Over fall break, I went to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and watched my younger brother George’s Sprint Football game. For those of you who don’t know what Sprint Football is (I didn’t either until George started playing this year), it’s regular American football — the only difference being that every player on the roster must be 178 pounds or lighter. Only 10 schools play it, and they are all in the Northeast.
The games are incredibly fun to watch. The players, and in turn, the game, moves fast. It’s a varsity sport of its own, not just the JV football team. After the game, the Navy Sprint Football coach didn’t refer to Navy Football, who was playing the next day, as “main football” or “real football.” Rather, he just called them “the big boys,” because there’s no reason for a sport intended for lighter people to be seen as secondary.
In the same vein, sports like wrestling and rowing have weight classes. That’s the detail that made me think back to a situation in my Sports and Social Change class earlier this semester. These two things might not seem related, but bear with me.
Everyone in the class received a quiz comprised of 10 statements to be marked true or false. All of the statements were multi-faceted and didn’t have a distinct right or wrong answer. The point of the exercise was to open up a class discussion about why we chose the answers we did.
When we got to the seventh question, the professor, Ben Carrington, read it out loud: “The limited participation by women in sports reflects their biological potential,” the statement read. Carrington instructed the students to raise their hand if they marked it as true, as he had with all the other statements. Out of the class of 91 students, about 10 raised their hand.
I was really disappointed that that many people agreed. It actually made me sad, and still does, to know that there are people at USC who think that way. I also couldn’t believe that those people weren’t embarrassed to be publicly misogynistic.
Professor Carrington called on people around the room to explain why they thought the statement was true. One guy volunteered his reasoning and explained that if a girl were to go up against NFL defensive end J.J. Watt, they would get absolutely demolished because Watt is huge. The professor asked the student, who is not a particularly large person, how big Watt is and the student gave an estimate.
For reference, J.J. Watt is 6-foot-5, 290 lbs. Professor Carrington thought for a moment and said “OK … so what would happen if you went up against J.J. Watt?”
The whole room laughed because the irony was so clear. It’s not just women who would be maimed by a Watt tackle; most adult men on this planet would be, too.
That’s why a sport like Sprint Football exists — so that small but athletic players have an opportunity.
Part of the reason for women’s limited participation in sports is not because they’re physically incapable. If we’re using football as a benchmark, the reason is in part because, beyond the middle school level, there is not much opportunity for young women to play. There are women’s football leagues in the U.S., but they are very, very limited.
Beyond that, there’s a big difference in the way young boys and girls are socialized. Girls are often boxed into less violent sports and activities such as volleyball, gymnastics, cheerleading or dance. There is nothing wrong with any of those, but the emphasis placed on femininity at such an early age has more to do with women’s limited participation in sports than any physiological differences.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where, from a young age, my mom praised my muscular legs. In my various lacrosse collisions, I’d hear my dad yelling from the sidelines “Let ‘em bounce off of you biscuit! You’re bigger than them!” But that’s not the case for every young girl.
Girls grow up hearing derogatory phrases such as “run like a girl” or “hit like a girl” and begin to think they’re physically inferior to men. Even into adulthood, the media sexualizes female athletes and often focuses more on their outfits, attractiveness and love interests than their actual athletic performance.
The subconscious message is clear: To a certain degree, women’s athletic capabilities aren’t as important or respected as men’s. If we raised young girls by encouraging them to be brave and tough — as we encourage young boys — the psychology would be a lot different.
In the 1800s, scientists said that because women’s bones are more fragile than men’s, they should not ride bicycles because it would damage their hips and impair their ability to carry children. Of course, none of this was true. It was a way to continue to restrict women using a veil of physiological differences that were not at all substantiated. In thinking critically about topics such as women’s limited participation in sports, let’s try to look at the big picture and try to think more like it’s the 21st century.
Jill Burke is a senior writing about sports in relation to current issues. Her column, “Out of Bounds,” runs every other Friday.