Shrinking and Pinking: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

This time of year is always a big one for female athletes-- especially with the recent popularity of NCAA basketball superstars like Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins. While it's so important to celebrate these victories, it's also important to remember the ways in which we still have room to grow when it comes to female athletes. So here are some steps forward, and a few steps back from the past few weeks. Step forward: Mark Cuban announces he would give Brittney Griner a shot to try out for the NBA, and is considering drafting her in the second round. It appears a woman trying out for a NBA team hasn't happened since 1979.

Step forward: Lauren Silberman, a college soccer player, became the first woman ever to participate in an NFL Regional Scouting Combine. She tried out as a kicker (apparently you pay to compete at these events, but there are a limited number of slots).

Step back: Silberman did not perform well-- at all. Neither of her two kicks went beyond 20 yards. Some even suggested this was designed to torpedo women trying out for the NFL in the future.

Step forward: Danielle Coughlin became the first female to win a state wrestling title in Massachusetts. She won in the 106-pound final in Division 2. She also served as a captain of her high school's co-ed team. I really enjoyed this quote from the article about what her victory meant to her: "After I won, a guy in the stands actually turned to me and he said, ‘Smile, I have to send a picture to my daughter in Africa and tell her that in this country women can become anything.’ I actually started crying when he said that."

Step forward: Caroline Pia, whose family had taken their fight to the media to ensure that their twelve-year-old daughter would be able to play on her Catholic League's football team, was given the go-ahead to play in the League.

Step back: Thirteen-year-old Ella Wood in California is the reason why her team-- which won every game in their season-- actually "lost." The Foothill Sports League decided ex post that having a girl play meant a game was forfeited. To their credit, all of Ella's male teammates said they should forfeit. But as of now she won't be able to play with her teammates next year.

But let's end on a more positive note! Former Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona, who helped establish the Women's Sports Foundation and served as its president, is now helping female athletes do even more trailblazing. She recently announced a partnership with Ernst & Young to help female athletes transition to leadership roles in their careers outside of sport.

Women In Sport Press Conference- 2013 Laureus World Sports Awards

I found this statistic especially interesting: About 4800 women took part in last year's London Games and less than 30% will return to compete in Rio. While it's somewhat discouraging that this is necessary, overall it will be a huge step forward.

To more steps forward!

Shrinking and Pinking: More Girls, More Sports, More Changes

Compared to the past few months, October brought less female athlete news-- but as students returned to school and Olympic-caliber athletes returned to training, there's no doubt that women in sports were hard at work.  And, in many cases, they are working hard in new contexts. 1) In Massachusetts female high school golfers now have the chance to compete in a more rigorous state-level tournament, as the state's athletic association voted to add sectional tournaments.  This is a great sign that golfing is growing for girls.

2) Lolo Jones, the American hurdler who often gets more attention than wins, has just be named to the US bobsled team.

She's not the only one in the running to be a two-sport Olympian (summer and fall), as gold medal sprinter Tianna Madison also made the team as a push athlete (the people who run and literally push the bobsled before hopping in and letting others steer down the mountain). It will be interesting to see if they both make it to the 2014 Games!

I wonder if there is this same type of crossover in male bobsledding?

3) Legendary women's basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, of UConn's storied program made headlines this week when he suggested that the rim should be lowered in the women's game. His reasoning? It would help increase the audience for women's basketball because it would mean a faster game, more dunks, and better layups.  He also suggested changing the size of the basketball and a few other timing rule changes.  Through the article I learned that the net in women's volleyball is lower (mainly because of the average height difference between men and women)-- which shows he was right that I had no idea!

I have mixed feelings about different rules for men's and women's games, but changing the equipment to reflect the realities of known physical differences between men and women (like height) seems reasonable. In the end it's just great to see more females doing a variety of competitive sports.

Shrinking and Pinking: It's All Greek to Me

It's a good time to be a female athlete. As the NCAA women's basketball tournament winds down, we are left with the stories and legacies of serious athletic stars like Elena Delle Donne (with her interesting and brave back story) and Stanford's Ogwumike sisters. Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins has emerged as a star who transcends the impressive boundaries of her sport.

Just as basketball concludes Olympic athletes in various fields gear up. For the first time ever it appears that every nation participating in the 2012 Games will send at least one female athlete to London. That includes Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and Qatar. This is a significant development to be celebrated-- as is the fact that certain sports are loosening restrictions on female athletic attire.  To the applause (and, I suppose, disappointment to some) women's beach volleyball players no longer have to compete in bikinis. Given how much grief we give beauty pageants for the swimsuit portion of the competition, it's amazing this rule change took so long and hasn't previously met with more resistance.

Just because women won't be playing in bikinis and skirts doesn't mean that they are any less tough-- or less girly for that matter. I absolutely loved this article on 22-year-old weight lifter Holley Mangold. Mangold, a 374-pound weightlifter (and brother to NFL star Nick Mangold), just qualified to represent the US at the Olympics this summer. While at the Trials earlier this month she rocked a "girly" hair-do and painted her nails using OPI color "It's All Greek to Me."

Given her Olympic-sized goal this seems a most appropriate choice. Holley, who describes herself as "extremely manly," says she can also be girly, which she chooses to demonstrate through small fashion choices like her hairstyle and nails (not dissimilar to Skylar Diggins' approach to her hair).

Female athletes clearly have some sartorial flexibility to demonstrate a range of femininities. But it seems that they may also have more flexibility to demonstrate a range of athletic skills as well.  This article on superstar two-sport athlete Melanie Baskind-- who plays on and co-captains both the varsity lacrosse and soccer teams at Harvard-- mentions that: "There may be a nascent drift at Harvard toward two-letter women. Four of Baskind’s lacrosse teammates also play field hockey, and a soccer cohort swims for the water-polo squad. Ivy League rules, which limit practices and off-season play days, make dual citizenship more manageable."  This at a time when two-letter men are becoming less common.  Is this a good or a bad thing for women? The cross-training would seem to be helpful in preventing burn-out in a particular sport (note that Elena Delle Donne, mentioned above, briefly gave up basketball to play college volleyball-- though never at the same time), along with injuries.  Or perhaps as more and more female athletes rise up through the ranks two-sport collegiate females will go the way of two-sport collegiate males?

One school where collegiate female athletes haven't made a big enough dent is Texas A&M. Would you believe that they have never had a female cheerleader?  It's true-- though their definition of cheerleader is a bit different. "Yell leaders" are all men who cheer from the sidelines (and, yes, Rick Perry was one as an undergraduate). They are voted on by the student body, so junior Samantha Ketcham waged a very public, vocal campaign, which received a lot of press.  Despite her loud voice, she didn't win. Perhaps next year there will be even more candidates... rocking some OPI red nail polish.

My NCAA Bracket Thoughts (Well, sort of)

If our president can take time to think about the men's NCAA basketball tournament, so can I...

Well, honestly, I only sort of think about it.  Beyond rooting for Harvard, which didn't work out so well, I can't claim to watch much, or be anywhere close to an expert on, college hoops. But I have been thinking about several NCAA sports stories lately.  Here's my round-up of the college sports issues that are on my mind.

1) Harvard basketball-  We were oh-so-close to the dance. It was heartbreaking to watch The Crimson lose in the final 3 seconds on Saturday-- and to my other alma mater, Princeton! I've always preferred crimson to orange (orange is just not in my color family), plus my paycheck comes from Cambridge. But both teams shared the Ivy League title this year, capping off an historic season for Harvard.  The magic didn't continue; but, who knows, maybe someday we'll see two Ivy teams together in the tournament for the first time?  Unfortunately, in the end, Harvard didn't help its case that it should have gotten a bid, performing poorly in the NIT tournament last night (the first time they'd ever been invited). So, I must say, "Go Tigers!, on Thursday.  Obama didn't pick you (despite the First Lady's ['85] urging, I'm sure), and you're considered serious underdogs, but draw strength remembering your upset in 1996-- wonderfully chronicled in Time this week. But, with all the key Crimson players returning next year, along with what is supposed to be a fantastic recruiting class, I hope we'll find ourselves rooting instead for the Crimson in March 2012, ending the 68-year tournament-appearance drought.

2) NCAA female vs. male basketballers' graduation rates-Well, the women win the battle, at least when it comes to performance in the classroom. A recent study out of University of Central Florida found that the schools representing the women's teams in this year's NCAA tournament graduate more team members than the men do. There are a lot of factors here-- race, level of competitiveness, women's documented superior classroom performance in other realms-- but as the men get all the attention, it's worth noting that more of the female scholar-athletes are living up to both parts of their hyphenated designation.

3) Stanford's "easy class list"- Then again, as this USA Today article suggests, both male and female scholar-athletes sometimes get some academic breaks in college. Apparently Stanford, until very recently, maintained a list of "easy" classes that it gave to athletes. The university explains that the courses were scheduled at convenient times for athletes, in between practices.  But, with names like "Social Dances of North America," I'm guessing more was going on than scheduling. Alas, is it really surprising that courses from my discipline of sociology made the cut? If you're interested in reading more about different academic standards and performances for collegiate athletes, I recommend reading Shulman and Bowen's extremely detailed (though now slightly dated) and informative The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Can any of my Cardinal readers confirm the existence of this "easy" class list (one ESPN commentator, and a former softball player at Stanford had this to say)? I'm not sure there's anything terribly wrong with it, especially if it would be offered to any student (even a non-athlete) who asked for it. What do others think?

On a final note, to sooth myself after the Harvard-Princeton game in New Haven on Saturday, I decided it was time to finally watch a documentary I'd been meaning to screen-- Harvard Beats Yale 29-29I'd heard and read lots of great things about it, so I went in expecting a lot and I was definitely disappointed. The story is naturally full of drama (even if there is no suspense, given that you know the outcome based on the infamous title), but I didn't think it was produced well. I also would have loved to have seen all the former players get together for a reunion. Certainly the most entertaining, and despicable, character is Mike Bouscaren (you can read a bit about him in this Newsweek review), a Yalie who deliberately tried to physically injure players, taking one out of the game-- though his memory is a bit faulty (turns out that injured player [Hornblower] is the father of a classmate who lived in my freshman year entryway).  I haven't yet read the book version, but suspect that might be better. In any case, it is fun to see all the connections to famous people through the players in this game (Tommy Lee Jones was an All-Ivy player on the team who roomed with Al Gore, another Yalie roomed with George W. Bush, another dated Maryl Streep, and the Yale quarterback Brian Dowling was the inspiration for B.D. in the comic Doonesbury) and to hear more about life on campus in the 1960s.

But, this week, I think the NCAA basketball games (for both the men and the women!) will prove to be better entertainment than Harvard Beats Yale 29-29. Go Tigers!