Update: On April 28–29, I was fortunate enough to be named a BinderCon scholar and to attend the weekend conference whose keynote speakers, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights) and Claudia Rankine (National Book Award winner for Citizen), both talked about the significance of sports in their lives and their work. Rankine sees sports as an important social document. Prince-Bythewood cited a truly phenomenal statistic that 90 percent of female US CEOs had played sports and then said she had gotten everywhere she is because she played sports, knew how to compete, knew how to win, and also knew how to lose. Knowing how to lose—and keep competing—is imperative to a society with gender parity, and it is, as I say below, a necessary skill for girls to learn. Parents, sign your girls up for basketball. Women, support your girls playing sports. And also check out the Canadian documentary a new friend turned me onto, Baseball Girls, which you can watch for free in its entirety.
The declarations of love for sports that I’m about to spew forth may immediately glaze your eyes. In the world of sporting events, there is no ambivalence, just love or hate, and on the part of many women, the feeling is hate, especially on that all-sacred day—Super Bowl Sunday.
I know why you feel this way. I know that the NFL’s nonprofit, tax-dodging status makes you cringe, that the pervasive homophobia of every bench—even tennis—forces you to roll your eyes at every mention that out-and-proud Michael Sam was cut from the NFL because he “just wasn’t good enough,” that with every homicide, DUI, and horrific wife-beating scandal, with every moment a team’s owner could have stepped in to stop it and didn’t, with every Tinder date whose eyes wandered from your face to your boobs to the game behind you on the TV, you have seriously fucking had it with sports.
I know all this, but I’m about to bring out an old one: hate the players, not the game.
I grew up in Michigan, where a peculiar cultural melting pot left us with prominent sports teams from the Eastern European to the urban American traditions. A predominant blue-collar factor with equal numbers of rural farmers and inner-city auto workers solidified that we would not have the most sports teams of any state in the nation, but we would have the most rabid and needy fans. When the “Bad Boy” Pistons finally conquered Magic Johnson’s Lakers in a four-game sweep in ‘89, Michigan’s blue-collar population wept, identifying the struggle to take down the established giant with the socioeconomic shift we’d been facing since Reagan took office in ’81, perfectly encapsulated by the ’88 closing of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station and cessation of Amtrak service to what was once a thriving cosmopolitan city.
We were Hockey Town, Go Blue, Fab Five, the snow-weather fans of a perennially losing Lions, supporters of sports on every front, and not just for men. Blue collar in Michigan applies to the women, too, and those who grew up on “the line” or on the farm had a need to compete that led to the University of Michigan being the first to illegally hold intercollegiate women’s basketball tournaments back1898. In Michigan, we move our bodies, we compete, and we drink, or we may just freeze to death.
So this brings me to my love of sports. I proudly played basketball, softball, baseball, golf, tennis, volleyball, and badminton. I ran track and was a cheerleader and pom-pon girl who joined the football sidelines on offense, so I could record stats and plays for the coaches, who would watch the games later to see what would and wouldn’t work, using my notes as a map. Later, in college, I was in an all-women WWE-style wrestling troupe for two years, even before roller derby began to hit its resurgence. I was a weird kid who was raised in a poor household outside of typical gender norms and rarely fit in with the other girls who talked about boyfriends and makeup, but on the pitcher’s mound or the court, I found a hard-wired connection to girls who I would never communicate with in my daily life. If you were wearing the same color jersey, you were lifted up to the same level, an equal working toward a victory or lamenting the loss, praising those for how hard they tried. Even writing this, I am getting teary-eyed thinking of a championship when I played a terrible game, but our point guard still passed the ball to me at the last second, and I nailed a three-pointer before the buzzer sounded, winning the game. I was never the best, but I tried, and that’s all that counted to those girls.
And now for the disconnect between collegiate/intramural athletics and professional sports.
Women are not represented. In college, women abound in athletic departments. But outside of tennis, soccer, and the WNBA, you will not find women on professional sports teams, and even those on pro sports teams will rarely be stars with any earning power. Something happens when we start paying athletes a lot of money. Money is a kind of power we’ve never been comfortable giving to women, and so this makes sense. When I hear men talk about women not having the skills or muscular strength to play on a pro sports team, I just hear exactly what pre-integration whites said about black players not having the mental faculties to understand complex rules. Obviously, what they found later was that a black player had already been navigating the sophisticated rules of social engagement heaved upon his being since the day he was born. Can a black player understand rules? He’s been fucking LIVING nothing but rules.
I’m now going to make an argument that you may not agree with, but hear me out. I believe the people’s politics in social reform does not reside in government and politicians but in sports.
I believe that there is no better representation of America on a large scale than a packed Dodgers game on a $2-hot-dog night with a Hello Kitty giveaway. I’ve seen it in action; I know it to be true. I’ve taken a shot of soju next to a group of Korean women, who are posing for selfies in front of a Cuban immigrant who’s still wanted by the mafia that helped him cross into the US, even as he racks up MVP candidacies next to a white Jewish farmer’s son. There is something about sports that melts borders.
When Mo’ne Davis threw out the first pitch at the World Series, I fucking cried, because the one piece of diversity that I am not seeing in sports is women on the field. I think Davis simply standing on that mound was a signal to all those women who stopped feeling welcome in sports to wake up those old memories of teamwork, of impossible plays, of defensive blocks, and early-morning practices that pushed you to the edge of your limits and somehow in every way informed who you would be as a person and how far you would go.
I believe the integration of women into all-male professional sporting teams is the next frontier for equality, and I believe it will most likely happen within baseball, because baseball has always been the testing ground for social experiments. It’s also a sport with specialized, skilled positions, eliminating some arguments about male physical strength. Jackie Mitchell, a female pitcher who famously struck out Babe Ruth, has already proved it was possible, and I would say that’s probably a good reason why men started pushing women into softball, dividing the sport into gendered play, so women could not have the opportunity to develop the specialized skillset and strength for pro sports. But college baseball coaches are waking up. Sports writers are waking up. On SBNation.com, you have forward-thinking men starting lively conversations about the integration of women, not to mention their LGBT channel, Outsports.com, which has recently revealed that a longtime beloved MLB umpire has been quietly out for the entirety of his career, still embraced by the sport he loves.
Women are next.
If women were to be integrated into all-male pro sports teams, I feel that issues of domestic violence with players would automatically lessen across the board. I feel that a woman’s presence on the same team as a man would increase equality awareness of men who could no longer deny that women are humans with the same wants and needs and feelings, thereby infiltrating other factions of life, creating a far-reaching domino effect. We could have a female president, and yet we would still only reach the tiny fraction of voters who put her in office. A woman on a sports team is a different beast. It places her on the level of striving human. She can no longer be your enemy when she fights for the collective victory. Many men may begrudgingly cheer her on or blame her for a loss, but eventually, she will become like every black player in all of pro sports today—an asset to the team.
So my appeal to you, women, as everyone gorges themselves on dips and prepares for the daylong football festival, is start caring about sports. I’m not saying you have to watch the Super Bowl, but I am saying that you have to care about it. Sports will never go away, and I do not think they should. But they do have to change, and I think women’s participation can make that happen.
I look at the extreme positivity of my sports experience, and I know that if framed in the right way by the right people, sports can transform a girl’s life and make her better at everything she does after, whether she wants to persevere to develop a revolutionary hormone-free birth control against all odds or just become a lowly writer who needs thick skin to deal with daily crushing rejections. If she can see a woman on the field with all those men, she will have an everywoman hero to call her own. She need not be an intellectual to digest the ramifications of that hero’s presence. She can simply see it, and she can see the men around her cheering her on, because she’s on their team.
The first step in caring about sports is supporting those whom you can already appreciate. SBNation.com, as aforementioned, is a great place to start (Steven Goldman, I love you.). You may not know anything at all about sports, and the rules can seem archaic and prohibitive from an outsider’s perspective, but if you ask a female friend to sit down with you and watch a game—any game—you’ll find that the basic rules are simple and that no sports fan actually knows all the rules. We’re all just guessing half the time, and that’s part of the fun. I live in Los Angeles. If you are nearby, I will personally watch a game with you.
Another great way to learn the rules is to actually watch women playing. I drop by the local baseball field to watch girls little league games on my way to Trader Joe’s. I cheer louder than the parents for every kid, which is weird for the parents, but all the kids hear is encouragement. In Los Angeles, we have a phenomenal WNBA team I’m excited to support in the upcoming season. Any college town anywhere will have a women’s team of any sort with cheap tickets. Make a date with your lady friends to go out for drinks and cheer on a women’s hockey team. Or, if you’re the more active type, join the hockey team yourself to learn the rules firsthand. You don’t have to be competitive, but you might find that you are, and that’s okay, too. You will also get in amazing shape.
When you feel comfortable that you’ve learned a few rules, the next step is to fucking advocate. When the men are talking about basketball and rapists like Kobe Bryant, bring up Tamika Catchings, an Indiana Fever power forward with a hearing disability who’s a 9-time WNBA All-Star and a gold-medal Olympian. She’s fucking deaf, and she still tears up the court with men. And the second someone hauls out the tired “throws like a girl blah-blah-blah,” say only two words and drop the mic, “Mo’ne Davis.” When people applaud the Steelers’ Ben Rapelisberger (I know that’s not his real name), change the conversation: “It’s amazing with all that power in his throw, he still feels the need to exert his power over women. You want a beer?” Or if you’re like me, and you obsess over Detroit Tigers trades and the fact that your favorite team just picked up a guy who killed his friend at a party and is still in the legal process for defending himself against a sexual assault, you could incessantly tweet at the Tigers management, broadcast announcers, and the MLB that you spend money on their organization, and you don’t like it.
My point is that sports is not an area where women should just fade into the background. It matters, because it’s where America lives, whether you like it or not. But you get to make it your own. Women comprise 47 percent of MLB fans and something like 41 percent of NFL fans. Could you imagine if even more women suddenly started caring about those teams, tipping the scales, changing the conversations? Women are accustomed to waging wars against injustice. What if the next step was to seriously reform football marketing and pull back the “murder machine” mentality that’s developed within the organization in the past two decades? The (what-will-soon-be-infamous) domestic abuse ad airing during the Super Bowl is a good sign that women’s involvement in the NFL scandals is enough to not let the issue rest.
There’s hope! I swear! And maybe you’ll have some fun. But mostly you’ll be helping me realize my dream of paying a hundred dollars for a bleacher seat to see the first woman in MLB step on the mound and strike someone out in three pitches. She will be glorious, and I will be there to watch when her teammates pat her on the ass—because she’s a winner, not because she’s a woman.