We need more differentiation, not integration.

So, over at Skepchick, Olivia has put up a post talking about women’s sports and what she sees as some bad stereotypes about them. Ultimately, her push in the post is to eliminate the distinction between men’s and women’s sports through various means, an argument that strikes me as odd because for me the best women’s sports are the ones where women aren’t trying to play the game like the men do, but instead take their natural abilities into account and play according to that. To me, every woman’s sport becomes massively less interesting and exciting the instant they start being able to play/playing the game the way the men play it, but without the attributes that the men’s game was targeted for. As soon as women start being able to win with big serves or with the big weight or with the big slapshots but while still having less powerful serves, less weight, or slapshots that are not as hard as the men typically do what you have is an inferior copy of a men’s sport, and the women’s sport loses what makes it special and interesting to watch. But let’s look at what Olivia is saying. She starts talking about stereotypes about women’s sports that annoy her:

More often than not I just hear that women aren’t as good, their bodies don’t allow them to be as powerful, as strong, or excel to the extent that men do. So it’s not interesting to watch them.

This often leads to me yelling about how women are just as athletic and impressive as men, and that we need a better system for differentiating leagues in sports than “men” and “women” …

So, I’ll (mostly) agree with her here. It isn’t the case that women’s sports aren’t as exciting as men’s sports because women are less athletic or competitive. In fact, I’d argue that in general taken in isolation when you watch a sport it is the competition level that drives the excitement of the sport, which means that your enjoyment is normalized to the competitors that you are watching. So as long as they are well-matched, the game will be interesting. The problem is that we don’t really have these things in isolation, as we have a choice of what sports and what leagues to watch. So to use a completely non-gendered example, it’s clear that in general people won’t choose to watch, say, minor league baseball instead of major league baseball because the game is the same in both cases, but the overall skill level is higher in the major league game, and so if you want to maximize your sports watching entertainment you’ll go for the equally competitive but higher skilled option. And so, in general, a woman’s sport that is the same game as the men’s league but has less skill at the elements of the men’s sport won’t be as interesting to watch as the men’s version. And vice versa (more on that later).

Because there’s no absolute value that says being bigger or stronger is always better in sports. There are sports in which female athletes do beat male athletes (equestrian events are integrated and women win medals regularly, Billie Jean King beat out Bobby Riggs in tennis, and many of the top rock climbers in the world are women), and even some sports that favor women overall, such as gymnastics and volleyball. The problem is that people don’t take those sports as seriously.

No, she’s right, there isn’t anything that says that bigger or stronger produces the better sport. However, her examples are a bit weak, because tennis, for example, is not a sport where female athletes beat male athletes. As was pointed out in the comments, her example was of a female player in her prime against a male player past his prime. If you took the top male tennis player and the top female tennis player and had them play, I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the male player would win handily. The raw power of his serve would almost certainly overwhelm his opponent, while her serve would be average at best. On the other hand, gymnastics is a sport that follows my model: the women’s sport is radically different from the men’s, focusing more on flexibility and the like while the men’s version focuses a lot on upper body strength and power. And women’s gymnastics is far more popular than men’s gymnastics, and I think it is, at least in part, because of that sharp distinction. Women’s gymnastics is not just men’s gymnastics done by people with less upper body strength, but is a sport shaped and formed by the things that women’s bodies are best at doing. I’ve also talked in the past about women’s curling and how I like it better than men’s curling because it’s a completely different game, and one that I enjoy more. My excitement with women’s hockey from the Nagano Olympics turned to massive disappointment four years later when it turned from being a different game to the same game as men’s hockey, but with players that simply weren’t up to that level.

Also, she’s a bit off in talking about how those sports aren’t taken as seriously. They all fit into a category of sports that could be considered, well, generally amateur sports, and essentially include in North America everything outside of the big professional leagues. Hockey in the United States was at least at one point in the same category, while soccer in North America generally is as well while it isn’t outside of North America. I guess the best way to describe them — instead of calling them “amateur” — is to call them “Second-Tier”. They are sports that you see on your sports shows and that are popular when there are big tournaments or at the Olympics, but are generally filler most of the rest of the time. These sports include skiing, volleyball, figure skating, gymnastics, curling (in Canada), tennis, golf and a host of others. It’s hard to explain how a sport gets into that sort of role and how it gets out of it, but it seems that right now tradition has more to do with it than anything else; the First-Tier sports tend to be the sports that have been there for ages, and perhaps more importantly have had leagues built around them for ages, as opposed to simply having tournaments week in and week out. They’re also generally strongly team sports, and sports that you can associate with geographically, and so cheer for a team rather than a person. But it is somewhat mysterious how this happens, because there are more masculine sports that are clearly Second-Tier — boxing, for example — and so contrary to Olivia’s opinion that doesn’t seem to be the driving factor. Heck, baseball and soccer aren’t anywhere near the top of the heap in terms of what you’d consider “toughness” and yet outdraw the tougher hockey pretty much everywhere except Canada. So the implication that it’s a culture of masculinity doesn’t quite seem to work.

There are many similar examples, like upper body strength in swimming, or weight in football. But the sports that take advantage of women’s abilities like gymnastics, open water swimming, figure skating, or shooting, are not pushed on the media, supported, or even really considered sports in the way that the big male sports are.

Figure skating, at least in Canada, is actually given far more attention than swimming is. So is gymnastics. Shooting seems like a pretty boring spectator sport, meaning that I can’t see it gaining more attention in areas that don’t already have it as a sport of interest than, say, darts does (which is, to my mind, amazingly popular in the U.K.). It also seems like a prime masculine sport, but has never really enjoyed a lot of attention as far as I’m aware. So I don’t think “They’re just not supported” is a good explanation here; given the success and attention paid to Canadian figure skaters over the past few decades due to their success, it would seem that in Canada at least figure skating’s more than had its shot, for example.

Ultimately, she seems to want to solve this problem and bring about a host of other benefits by integrating men’s and women’s sports. And immediately runs into a problem that she tries to solve:

It also seems entirely possible that there could be leagues with slightly altered rules to make women more competitive. Some people might whine and moan about how this would destroy the sport, but all our rules are completely arbitrary anyway and the way we set up our competitions is completely arbitrary, so why not make it more accessible to women? We have rules against using steroids or against sticking a trampoline under the basket, both of which mean that players aren’t being as outstanding in their abilities as they could be. I know you all love dunks, but imagine a league in which dunks weren’t legal and how that would change the playing field for gender equality. Ok MenBA fans, stop throwing things, you can still have a dunking league too if you want.

The issue with simply integrating them, she realizes, is that if the rules are kept the same then the elite leagues would likely end up being defacto men’s leagues anyway. So then she starts talking about changing the rules. She refers back to her example of basketball and says that one way to eliminate the height issue is to remove dunking. Except that height is beneficial beyond dunking. There’s rebounding, for example. And shot blocking. And being able to pass or shoot over a defender without having to do a fade away. And all sorts of other things. If you changed the sport to allow for that that much, you’d have a radically different game … which you could achieve in some sense by just not integrating and letting women who are generally shorter play, and not providing any rule changes to adjust it for their height.

The problem with this is that it will end up being ruined as soon as you get women into the game who are tall enough to play the game the way the men play the game, because then again if the rules haven’t changed then they will be able to dunk, rebound, and shoot and pass over the smaller women just like the men would. Except that they’ll still be shorter than the men in the men’s league, and so you’ll have a league that plays the same as the men’s league but isn’t as good as it. This is what bugged me about the Williams sisters in tennis (which I don’t really watch), the Jennifer Jones rink in curling, and essentially all of women’s hockey: becoming more like the men’s game meant that you had nothing more than an inferior men’s game, which took away what made those sports interesting in their own right.

So, could you integrate? Maybe. But to do what Olivia suggests requires taking the existing frameworks and essentially making a new game, and it’s hard to see how that could be done without turning it into the gymnastics model: two completely different games, one for men and one for women. Especially since you have the issue of competition to deal with, as already mentioned. If you radically change a sport, then you essentially end up with two — or more — completely different versions of the same sport. If they compete against each other, unless you manage to hit completely different markets, one is likely to push out the others to become the dominant one. It’s not likely that dunkless basketball will outdraw “traditional” basketball. And, even worse, you might actually splinter your market and so lose out in ratings when you compete with more unified sports. So, then, trying to build a new alternative sport that could be integrated is not all that great an idea, but trying to change the existing one by taking out skill elements in order to integrate is not that great either. I’m not sure what the solution is here, but one thing that we can do right now is stop pushing women’s sports to be men’s sports, and for women to stop treating men’s sports as the major leagues, as we saw Hayley Wickenheiser, Michelle Wie, and others who strive to compete in the men’s league and get accolades for doing it. They should instead be treated as essentially traitors, people who are trying to play a different game (and generally not doing that well at it) not as people who are making it to the big time.

Simply changing the rules to integrate women isn’t going to convince people to value different athletic traits and abilities or new ways that the games might develop if women were integrated. Too many people will simply see it as artificially lowering the playing field because they value power and sheer strength over balance, flexibility, finesse, or skill.

So even if we could find a great way to integrate sports, there’s probably a lot of work to do at retraining our brains and societal expectations to appreciate new things. We have to choose as a society to care about other sports and other skills.

Well, let’s see. Darts and poker are, in fact, relatively big draws now. Women’s gymnastics focuses on all four of the things she promotes and is far more popular than men’s gymnastics, which focus on power and sheer strength. And many sports focus on both sheer power and finesse and skill (hockey and soccer being the best examples). So I don’t see that as being the problem. I see it as being the case that power and sheer strength in a lot of sports does mean greater success and better play, and so attempts to reduce that are rightfully seen as taking away from the sport. At this point, I think all I can suggest to Olivia is that she try to invent a new sport that focuses on what she wants focused on and see how it does. At the very least, then we’d know what she means by a sport that does that and, perhaps, what criteria for “popular” she’s aiming for.

Essentially, right now in order for women’s sports to succeed and take off they have to become something more than an inferior version of the men’s sport. Rolling women into the men’s sport is not in any way going to help with this. What will help with this is acknowledging the differences and maybe deliberately biasing the women’s game towards enhancing those differences and making them really stand out. If this is done, maybe more women’s sports can achieve the lofty heights of gymnastics when compared to the men’s version of the sport. And, as I’ve said on multiple occasions, those might well be the sports that I’ll decide to watch.

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3 Responses to “We need more differentiation, not integration.”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    “Sports will be better if we integrate! Well, okay, we’ll have to change the rules to make them virtually unrecognizable, but otherwise…”

  2. Belobog Says:

    It seems to me that it might be a good idea to just get rid of sex restrictions across the board and then let people compete in whatever they can. Of course, there would probably be no women in (American) football, and there would be a huge backlash against changing the rules to accomodate them. But I think this would be a lot more palateable if you could point to the fact that men just can’t compete in (women’s) gymnastics, and we equally refuse to change the rules to accomodate them.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      The issue I see with this can be highlighted by golf. Let’s say that they eliminated the LPGA and opened up the PGA to all comers. Based on past history, you wouldn’t even get one female golfer in the PGA. And maybe not in the next stage down either, or at least there wouldn’t be very many of them. This would leave female golfers playing in very obscure and likely amateur leagues. Except that women’s golf can be competitive enough so that both the women can enjoy the competition and people can have fun watching the competition, as long as women aren’t being asked to play against men, against whom they can’t compete in golf.

      So to integrate likely ends up pushing women out of most sports, at least at the professional level, which is not what anyone wants.

      Even the “women’s gymnastics” idea doesn’t work that well. Take figure skating. Try to integrate singles. Note that men can still do what are considered more difficult jumps than women can. How do you integrate that in any kind of fair way? Or do you have two separate integrated sports with different requirements? Then you likely end up with the split anyway, at best. At worst, you end with both sports dominated by men if the rules don’t favour women enough.

      If curling was integrated, the men would dominate with the heavy hitting and I’d lose the sort of curling that I really love to watch. So I don’t think that sort of integration is generally a good thing.

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