The Last Legitimate Bastion of "Separate but Equal"

Eri Yashoda, an 18-year old female knuckleball pitcher from Japan, will commence playing minor league ball for the Chico Outlaws this spring. She will thus be the first female to pitch in professional ball since Ila Borders retired more than 10 years ago. But will this be more than a mere gimmick with few, if any, social consequences? Or might it be a harbinger for substantial change in extant gender relations at the top levels of sport?

One of the fundamentally democratic and progressive legacies of the 1960s has been an unmistakable tendency in all advanced industrial democracies to include the hitherto excluded, to empower the formerly disempowered. Barack Obama is as much testimony to this remarkable societal and cultural transformation as is the fact that nearly 50 percent of law and medical students in the United States are female and that the presidents of such fine universities as Harvard, Princeton, Penn, Brown and Michigan are women. And the struggle is far from over since there are still massive areas in all these democratic societies where the formerly disempowered still constitute little more than tokens. Be it among the tenured professoriate, particularly in subjects belonging to the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; or among CEOs and CFOs of large and powerful companies; women continue to be underrepresented. But the thrust of the struggle remains crystal clear: full inclusion on equal terms.

And yet, there is one domain in which the modus operandi and ultimate aim have been "separate but equal" from the very beginning: sports, particularly the dominant team sports that are not only performed on a popular basis but also avidly followed. Short of certain religions (an arena in which, too, the struggle for equality has had some remarkable successes), one would be hard put to point to any institution of such importance in our society in which such "sexual apartheid" (to use Paul Hoch's apt terminology though I prefer "gender apartheid") is not only tolerated but actively enforced, perhaps even feted as progress.

To be sure, Title IX's empowering legacy and major contribution to the inclusive and thus democratizing process hailing from the late 1960s, is nothing short of transformative, indeed revolutionary. Just think of the national prominence of the University of Connecticut's women's basketball team or that of the United States women's national team in soccer to mention just two of many other relevant examples. And yet, Title IX and its empowering legacy merely aspired to a situation of "separate but equal" in the culturally crucial world of sports.

Why have few, if any, feminists - at least to my knowledge - never demanded that the quarterback position of the Green Bay Packers, the point guard of the Los Angeles Lakers, and one of the closers for the New York Yankees be occupied by a woman the way they have successfully asked that university presidents, doctors, lawyers, mathematicians, chess players, even presidents of the United States, be women? Or why have there not been any movements afoot to change the rules to have every football team consist of six men and five women (or vice versa) in effect making them into mixed-gender teams like the Dutch game of "korfball", a kind of basketball played by three men and two women on the same team in which, however, only men can guard men and women can play against women thus in essence perpetuating the gender apartheid within this game itself?

I am, of course, talking only about sports at the top level, not in amateur leagues in which we have indeed observed a large degree of integration since the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just think of the thorough gender integration of intra-mural sports teams on many college campuses. But why do we make such a discriminatory exception for the highest echelons of sports, i.e. the world of the physical that we would never tolerate in the world of the mental or intellectual or political? The equivalent in education would be for us to foster gender-integrated elementary and secondary schools, but then only allow men to enter and compete in the top universities with women relegated to lesser institutions even though the value of their effort in terms of degrees or championships attained would be nominally equal; or, to offer an analogy from the world of politics, women only permitted to run for state and local though not for national offices.

Does the logic of citius, altius, fortius - swifter, higher, stronger -- by definition exact our currently practiced and legitimately perceived sexual apartheid at the very top level of sports since the most accomplished men will always run faster, jump higher, and be stronger than the most accomplished women? If we continue to define "the best", which is such an integral part of any sport, by our current criteria, then this separate but equal world will never change. But if we construct alternate logics to what constitutes "the best" - include metrics of cooperation and style, for example, in computing winners and losers, or create truly gender-integrated teams in which the women's output would be weighted more heavily (e.g. assign five points to baskets scored by female players as opposed to the two by males) thereby creating real incentives to have the women be welcomed as positive additions to these teams, as has been the case in the aforementioned intramural contests -- then we might actually arrive at a truly integrated sports world which would thus be congruent with virtually all important public institutions of our contemporary democratic world.

Andrei S. Markovits teaches sociology of sports, among other subjects, at the University of Michigan. He is co-author with Lars Rensmann of Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture published by Princeton University Press in June 2010 in which the issue raised in this article -- as well as others of the sports worlds in Europe and North America -- are discussed in detail.