Who’s Got Game?

Who’s Got Game?

A new book advocates equality for men and women on the playing field. But is that still a field of dreams?


On August 15, 1970, in Orlando, Florida, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, Pat Palinkas, was sent in to hold the football for her husband to place kick, thus becoming the first woman to play professionally with men. The snap from center was off target and Palinkas bobbled the ball. Before she could recover, a 240-pound linebacker, Wally Florence, crashed through the line of scrimmage and knocked her down. Later, Florence said of the play, “I tried to break her neck. I don’t know what she’s trying to prove. I’m out here trying to make a living and she’s out here prancing around making folly of a man’s game.”

At first, my sympathies were all with Palinkas, a doughty 122-pounder who sprang right up to inspire her minor-league Orlando Panthers to victory. Making folly? Why shouldn’t she be allowed to play “a man’s game” and find the limits of her skill and talent, to gain the fame and fortune of sports stars? And then I thought about Florence. Poor guy. One-hundred pound weight advantage and he still couldn’t break her neck. Didn’t even hurt her. So I called him up a few days after the historic game and found him still angry. “I wanted to show her this is no soft touch,” he told me. “I wanted to smash her back to the kitchen.”

He was working at the time as a counselor in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, ghetto nonprofit agency. It wasn’t his first choice; after playing at Purdue, he had tried out for the New York Giants and Jets and been cut. He was 27, and the Bridgeport Jets team was his last chance to get his game together for a final shot at the big leagues. And now he was a national joke. But why was he angry at Palinkas instead of the bush league businessmen who pulled a stunt to hype the gate? Had they been serious, they would have found some 250-pound women for their offensive line; instead, they were merely toying with the “manliness” that the game represented to Florence and most fans.

I’ve thought about Palinkas and Florence from time to time over the decades. Their story seemed alternately a quaint legend and an evergreen microcosm as I observed women, usually attractive golfers, rise up to challenge male athletes amid a rash of outrage, then fall short in a flurry of condescension: what could they have been thinking? Men are simply bigger, stronger, faster–better–than women. And if we think that’s true, declare Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano in Playing With the Boys, women can never be full citizens. Sports matter so much in American life, they maintain, that as long as women do not have total access to the sports men play, they will not be truly equal.

This might seem hyperbolic as Hillary Clinton threatens to win the heavyweight championship and more male athletes are caught augmenting their male hormones. But the case that McDonagh, a political scientist at Northeastern University, and Pappano, a journalist, build is a starting point for a serious examination of the role of gender politics in sports. Their claim that Title IX–the 1972 Education Amendments that deny federal funds to any educational activity that discriminates on the basis of sex–has been detrimental to women’s progress is even more provocative than the controversial view that sports success has hampered African-American progress.

Sports are, according to McDonagh and Pappano, “a social force that does not merely reflect gender differences, but in some cases, creates, amplifies, and even imposes them.” It enforces “the notion that men’s activities and men’s power are the real thing and women’s are not. Women’s sports, like women’s power, are second-class.”

The evidence seems obvious. Our most popular traditional sports, football and baseball, are overwhelmingly men’s sports. With a few exceptions, men’s college basketball is better viewed and attended than the women’s game (tickets to men’s games are more expensive too). Women’s pro basketball is the weak sister of hoops, played from May to September and with a shorter season than the men’s game. Women’s boxing is even more of a freak show than the male version (which has been supplanted by wrestling and ultimate fighting.) There is no real pro soccer for women; a league, the Womens United Soccer Association (WUSA), started in 2000, failed in 2003 and is scheduled to relaunch in next spring as Womens Professional Soccer. There should be far more female jockeys and auto racers.

One might have predicted less of a gender gap in sports by now; the past half-century has been one of enormous progress in athletics for women. Fairness had nothing to do with it, however. In the late 1950s, when the Olympic Games became a cold war surrogate, women’s medals suddenly counted for something, especially on American TV. Tennis pro Billie Jean King appeared in the ’60s with her own version of a feminist manifesto, snapping back at interviewers, “Why don’t you go ask Rod Laver why he isn’t at home?” And it wasn’t Laver, the leading male tennis player of his time, but Billie Jean who led all the tennis sexes out of country-club serfdom into professional independence and riches, the second great American sports revolution after baseball’s racial integration two decades earlier.

Billie Jean, who is in my opinion the most important athlete of our time, went on to inspire the Title IX generation, then the 1999 US women’s World Cup soccer champions and the WNBA. (She never received her appropriate material awards; a 1981 lesbian palimony case wrecked her corporate connections.) Billie Jean is the godmother of not only the phenomenal surge in women’s high school and college sports but also the parallel rise of women in medicine, journalism, law and business leadership. So many successful women credit their jock experience with giving them the confidence to compete outside the arena. For women, amateur games have fulfilled much of the promise that sports held for men in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–fellowship, a healthful physical outlet, lessons in pride, humility, leadership and collective activity, and preparation for corporate life and warfare.

But women pro athletes have barely benefited from the fabulous expansion of men’s sports into the entertainment-industrial complex. To McDonagh and Pappano, the huge gap between men and women in money and iconic status bolsters their argument that no matter how successful women-only sports are, they are merely reinforcing the message that women are weaker and less-skilled than men, in and out of the arena.

I wonder if this is true. The current moral devaluation of professional sports, that relentless parade of scandals that chips away at standards of meritocracy and fairness, makes “role model” a mocking epithet. The best of athletes are disposable heroes. How can juiced liars seem superior to the actors, musicians and uncategorized celebrities who also entertain us? To many fans they aren’t. This helps explain the rise of fantasy sports leagues in which “owners” pluck individual players from real teams to stock their make-believe teams, which they bet on. The real statistics of these shuffled players become the basis of winning and losing. It’s emotionally safer than rooting for cheaters. Of the estimated 15 million fantasy football league players, approximately 10 percent are women, according to industry data. Some leagues discourage women from playing. While there may well be fantasy leagues for, say, women’s soccer or softball, one wonders if they are necessary; the existence of the real thing is fantastic enough.

McDonagh and Pappano seem on even shakier ground when they blame Title IX, with its permission for segregated contact sports, for diverting a ’60s movement toward co-ed games. That movement was based on the idealistic philosophy of inclusion and healthful participation that female physical educators clung to until the big boys ran them out. How much of this philosophy was based on ideology and how much on pragmatism–it kept women’s sports alive and under the radar–is an interesting topic of its own. The big boys–the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)–only stopped lobbying against Title IX when it decided to take over women’s sports, which it has, replacing most women coaches with men and women who use the male athletic model of winning through stars and intimidation rather than team play and sound fundamentals.

Women’s basketball teams, for example, were traditionally formed as a group of friends sharing an athletic experience. Men’s teams recruited the best players available, putting aside personal feelings, to achieve a goal. Thus, went the conventional wisdom, men learned to work well with people they did not necessarily like while women needed good relations to start. (Male sports writers loved writing about the female point guard who supposedly refused to pass to the teammate with whom she had just broken up.) These days, the best women’s hoops teams are built around recruited stars and their handmaidens. The value of Playing with the Boys is in its bold vision of big-time co-ed sports and the two main questions that it raises for us, without satisfactorily answering: can men and women actually play together? should they?

The flattening of Pat Palinkas thirty-eight years ago (still a unique event) is a good place to start on the “can they” question. Florence didn’t knock Palinkas down because he was better than her or because men are better athletes than women. He knocked her down because her male teammates on the offensive line failed to do their jobs and stop him at the line of scrimmage. It happens all the time in the NFL, where there are often hundred-pound differences between linemen and backs.

In Major League Baseball and pro basketball, height and weight disparities are common. Women second-base players and point guards seem a natural. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Set it up earlier with open tryouts for mixed teams in all sports, including football, and not just for kicking positions. Female wrestlers, competing by weight class, have been successful in high schools. The mixed soccer teams on which kids play are a start that doesn’t need to ever stop. Given the chance to keep playing with the boys, there will be girls who will move up and up. Why not?

Because, say McDonagh and Pappano, sports were created as “a vehicle for preserving male power.” They point out that sports involving horses, dogs, boats and cars can be more easily integrated because “the guy has an out” with a third party involved: men wouldn’t feel threatened because they are competing with machines or animals controlled by women instead of with women directly. Yet only the Iditarod dog-sled race and long-distance competitive sailing seems to have offered a haven to women. Intensely macho sports such as NASCAR only flirt with women drivers and use them in commercials. Auto racers and jockeys don’t want to lose to women any more than any other athletes raised in a jock culture that tyrannizes boys by calling them “sissies” and “girls,” and they will protect the mediocre male from the superior woman.

And why shouldn’t they? Forcing them to compete through childhood and adolescence as a prelude to big-time college and pro equality might not be in their best interests. Dr. Michael Miletic, a former Olympic weight lifter whose Detroit-area psychiatric practice includes many professional, college and youth-group athletes, says, “I am sure that there is value for girls and boys to be segregated at an age when they are anxious about their bodies and tend to measure themselves as boys or girls. Gender is more than just cultural conditioning.”

So how do we develop a pool of talent on that level? McDonagh and Pappano have a ten-point plan that begins with “Accept a new, gender-neutral view of sports” that seems as worthily fuzzy as “Love Thy Neighbor” and goes on to ask women to buy sports teams or at least speak more sports talk in their business lives. Their best recommendation is calling for the vigorous enforcement of Title IX on every level, even if it means (I would say especially if it means) scaling back college football and basketball, higher education’s largest and most corrupt sinkholes. But asking the media to cover women’s sports equally is futile until the entire sports entertainment industry decides that real money can be made with girls and boys together.

And it will. Alas. The authors see sports as “the next frontier” of achieving equal rights. I’m afraid it won’t happen in a way they might approve. The groundwork has already been laid by reality shows such as Survivor in which men and women compete against each other in a quasi-team dynamic laced with sexual intrigue. Some clever sports entrepreneur will promote, say, co-ed pro volleyball, perhaps staged as the opening act for a minor league baseball game. There will be a narrative that includes the reasons why certain players don’t set up for each other anymore. It wouldn’t be such a leap for the best female volleyball player, aà la Palinkas, to pinch run brilliantly in the baseball game and, caught in a locker-room soap opera that makes her famous (watch Desperate Infielders or The Young and the Hitless) be called up to the major leagues. The rest will be showtime.

That field of dreams seems barren to me. If I thought that women would actually defuse the warrior culture of big-time commercial sports, I would joyously march for McDonagh and Pappano’s version of equal rights. There’s no question that females should have every opportunity that males have in sports from childhood through college. But I think that women integrated into the present professional sports world will merely be cosmetic commodities in an industry that has become so greedy, violent and soulless that it has lost its value as a promised land for anyone.

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