really matter over the course of 90 min of running? If men are playing against men and women against women then why does it matter that men are generally larger/stronger than women? So that just leaves skill level. And if the infrastructure and cultural conditions were present to cultivate girls in sports like they are for boys, I don't believe there would be any significant difference there.

So basically, she's saying, this is the way things are, why bother trying to change anything? Which is crap. As are co-ed leagues once you reach a certain age. Because the boys, (who have been taught sports by their fathers/older brothers/etc since they could walk, unlike the vast majority of girls) will not pass you the ball 90% of the time. And then how are you supposed to get better?