Commentary on Women Playing with the Men

So. as I noted last week, I watched Rachel Homan playing in the Elite 10. What was surprising about that was not the outcome, but that in her first match … I was cheering against her. Now, I really like her team, and think that she’s a good curler, and usually have no trouble cheering for her, and yet I was cheering against her when she played a men’s team that I had no reason to actually cheer for. Additionally, I managed to see her last match against Brad Gushue and had a much easier time cheering for Homan … at the point where she still had a chance to make the playoffs but was unlikely to. So why was I cheering against her in the first match?

And, after some thought, the conclusion I’ve come to is … I’m sick of it. I am thoroughly and heartily sick of women playing against the men and the attention that garners.

First, I’m just sick of the gimmick. Yes, as Rob Faulds said, Rachel Homan can curl, but her playing in the Elite 10 was still a gimmick, and was still heavily promoted as one. When this all started long ago, for the most part everyone watched because we wanted to see if the women could compete with the men, and we hadn’t have enough matches like that to see if they could or couldn’t, or how well they’d do. And they managed to pull off some upsets, although almost always that was against average or aging men when the women were the elites of their sport. But we’ve been doing this for decades now, and for the most part everything has been settled: in general, in any case where women and men can and do indeed play the same sport, women at the very best hold their own, but aren’t really competitive against the men. Homan made history by beating a men’s team that everyone beat that bonspiel, in conditions that most favoured her. Women not only have nothing to prove against the men anymore, we all pretty much expect them to, at best, not get slaughtered.

This means that, for women, there’s absolutely nothing at stake for them here. They have nothing to prove and aren’t going to prove anything. If they get blown out, it’s a disappointment, but not a big one, and something that most people will think wasn’t unexpected. If they keep it close, then that’s great. If they manage a close win, that’s outstanding. Thus, there’s little pressure on them because if they lose, it’s expected … and they don’t usually have a chance at really winning. Thus, it’s nothing more than a gimmick, but we all pretty much know what will happen: the women generally don’t embarrass themselves, but don’t do anything really monumental either. So there’s no drama in this anymore, and no real “Battle of the Sexes” like we used to have, because for the most part the war is over and the women lost.

So women doing this aren’t being brave or taking a stand or trying to prove how the quality of women’s sport, no matter how much the media or event organizers play that up. They’re just playing against the men, mostly for personal experience or for themselves. They aren’t doing it for women everywhere anymore. And so it being portrayed has such has gotten annoying.

Which leads to the second thing: if this isn’t to support women in general, why do they do it? Well, the underlying attitude seems to be — and I’m not saying that this is what any of the actual athletes really think, even the Homan rink — is that if you have elite female athletes and they’re dominating their field, what they need to do to get a real challenge is … play against the men. But what this does is suggest that the women’s sport is just an inferior men’s sport, an attitude that I think really hurts women’s sport. Because if women’s sports are just inferior men’s sports, then there are only three reasons that I can think of to prefer to watch the women’s sport, or to watch it when men’s sports are available:

1) Patronizing: “Aw, look at those women, trying to play that men’s sport. We should support them doing that!”. I don’t think that’s what anyone wants.

2) Sex Appeal: “Yeah, they aren’t as good, but at least the women are hot!” (See beach volleyball). You can try to point out that one of the appeals for me of women’s curling is the attractiveness of the curlers, but this is belied by the fact that I like the women’s game better. I’ve made the analogy before of the two restaurants that serve equally good steaks but if one of them gives me a free dessert, I’ll choose that one, but in this case it’s more like I like the steaks at one restaurant better and they give me a free dessert, so I’m not really watching based on that alone. That being said, this is another thing that women’s sports can appeal to … and one that they. rightly, have resisted appealing to.

3) Sexism: “You have to support women’s sports because men have dominated sports for so long and so women have to finally get some support, regardless of the fact that the games aren’t as good”. This is usually accompanied by unconvincing arguments that the women’s sport is just as good as the men’s sport. But at the heart of it, this is an argument that people should support the women’s sport despite it being inferior because of patriarchy or sexism or because it’s only sexism that would make you see the games as inferior or things like that. Again, that’s not something that women should want.

Ultimately, at the end of day, I think women in sports, at least, should stop trying to be like the men, and start focusing on building a sport that leverages the physical differences between women and men in their favour. I still remember the Nagano Olympics where I saw women’s hockey for the first time, and loving it because it was different than the men’s game, since there was no body contact and no one had really hard shots, so it required different strategies. And then they started getting women who could shoot the puck and loosened up on the body contact and it because an inferior men’s product. Tennis’ hard servers are doing the same thing to women’s tennis, as are the women with the up-weight in curling. Even if it requires radically changing the rules, making the women’s game importantly different from the men’s game is the key to making women’s sports a success … and, unfortunately, most people trying to make women’s sports successful jump to the three points outlined above instead of to this one.

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2 Responses to “Commentary on Women Playing with the Men”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I think I get where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure it works in an absolute sense. All games – sports included – give an advantage to whoever can optimise for the win conditions, and men have abundant natural advantages when it comes to physical optimisation.

    Netball is generally considered a women’s sport. When inexperienced men – even naturally skilled men – play trained women, the women initially use their skill to compensate for the men’s greater height, reach and speed and win. Give the men time to train at elite levels, and does anyone seriously think that the end result will be any different to any other sport played by both sexes?

    When it comes to high-level physical activity such as sports, men as a class have two advantages: their mean for any given attribute is often higher, and their variance is usually higher. Given that elite sports sample from the furthest end of the bell curve (fractions of a % of total population), this makes it extremely unlikely for even a highly talented woman to be able to reach comparable levels to highly talented men (merely exceeding 99.99% of the population doesn’t cut it).

    Or are you saying that women’s sport should accept that it is in some sense a handicap competition, and turn that into an advantage by making it interesting in its own right rather than using “masculine” styles of play which invite direct comparison with men?

    (I suspect synchronised swimming and gymnastics already do this, by placing more emphasis in women’s routines on the artistic and balance elements vs power elements. e.g. uneven bars & balance beam vs pommel horse, still rings, parallel bars & high bar.)

    • verbosestoic Says:

      More the latter, but I wouldn’t phrase it as them being a handicap competition, but understand that women and men are different physically and BOTH sides try to optimize their sport for that. I think gymnastics does it wonderfully, but not with an attitude of “women’s sports are the handicap and so we need to do something to make it interesting” but instead to focus on the physical differences and have the men’s sport focus on ideal men’s physical traits and the women’s on the ideal women’s physical traits. Unfortunately, most sports aren’t going to be able to do that, but they CAN note things that favour the typical male physique and enforce rules preventing that from being the dominant method in their sport, like banning physical contact and maybe even slapshots in hockey or adding different rules in curling that focus more on soft weight games rather than the upweight. At least, women’s sports either have to stop pretending that they can be just like the men’s sports, or accept their role as an inferior version of the men’s game. The former, I think, will work out far better for them.

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