Because…chess?

A League of Their OwnIf we let them play baseball, this movie wouldn’t have happened!

Remember when I talked about feminism in science? (It’s okay, no one else read that post either, according to my stats.) Remember how I said that people aren’t robots, and that arbitrarily picking one trait on which to divide us is not going to produce perfect results?

I often wonder what this means for athletics. Fielding two different teams – one for men and one for women – is, on some level, frustrating to me. Going to Georgetown basketball games at the Verizon Center, where the men play, and McDonough Gym, where the women play, is like going to watch two entirely different sports. Women are usually shorter, so women’s basketball tends to use more strategy and intelligence in the game.

Then you get giants like Brittney Griner. Check out these stats I unabashedly pulled from Wikipedia:

Griner recorded one of the first women’s collegiate dunks[7] November 24, 2009, against Jacksonville State.[8]

On December 16, 2009, Griner recorded Baylor’s first triple-double[9] with 34 points, 13 rebounds, and Big 12 Conference record 11 blocked shots. The 34 points and 11 blocks were career highs.

On March 22, Griner set an NCAA tournament record with 14 blocked shots in a 49-33 win against the Georgetown Hoyas.[12]

On March 29, Griner led the Lady Bears to the Final Four. In that game, in which Baylor defeated Duke 51-48, Griner blocked nine shots, totaling 35 for the tournament, a new NCAA Women’s Tournament record.[13]

I italicized the game against Georgetown (sad face) because I’m pretty sure that game is the pinnacle of “individual variation” in women’s basketball. BRITTNEY GRINER IS 6’8”. NONE OF OUR BRILLIANT, INTELLIGENT, CLEVER PLAYS ARE GOING TO WORK AGAINST A GIRL WHO IS SEVEN FEEL TALL. WE WERE CLOBBERED. I CRIED.

Anyway.

Brittney Griner, in women’s basketball, barely needs to do anything but stand there. She does a lot more, but she doesn’t need to. This girl is taller than half of Georgetown’s men’s team, and is definitely as good as a lot of them. She definitely surpasses a lot of the talent on the Baylor men’s team (in my humble, incredibly biased anti-Bears opinion). She would be a great contribution to a team of tall players. But she can’t play with them. That pesky vagina of hers apparently gets in the way.

Or, instead of having a “tall league” and a “short league,” why not just have basketball? Why is the sport all about being tall? Wouldn’t it be that more exciting if there was also more strategy involved? That would probably happen if there were women on every basketball team – incorporating them into game plans would require intelligence instead of dunking. And then you could have both! I think I just had a sport-gasm.

In sports like baseball, this applies even more. We have softball and baseball – but why is one for men and one for women? I’d bet there are a bunch of women who could hit baseballs out of full-sized baseball park, or pitch at 90-100 mph. Likewise, I bet there are a ton of men who can’t do those things, but would kick ass at softball.

Consider running, swimming, or soccer. Women and men don’t compete together, but perhaps if they did, women’s times would increase. I bet you they would.

Despite all this, I’m not sure combining men’s and women’s athletics is a good thing – mostly because of the last three sports I mentioned. Given that in my experience, it seems like most men are stronger than most women, many fewer women would have the opportunity to participate in athletics.  There’d probably be one or two on every track or swim team, sure. But the majority of men are probably physically stronger than the majority of women. Again – this doesn’t really work with a lot of sports. There’s no real reason for men to have higher success rates in baseball or golf.

Or chess.

Yes, you heard me. Chess. Thanks to Meghan for sending me a New York Times update about the Women’s Grand Prix. It was apparently in Mongolia, this year, which is really cool. But like – are men and women not allowed to play chess together in Mongolia?

The lack of a combined league for men and women is a demonstration of implicit gender discrimination in competition – be it athletic or intellectual. This discrimination suggests that women who compete (or perhaps men, but this seems unlikely given, you know, history) are inherently inferior to the men they might be competing against. Originally, competition was primarily only accessible to men, and women’s leagues were built as a way to allow women to participate. But that we live in modern society and still have found no way to incorporate men and women into the same competitive structure says a lot more about us than about the competence of our athletes.

All this gender construction in athletics creates difficult scenarios for some competitors. Take Caster Semanya, the eighteen year old runner who was almost stripped of her Olympic gold medal because she ran too fast. According to the New York Times,

Semenya had no apparent difficulty handling the pressure of her first major final. She broke free of her much more experienced competitors on the final lap and won by the huge margin of more than two seconds, finishing in 1 minute 55.45 seconds. (That was still more than two seconds slower than the world record.)

Yeah, you know how it is. You’re still not faster than the fastest person in the world, but suddenly you’ve got muscles and a defined jaw and shit and then BAM! – you’re a man. The best is the reactions of the sore losers, who almost got medals but apparently weren’t fast enough:

“These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, said in a postrace interview with Italian journalists. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

You, my dear, are not a nice person.

Or check out this one:

Mariya Savinova, a Russian who finished fifth, told Russian journalists that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test. “Just look at her,” Savinova said.

Wait, seriously? You said that? “Just look at her” is not usually a good test for “IS SHE A MAN!?!?!!??!?!!!!” I’m sorry she’s more muscular than you. Also, sorry she beat you.

I have fond memories of this Dave Letterman video when it first aired, not because of its extreme lack of sensitivity, incorrect use of “gender” and “sex,” or just general jackass-ness. Actually, despite all that, I kind of love this video, because it demonstrates how damn absurd the situation really is:

(check out the video HERE because I sadly can’t embed Flash videos on WordPress, and no program in the world wants to let me download/convert this one)

Luckly, the NYT brings a little more sense to the world:

Davies emphasized that the testing is extensive, beginning with a visual evaluation by a physician. “There is chromosome testing, gynecological investigation, all manner of things, organs, X-rays, scans,” he said. “It’s very, very comprehensive.”

Dreger, the Northwestern professor, said the doctors could examine genes, gonads, genitalia, hormone levels and medical history.

“But at the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision,” Dreger said. “And the science actually tells us sex is messy. Or as I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’ ”

Oh, nature. Your slobbery makes you sound like a messy teenager who’d rather sleep until 11:00 am than wake up and clean your room. Er, uh, replace “messy teenager” with “tired college student who stayed up an extra hour waiting for ‘not-so-safe rides’ to actually do its job.” Thanks for all the joy your individual variation has brought to the world.

Another one of my favorite examples is Johnny Weir, and American figure skater. As a person, I hate the man. I think he’s a terrible sport, and that has really made me detest him. He’s also never been my favorite skater; I find his so-called “grace” to be awkward and uncomfortable. He reminds me of Kimmie Meissner (as the birds chirp because no one remembers her international medals from 2006).

Unfortunately, Johnny Weir is getting a lot of flack, not for his reduced skating technique as of late, but for his, for lack of a better word, flamboyancy. He likes outrageous costumes, crazy music, and yeah, despite the fact that I think he’s bad at it, he’s trying to be graceful. In a sport that is constantly trying to emphasize its athleticism to escape the labels of being “gay” or “wimpy,” Johnny Weir has become the paragon of how not to be a male figure skater. It’s sad, because that’s when judges start to only grade men on their jumps, and not on their expressiveness. This year’s Olympic gold medal to Evan Lysacek was a victory for the changing definitions of masculinity in modern society – he didn’t attempt the quad jump that the silver medalist just barely completed; that is, a jump that involved four complete rotations in the air. Smucker’s Star’s on Ice rejection of Johnny Weir was a setback in figure skating’s movement towards more progressive gender relations – and, you know, improved figure skating. There’s no reason we can’t have nice jumps and grace.

Gender is a difficult topic in sports. We’re obsessed with masculinity; we’re obsessed with men being stronger and smarter than women. But if the goal of competition is to push people to be the best that they can be, is it wise to force humans into these categories that don’t necessarily promote that goal?

As I said earlier, I’m still not sure if single-sex athletics is the best idea, mostly because I want to see successful women in all sports, not just the ones where the majority of women aren’t at a blatant disadvantage. I don’t want just the Caster Semenayas to win – the women who have a combination of raw talent, incredibly hard work, and unparalleled determination – and maybe slightly more muscle mass than other women due to some biological luck. I also want women who don’t have that extra little bit of biological help to be honored for the feats they accomplish – because holy shit, I could never run that fast, and they deserve those medals.

Imagine, for a just a second, though, that we tried to separate athletes based on a less politically correct, but potentially just as arbitrary, determination: socioeconomic status. Imagine if we took all the kids playing baseball who were never wealthy enough to go to good baseball schools, or get good coaches, and put them in a different league. Would it seriously increase the number of poverty-stricken kids who get to play baseball? Absolutely. Would it allow some kids who aren’t as lucky as others to have unbelievable role models; ones who say, “look what I did all on my own, look at what you can do?” Yes.

Is it a good idea? Probably not.

So why sex, and despite the best intentions of so many, why gender?

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    • Eileen
    • August 9th, 2010

    Okay. The chess thing is stupid.

    But I think when you consider the fact that women’s times in the “simple” events (running, swimming, etc.) are not as high as men’s at the Olympics, I think that athletic competitions do have a point in being single gendered. The average woman is not going to be able to develop as much muscle mass as the average man – and these men and women are not average. I also don’t think that any women are running slower than they can just because there are no men to compete with, which from your comment I kind of have to conclude you think. Socioeconomic status is an idea, and I realize you don’t actually support it, but considering that once you are an Olympic-level athlete, the United States pays for all your training, equipment, and travel (and considering we compete against some seriously poor countries…who, oh wait, still sometimes beat us), it doesn’t hold up as well as sex.

    But, really, the chess thing is totally stupid.

      • Mara Alyse
      • August 9th, 2010

      “…once you are an Olympic-level athlete, the United States pays for all your training, equipment, and travel…”

      1. Perhaps the USOC pays for stuff if you’re damn good, but to do most sports at any level, coaching will improve your skills. If you start off with no money and then compete against someone who’s been coached for 20 years, you might be in trouble. There’s a curve and structural prejudice against people in a lower socioeconomic category – if you can get training while you’re mediocre, you can get better. If you can’t get training while you’re mediocre, you can get better, but probably not as good as the more well-off athletes, and then you’re not going to make as much money as the people who were already luckier than you.

      2. No, this doesn’t hold up for all cases. Neither does gender.

      3. This definitely holds up more for sports that require equipment and definite training, etc. When was the last time you saw someone from Kenya win a gymnastics event?

      4. That isn’t to say that all people from Kenya are “poor,” either. If we were to measure by socioeconomic status on a percentile-within-country measure, someone in the 99 percentile of wealth in Kenya might be poorer than someone in a lower percentile in the US, but still able to afford a coach because coaches might charge less there.

      The chess thing remains, as you indicated, rather stupid.

        • Eileen
        • August 9th, 2010

        All good points, and yes, averages in the population aren’t always applicable at elite levels. The fastest men in the world, however, are not only faster than the fastest women in the world but substantially faster (almost 14 minutes’ difference in marathon records, for example), and I do think that these women are doing the best that they can even if they’re “only” competing against other women. I think that that lends some merit to having sex-based differentiation in athletic events, because athletic events are, at their core, dependent on a person’s body. There will always be men and women, and their bodies will always differ in a measurable way (as much as the fake “gender-testing” may make things murky, it’s still pretty straightforward to tell a man from a woman, at least if we’re talking sex and not gender). Wealth, as you demonstrated, is hard to equivocate across the world, but every city in every country has both men and women and can tell them apart.

      • Mara Alyse
      • August 9th, 2010

      As I said in the post, I think the split has more logic in sports like running or swimming. It’s still indicative of an institutional bias in the way we see gender – that we think the fastest woman will *never* be faster than the fastest man says a lot about how dutifully we ignore human variation in scientific trends (I’ve been a perpetrator of that problem). I really think sports like baseball or softball, or even a sport like basketball, or sports like golf, don’t really hold up very well under the argument everyone makes for split gendered sports. So even if you accept that the fastest woman will never be faster than the fastest man, you still haven’t accounted for why I can’t golf as well as you.

      Truth is, I probably can’t golf as well as you. But given that we’re both women, I don’t think sex or gender is the reason for that!

        • Eileen
        • August 11th, 2010

        Dude, have you ever seen me golf? My cousin and I came in fabulous last place when the pep band last went mini-golfing (which, okay, was in October ’07 – so no, you haven’t seen me golf). To add insult to injury, we were paired with Matt and Sean, who placed first.

        I really don’t think that sex or gender played much of a role there, either, though.

  1. To make women’s sports on par with men’s sports, we’d have to completely change certain assumptions about sports in general. Some of them you’ve mentioned in this post.

    Sports tends to be the last refuge of the chauvinist and gender essentialist. When that last pillar falls, then I’ll know equality is almost here.

    • Melanie
    • August 9th, 2010

    Sports are quite the bastion of gender bias. I am constantly in awe of the fact that despite the fact that our women’s basketball team regularly outperforms our men’s team, the men’s team is the one with any semblance of support. The cheerleaders refuse to cheer at women’s games and when I informed my neighbor (a cheerleader) that Pep Band plays at both sets of games, she was amazed and made some comment along the lines of there being no point in cheering for the women’s team, since they wouldn’t appreciate the cheerleaders anyway. Aside from the tons of offensive assumptions present in that statement, it was a clear demonstration of how much less seriously women’s sports are taken.

    However, that being said I don’t know that mixed-sex sports would really work. As you mentioned in your example of Brittney Griner, all she needed to do was stand there, thanks to her height advantage. Men on average are taller than women. I don’t think a mixed sex team would result in a combination of the strategy of women’s basketball with the flashy dunks of men’s, but rather a sport made up of a majority of men and the rare women who could match them in height and flashy dunking. Also the difference in strength levels makes a huge difference in a lot of sports. I agree that baseball and softball could probably both become integrated, but in sports like golf there are two different tee distances for men and for women, simply because on average men and women don’t have the strength to hit the ball the same distance. And from personal experience, I have never had my ass kicked so soundly in tennis as when I played in a mixed sex tournament. Tennis has a similar gender difference in style of play as basketball does. Men’s tennis is all about powerful serves and short points. Women’s tennis is about endurance and tiring your opponent out with strategic shot placement. Men are physically capable of much more powerful strokes than women are and the taller you are, the more powerful a serve you can produce so again, height is a factor. Also, women play shorter matches than men (best of 3 sets vs. best of 5), due to the difference in styles of play and strength levels. While Billie Jean King is someone I highly admire, her playing ability and style are very rare in women and I don’t think as a general rule women and men are capable of competing.

    As much as I would like to see equality in all arenas, I think combining sexes for sports would result in far fewer women getting the opportunity to play professionally.

    Also, the whole Caster Semanya debacle really made me cringe at the thought of what would happen to any transgendered person who did try to compete at sports at any sort of professional level.

      • Eileen
      • August 11th, 2010

      But…the cheerleaders do go to the women’s games. I’ve seen them there, both at McDonough and in Hartford for the women’s conference tournament. They don’t perform as much as they do at the men’s games, but they do cheer.

      Although in defense of not cheering, athletics has on several occasions informed the pep band that they only want us to play at four specific times during the game, that the team really wants to stick with its DJ. I’m not saying that there isn’t a sexist bias in favor of the men’s team, just that the pep band, and I assume the cheerleaders, are given more opportunity to perform at the men’s games than at the women’s.

        • Melanie
        • August 14th, 2010

        I should probably clarify that I go to the University of Rochester, not Georgetown. If your cheerleaders go to women’s games, then I am glad. We’re a D-III school however, so as it is we have different rules for performing and the cheerleaders would have just as much chance to perform during women’s games as they would in men’s and in fact we usually have more opportunity to perform at women’s because other campus groups don’t feel the need to perform at halftime in women’s games.

      • Eileen
      • August 14th, 2010

      Oops! Sorry, bad assumption on my part.

    • Jeremy
    • August 10th, 2010

    Sorry Mara, I tihnk your post is way off base here. First, there’s nothing stopping any woman from joining the NBA, the fact of the matter is quite frankly that in sports such as basketball and baseball, men, by virtue of just being taller and having more muscle are just better.

    That’s not an indictment of women in any way, its just the physical reality. You mentioned Brittney Girner, and there’s another woman, Candace Parker, both of whom are superstars. But quite frankly, they would be average male players in college, and would not be able to play in the NBA.

    Women college D1 teams use guys that played varsity basketball in high school to practice against, these women are absolutely brilliant athletes, I know a d1 women’s team would destroy my high school team, but at the top tier its not the case.

    Note that Brittney is 6’8… and 175 lbs. She would get destroyed if she played against a guy who was the same height but weighed 80 pounds more than her.

    There’s no gender bias here, a minor league baseball team signed a female pitcher, but quite frankly, women aren’t as good at sports where you need brawn, it’s just the way it is.

    With regards to Chess, quite frankly, it’s the same story, women can compete in Male tournaments… but why would they want to? Out of the top 100 players in the world, one is a woman, http://ratings.fide.com/toplist.phtml/ 3 are in the top 300, there are 20 female grandmasters versus 1200 male ones etc.

    As a chess plsyer, why would you want to play in a tournament where you were going to get destroyed?

    Now I’m more sympathetic to questions of why women aren’t as good as men at chess, I don’t have the answer to that, but here’s the bottom line.

    Women can play in men’s leagues. They choose not to because they are not as good. That doesn’t mean they can’t ever be as good.

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