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: Playing like a Girl Follow-Ups

It was 40 years ago this week that a woman first ran in the Boston Marathon. In 1972 Kathrine Switzer was an athletic pioneer, running among the men-- even when a man tried to stop her.

The picture is much different 40 years on thanks to Title IX and changing societal attitudes. Women are bona fide sports stars. By the end of the NCAA tournament the names Skylar Diggins and Brittney Griner were well known. Boys now lobby to play with girls and not the other way around (as I've written about before, co-ed high school swimming in Massachusetts has stirred great debate-- though they have finally decided to have separate male and female tournaments each fall).

Of course, problems remain.  A huge pay differential still exists between male and female athletes, and male and female coaches. While some felt it was offensive when Notre Dame's female head coach said of Griner, "She's like a guy playing with women," I thought this showed how far we have come.  Yes it is terrible that some taunt Griner for her voice and physique, and that should not happen. At the same time it's seen as a huge insult to say to a man that he "plays like a girl." Now a woman is insulted for being told she plays like a man. Eventually everyone will hopefully just be complimented for skills and great playing on its own.

And things are not nearly as rosy in the rest of the world. Last month I wrote how wonderful it was that it seemed as if all nations would send a female athlete  to this summer's Olympics.  Now, unfortunately, Saudi Arabia has decided not to put forward any female competitors.

We can only hope that someday a female sports star in the Middle East will be told she plays as well as a man.

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.