The inspiring victory of our Women’s World Cup soccer team took me back to my days coaching girls’ 13-16 softball in the late 1970s. I coached some tremendous athletes. However, the opportunity to maximize their talents was restricted by attitudes about females in sports and by limited resources.
My players got only T-shirts and caps for uniforms. They received less time during off hours for practices on mediocre fields. There were no paid umpires; we had to pry untrained parents or high school kids out of the stands to ump. Girls got limited, tiny trophies, about the size of your forefinger. Few expected them to be any good at the game. And their skills lagged because there were no early age girls’ training leagues.
Boys, meanwhile, got full uniforms, trained umpires, Pee Wee leagues, foot-high awards and high expectations.
Much has changed, but there is a need for further progress. Sports participation plays such a crucial role in developing the confidence, work ethic, teamwork skills, and balance of failure and success that prepares youth to be substantial adults. That sports experience must never be limited to, or in any way slanted toward, males. It should be there for all of us because the human development it fosters benefits our entire society. Girls, as much as boys, need full access to this avenue of development, just as they do in music, art and other character-building enterprises.
Our women’s soccer victory, which showed that female sports’ excellence is just as exciting and inspiring as male sports’ achievement, will help promote exposure to women’s sports issues. Players internationally decried discrepancies between the men’s and women’s games in areas from athletic expectations, to resources, to pay, to on-field celebrations and off-field behavior.
The increased success of women’s professional sports hinges on changed attitudes and on the chicken-egg factors of greater female youth sports participation and increased economic power for female professional sports. For these things to happen, the right messages must be sent to young boys and girls about female athletics. Women’s professional sports will gain economic clout when millions of young girls want to worship, watch and wear the jerseys of their female heroes. They deserve those heroes as much as boys do.
The degree to which millions of girls follow women’s games depends on the opportunities they are given for sports participation and the attitudes they sense from adults and peers. Encouraging attitudes start with elimination of the ridiculous notion that, when a woman has exceptional athletic skills, it is because her sexual preference or physical qualities give her “male traits” from which her skills emanate. What a ridiculous attempt to deny the reality that women, as well as men, can be athletically gifted. Serena Williams can defeat 99.9% of the men in the world at tennis. Lexi Thompson can do the same at golf.
There is not a two-tiered universal order of sports ability with men on the top half, and women on the lower portion. There is a broad, gender free spectrum of athletic ability, from first percentile to 99th. Women are very well represented throughout the 90th percentiles. Men are well represented in the single digits.
Do I believe that the biggest, fastest, strongest women can defeat the biggest, strongest, fastest men? Our human anatomy is such that, very predominantly, women cannot. But many, many women can outperform many, many men in athletics. No one should diminish the athletic accomplishments or opportunities of females based on gender. It is a ludicrous generalization through which a man could discredit the athleticism of a woman who would easily crush him on the playing field.
Our World Cup women soccer stars are exceptional athletes. They are skilled professionals, unyielding winners, gutsy performers and model teammates who speak publicly with intelligence and confidence. A few political protests aside, these women were quality representatives of the determined excellence we’re glad to have depict the United States on the international stage.
I wonder if these players would be the same self-assured leaders if the soccer field and the experience of team sports had never been available to them. That is where gender based discrepancy in sports carries over unfairly to gender based discrepancy in life. We should all demand access to the developmental benefits of athletics, plus an equal opportunity to sit in adoration of our sports heroes, male or female.
Ron Boone retired as the executive director of special education and Title 1 in Baltimore County Public Schools.