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.