ONTD Political

In which gender essentialism can DIAF

8:43 pm - 11/12/2012

Nine-Year-Old Girl Plays Football, Kicks Ass and Maybe Changes the World


Few 9-year-old girls are described as a “young—very young—Walter Payton.” But that’s what people are calling Sam Gordon of South Jordan, Utah. Gordon has become an Internet sensation after the spread of viral videos showing her shredding Pee Wee football defenses with a series of dynamic touchdown runs.

The footage of Gordon has been passed around breathlessly but almost as a YouTube curio, like she’s the 2012 version of the “dramatic chipmunk” or “sneezing panda”.

Her rather overwhelming awesomeness, however, raises far more interesting questions: Why do we still segregate so much of youth sports based on gender? Does the practice of doing so actually stunt female athletic potential? Would ending gender segregation foster a higher level of athletic excellence? The early women’s rights activists certainly thought so. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in a women’s issues magazine, The Lily, “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy, in romping, swimming, climbing, playing ball.”

This is not to argue that there aren’t basic physical differences between men and women. But those differences are often overstated in the name of protecting the “common sense” of gender segregation. Journalist Sherry Wolf wrote, “Let’s cut to the chase. Men tend to weigh more and have greater muscle mass than women: men have 40–60 percent greater upper-body strength and 25–30 percent more lower-body strength. However, with training and nutritional guidance on par with men, female power lifters, for example, have narrowed the gap in actual strength to between 0 and 8 percent.… While there is a connection between muscle size and strength, there is not a direct correlation, as other factors can influence an athlete’s strength such as age, limb and muscle length, and genetics.”

In addition, while the typical male may have greater natural muscle mass, women’s biology makes them provably better at sports that require endurance like ultra-marathons, Alaska’s Iditarod race and long-distance swimming. The book Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal, by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, goes through this in painstaking detail. McDonagh and Pappano argue that “coercive sex segregation does not reflect actual sex differences in athletic ability, but instead constructs and enforces a flawed premise that females are inherently athletically inferior to males.”



This premise of “inferiority” is rooted at the founding of organized, professional sports at the end of the nineteenth century, which coincided with the enforcement of gender segregation as the new normal. A very useful view into this is Jennifer Ring’s book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball. As Ring describes, baseball started as the British game Rounders, played by boys and girls together. Girls continued to excel in the Americanized game of baseball deep into the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the game was professionalized and commercialized at century’s end that girls were forcibly pushed off the diamond. Leaders of the sport like Albert Spalding worked to establish a culture that “would mythologize baseball as a manly American game.” But as Ring writes, this wasn’t just a reflection of the sexism of the age. Spalding, like President Theodore Roosevelt and other leading thinkers of the time, saw sports and masculinity as very tied with the dominant political ideas of the time such as Manifest Destiny and US imperialism. They gave us a primordial ooze where sexism, homophobia, militarism and sports all simmered in the same stew. Straining out what’s healthy in this stew has been a slow, arduous, century-long task.

Today gender segregation in sports is rightly celebrated as a proven arena of female empowerment. Since Title IX legislation was fought for and passed in 1972, there has been an explosion of athletic participation by women. Before Title IX, one in thirty-four girls played sports; now it’s one in three. Every study shows that along with participation comes an increase in confidence, a lessening likelihood of eating disorders and abusive relationships, and greater defenses against the relentless shrapnel of sexism aimed at young teenage women. Challenging gender segregation is not contrary to the mission of Title IX but essential to it. It’s about the same thing, challenging one of the very foundations of sexism: the great lie that boys hold an innate physical superiority to girls.

There is another issue as well that speaks to the urgency of challenging gender segregation in sports. The very concept of gender is something that at long last is under the microscope. There are trans athletes as well as entire trans teams whose members choose not to identify as male or female. Then are the millions of people whose bodies combine anatomical features that are conventionally associated with either men or women or have chromosomal variations from the XX or XY of women or men, often referred to as “intersex.” Doctors estimate that “intersex” children comprise one in 1,666 births. The NCAA to its credit has even provided new rules and guidelines to make sure trans athletes have a place to play. The guidelines openly discuss at what point someone plays for the women’s team and when, whether through hormones or surgery, they need to try out for the men’s. This is a very positive step in acknowledging the existence of trans student-athletes, but it still rests on the idea that boys are on one side and girls on the other.

Resistance to a “gender binary” will grow in the future. All of sports should be ahead of the curve on this in providing inclusive space so everyone can play without fear of being pushed aside. The future of sports could be a beautiful, life-affirming safe-space or it could be an anchor on human progress, expending effort on policing gender and making sure everyone stays on their side of the gym.

For now we’ll have to make due with the glimpse into the future that is Sam Gordon. At 9 years old, she has her own reason for playing football. “Most of the times it’s just really fun to be the one scoring the touchdowns,” she said on Good Morning America. “Rather than the boys.”




Source has video.

the_physicist 12th-Nov-2012 10:13 pm (UTC)
i'm intersex and trans* with mostly female physiology. my intersex status gives me 0% advantage in sport over others, if anything my heart problems related to my intersex condition make me worse.

i would whole heartedly agree with the first half of the article, that the sex segregation can lead to a greater difference than might otherwise be there. but this has limits, i feel. it depends on the sport in question, i think some blanket approach of removing segregation would be ridiculous. I'm sure that's not the point being made here though, but just "in before someone points out putting a male and female heavyweight boxers in the ring together to fight over the same title" stuff.

on a personal experience: i only came out recently, for most of my life i've seen myself as female and lived as any other woman. i had to up my game when I went to college and played on the men's football team in an all men's league (there wasn't a comparable league for women, and that was the league i was interested in). being in and later captaining an all men's team was tough physically and mentally. At school we'd been separated by sex and as girls we hardly did any real sport compared to what the boys did. I think that i could hold my own on the football pitch later shows that it's not exactly because no girl can play football like a guy can. female physiology isn't inherently that weak. Although saying there are no differences would be laughable i feel. but the differences that are there are definitely enhanced through schools (at least where i grew up) not challenging girls.

Edited at 2012-11-12 10:15 pm (UTC)
mephisto5 12th-Nov-2012 10:27 pm (UTC)
I was not aware that there were any conditions associated with being intersex, other than the obvious. If it's not too intrusive, would you mind elaborating?

What I got from this article was not that CAFAB people and CAMAB people would be equal at every sport if sex segregation at younger ages were removed, but that a large part of the current difference in performance is due to early sex segregation and that it's not so much that one sex (loosely defined here, please let me know if my terminology can be improved) is better across the board than the other, but that they tend to be better in different areas (I think on a related previous ontd post someone pointed out CAFAB people tend to have an advantage in sports requiring a low centre of gravity).

Agree with you on not being challenged thing- I only started doing sport intensely once I got to university (rowing), which was before I started transitioning, and there our female bodied team beat the shit out of the male bodied team.
the_physicist 12th-Nov-2012 10:38 pm (UTC)
but that a large part of the current difference in performance is due to early sex segregation

that's kind of what i was trying to get at with the girls not being challenged, i could have made my point more clearly though, i realise that though XD . and them not being challenged kind of comes from the fact that they do "ability" segregation by sex, rather than segregation based on ability regardless of sex.

it's not so much that one sex (loosely defined here, please let me know if my terminology can be improved) is better across the board than the other, but that they tend to be better in different areas

i feel that goes into the territory of 'girls are not weak, they are just different!' (i.e. let's just change the word here, but not the thinking) as well as still keeping up the mental thinking barriers that girls are just good at X, and boys at Z.

the issue is really that it should be on an individual level, based on an individual's performance.

I was lucky that the league i played in didn't have an issue with a girl joining, for example. my individual performance was fine, but too often women and girls are excluded from teams they could play in based on their gender, rather than because they can't do the sport. whether women are generally not that good at that sport shouldn't be the issue.

edit: also think about it for trans girls and women. they often get excluded ignorantly from girls and womens teams due to people thinking they must have an unfair advantage. teams based on ability would help against that.

and also with intersex people having their gender questioned based on their physiology.

Edited at 2012-11-12 10:40 pm (UTC)
liret 12th-Nov-2012 11:18 pm (UTC)
i feel that goes into the territory of 'girls are not weak, they are just different!' (i.e. let's just change the word here, but not the thinking) as well as still keeping up the mental thinking barriers that girls are just good at X, and boys at Z.

I know you aren't saying there are no physical differences, and it's a big problem when that argument is used to keep people out of certain sports - but it's also not really something that can be ignored in sports or solved by just saying girls can join whatever teams they want. From a training perspective, not recognizing the different strengths and weaknesses of female bodies and using a 'one size fits all' approach - which like most things that are supposed to apply to everyone was designed by generations of intensly studying the physical devolopment of men and boys - is part of what keeps girls from being as strong as they could, as well as putting them at a much greater risk for certain injuries.

Female athletes are as capable of adding muscle and strength as men, but because of hormone differences that usually will only happen if that's given more training/practice time. And sometimes girls aren't as good at certain sports at boys because they're being told to do things in a way that doesn't actually take advantage of their biomechanics. (For example, since someone else in the thread mentioned rowing and I'm a rower - male and female rowers have very close performance measurements at the same height and weight. But they train and practice in a way that more of the power from a female rower's stroke comes from her lower body. They wouldn't have equal performance if you threw them in men's programs and said 'do what the guys are doing.')
mephisto5 12th-Nov-2012 11:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks for articulating this better than I could.

And yes- look at clips of Romanian female vs Canadian male VIIIs (most iconic boats for each sex I could think of off the top of my head). The power distribution throughout the stroke is completely different.
the_physicist 12th-Nov-2012 11:28 pm (UTC)
ah right, yes, i didn't mean it like there are no differences. believe me, i know there are XD .

i see what what meant now by 'girls are better at some thing'. yes, definitely training would need to be targeted.
the_physicist 12th-Nov-2012 10:56 pm (UTC)
reply, part II ;)

I was not aware that there were any conditions associated with being intersex, other than the obvious. If it's not too intrusive, would you mind elaborating?

maybe associated with is not the correct phrasing. i'm not good at medical stuff or biology. ironic and scary as i once taught biology at secondary school D: .

without going into too much detail, as far as is understood my intersex condition is most likely the result of ionising radiation one of my parents was exposed to. not Chernobyl, before you ask. the heart condition is linked in that sense that it's also thought to be the same cause... i don't know how it works really.

Agree with you on not being challenged thing- I only started doing sport intensely once I got to university (rowing), which was before I started transitioning, and there our female bodied team beat the shit out of the male bodied team.

i used to row too, at school though. we had those lovely old gig boats. spent more time repairing them and keeping them from sinking than anything else, lol. and fuck yeah, we often managed to beat the men's boat(s) during practice. well, the ones in other old boats. couldn't win against a carbon fibre boat or what ever they are made out of nowadays. although never had an official race against any men's teams.
skellington1 12th-Nov-2012 11:23 pm (UTC)
spent more time repairing them and keeping them from sinking than anything else, lol

I admit, I've known a lot of boat owners and that seems to be a universal experience. :P

(I don't have much of anything to add the subject at hand -- never been fit for competitive sports in my life, and it has nothing to do with gender -- but I've been interested in reading it, and the boat comment jumped out at me).

Edited at 2012-11-12 11:24 pm (UTC)
the_physicist 12th-Nov-2012 11:30 pm (UTC)
well, good to know it wasn't just us then! ;)
mephisto5 12th-Nov-2012 11:26 pm (UTC)
Ah, thank you for explaining.

XD One of our novice crews managed to completely snap off half a metre of bow the day before a race. Our boatwoman was NOT pleased. She got it all fixed up in time though.
the_physicist 12th-Nov-2012 11:32 pm (UTC)
O_O that's... wow. glad she was able to get it fixed so quickly!
kitbug 13th-Nov-2012 12:05 am (UTC)
The women's track team at my university just won a regional championship and got a pass to the national conference as a whole. Men's team managed to squeak in one guy to represent them.

JUST SAYING~
anolinde 13th-Nov-2012 12:30 am (UTC)
Yeah, our female sports teams always seem to be doing better than the male teams... and yet no one ever goes to see the women. =(
kitbug 13th-Nov-2012 12:52 am (UTC)
Yeah, it's really sad. :< The ladies are totally kicking ass this year. One of the coaches told me that the women are always more focused and work harder than the dudes. I have a pet theory that it's because womens' sports aren't as mainstream and haven't been around as long, women don't take it for granted.
free_spoons 13th-Nov-2012 01:59 am (UTC)
my pet theory from my time playing college lacrosse is that women know there's no professional league after they graduated. The four years they have playing in college is the best competition they'll have for the rest of their lives. So we better put every thing we have into those 4 years.

On the other hand, guys at least have the small possibility of going pro and getting an even more competitive league. The story doesn't end in college for them.
kyra_neko_rei 13th-Nov-2012 01:52 am (UTC)
This is interesting. I do wish there were more "ability" classifications for sorting out the formation of teams. It might break down at the upper extremes of performance, where the farthest reaches of deviation from average combines with the base-difference advantages to put one gender solidly ahead, but at most other levels of competition there's often going to be both men and women able to play at the same level, especially if they train to it.

At the same time it would eliminate the effects of discouragement as well as "dumbing down" the training to a "girls' level," to whatever extent that might occur. I remember when I was in high school there were two or three girls who always went to ask to join the football team, and I have no idea if they were serious under the "as a joke" manner in which they went about it, but each time they said the coaches would take them aside and tell them how grueling the training was, and they always listened and then went back to class and laughed about it---but a guy would get treated as a serious potential player even if he had shown up with that same "see what it's about" mindset. And I wonder what would've happened if the coaches had encouraged the girls to legit join the team and give the workouts a good solid go and then worked with them to make football players out of them the same way they did with the guys.
blunder_buss 13th-Nov-2012 02:26 am (UTC)
I saw a video of that little girl on Buzzfeed and uuuuugghhh the comments. They really could not help themselves from saying she should have fun now because it'll be all over once she hits puberty and she won't be able to play against boys anymore. Pretty much for the same reasons we've all heard before - boys are stronger than girls! Boy don't like hitting girls! She'll injure herself so we're banning her for her own good!

That girl was being a tiny little badass and all they could say is that she could only do it for a few more years until she had to 'retire'.
fenris_lorsrai 13th-Nov-2012 03:00 am (UTC)
The "boys think touching girls is icky" came up when our wrestling team went coed. OH NOES. Or that girls wouldn't like being groped. and boys wouldn't like being groped by girls. because people wrestling are totally thinking about how sexy their opponent is. yeah.

Unfortunately a lot of their early wins were due to refusals by opponents. boo.
encircleme 13th-Nov-2012 03:46 am (UTC)
"Boys don't like hitting girls!"

what's hilarious (and sad) is that that's not true.
veracity 13th-Nov-2012 05:51 am (UTC)
Well, to be fair, it's only fun if the prey can't fight back.



I feel so, so dirty typing that. I need a shower.
blunder_buss 13th-Nov-2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
Well, that depends on their upbringing. Some guys are told the chivalrous code of 'never hit a woman because they are delicate', which in its own way can be just as bad as 'hitting a girl is totally cool'.
pleasure_past 13th-Nov-2012 01:50 pm (UTC)
I'm uncomfortable with male-only sports leagues for the same reason I'm uncomfortable with all boys schools; they're transphobic and they tend to nurture "dudebro culture" and a sense of superiority to females. I do think all girl leagues and schools should exist, though. There are still issues of transphobia to contend with, but I think those are far more fixable/less innate in the system than nurturing of male supremacy in most spaces that exclude girls. (Also, let's be real, most spaces that excluded females admittedly did so at one time or another because they believed women/girls were inferior.) And yes, I do think that good coaches should adapt training to the needs of their players, including the needs that arise out of the physiological differences between male and female bodies. It's segregation* I have problem with more than differentiation.


*I'm just going to throw it out there right now that I really hate the term "self-segregation" regarding all-girls schools/leagues, HBCUs, queer nightclubs, etc., even if it is a correct usage of the word.
hammersxstrings 13th-Nov-2012 03:00 pm (UTC)
Girls continued to excel in the Americanized game of baseball deep into the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the game was professionalized and commercialized at century’s end that girls were forcibly pushed off the diamond.



i was told at a young age (8,9) that the reason my mother didn't put as much time into my softball as my brothers hockey was because I was a girl and my softball would come of nothing. Loving to play, it upset me quite a bit and I honestly think, to this day, has fueled some of my more virulent feminist belief and some resentment.

i'm happy to see this girl succeeding. hopefully she continues to be badass and show up all of them.

Edited at 2012-11-13 03:01 pm (UTC)
thrace_ 13th-Nov-2012 03:50 pm (UTC)
Shit like this infuriates me. There's no pro leagues for women's sports (minus the WNBA, and they have their problems too) because there's no audience, there's no audience because women's sports are othered and degraded and treated as less-than or an inferior version of men's sports, women's sports are treated this way because dudes can't be having women doing dude stuff and so they systematically eliminate women's participation from sports. Like women's football was absolutely flourishing in England in the early 20th century until the FA forbade anyone from letting women use their pitches or refs or anything and female players had to essentially go underground for 50 years until women started to organize informal tournaments in the 70s and FIFA realized they were going to have to get onboard with this whole women-can-do-stuff thing.

Okay, rant over.
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