By Isabella Argote
Imagine being a girl who has played sports her whole life. You love everything about being a part of a team, from the thrill of your first match, to the adrenaline rush and broad smile you get when your team wins. But when you look around, excited to share your victory with your peers, there’s no one at your game. In class the next day, you’re talking with your fellow classmates, sharing something about the game you’ve cherished and played for years. “You play sports?” they ask somewhat incredulously, “Really?” For some reason, they can’t seem to get it through their heads that someone who looks like you could even be capable of kicking or throwing a ball, let alone be passionate about it.
Up2Us Sports is a non-profit organization based in New York City. They recruit, support and train coaches to serve as mentors to youth living in low-income areas who participate in sports activities run by Up2Us Sports member programs across the country. On October 29th, Up2Us Sports held a webinar as part of its Young Voices Series, which featured five teens from Up2Us Sports member program Oakland Lacrosse. These five student-athletes shared their experiences in the world of sports from the perspective of teenage girls.
The girls began the virtual conversation by talking about gender stereotypes, and how these stereotypes have shaped them as athletes and women. From when they were little girls and played pick up games with boys at their school during recess or on weekends, the girls recounted how the boys would be laughed at for being beat by a girl. The girls also recalled how they were often told, “Wow, you’re good at basketball…for a girl.” At first, the girls said, the statements sounded like compliments. However, the more they reflected, the clearer it became that these comments were not complimentary at all, they were sexist and an example of just how early in life boys and girls are conditioned to believe in such insidious stereotypes. After all, why should boys be made to feel ashamed of losing to a talented girl? And why should anyone be surprised by the fact that a girl is great at sports?
The girls then went on to talk about how society has led girls to believe they shouldn’t play sports because sports aren’t “feminine.” The participants noted that they had heard female classmates exclaim that they didn’t want to be stronger, or have more muscles than their boyfriends. To be desirable, girls should be weak, or at least less powerful than their male counterparts. The girls also talked about the fact that as they got older, their enthusiasm to beat the guys, slowly dissipated. They became less focused on defining their experiences through a focus on boys. The girls on the call admitted that at one point, all of them had wanted to join their respective high school’s football teams but that they were either laughed at or discouraged, and were told they would never make it because they were too “small,” and would be crushed.
They then went on to discuss some of the differences in the sports experience for boys and girls. For instance, men’s teams at their schools generally tend to get more attention, while very few people show up to support the girls. This lack of enthusiasm from others often further discourages more girls from trying new sports out, because no one wants to be a part of something that is shoved into a corner and shut in the dark. They also pointed out the differences in uniforms. Two of the girls mentioned that they had wanted to be on the volleyball team, but weren’t comfortable with the amount of skin that they had to show. Even in girl’s lacrosse, a lot of teams require girls to wear skirts. Girls are running hundreds of yards, trying to pull their skirts down as they rise.
Finally, they addressed some other differences between boy’s and girl’s lacrosse. When a lot of them joined the team, they had been excited about getting to tackle their opponents. But girls lacrosse does not allow tackling, and one girl said that it’s really easy for them to rack up fouls when they play, because the slightest push is seen as too aggressive. Girls don’t even get to wear padding, yet guys’ uniforms are so full of extra equipment to protect them from the rougher version of the game.
In the end, while the amazing student-athletes from Oakland Lacrosse painted a picture of an ongoing struggle for equity in sports and in life, I felt hopeful after this important conversation. After all, with young women like these in the world, there is no doubt that we will continue to progress, not just in sports but in life.