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Sport practice is more than prep for play; it’s nation building!

April 2, 2014 – 3:45 pm

By Mariah Philips

It is another dark morning, 4:30 a.m., when I force my feet out of bed and onto the cold hardwood floor. It is time for softball practice and, before that, the pre-practice heating pad that will loosen up my shoulder so I can throw and bat.

It takes discipline to wake up in the dark, to rise despite aches and pains, to put in two hours of physical work before a day of classes. But it is a learned discipline that comes from years of training cultivated through my participation in sports.  The willingness to rise, to push, to work, has shaped my values, (discipline being one of them) and equipped me for the rigors of the adult world.

Such lessons are not mine alone. But for girls in some parts of the world, access to athletics is fraught with obstacles.

In her March policy brief, “Women, Sports, and Development: Does it Pay to Let Girls Play?” author Barbara Kotschwar, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, argues that skills gained through athletics offers women in developing countries tools to advance their own and their countries’ economic well-being.

The problem, observes Kotschwar, is that girls in developing nations face barriers, including “the persistence of strictly enforced gender roles and legal and cultural restrictions on movement.”

In India, although wrestler Sonika Kaliraman and tennis player Sania Mirza are raising the profile of female athletes, few girls play sports because they lack family support and it has not been part of the cultural tradition. “Because women have not commonly participated in sports in the past, girls face criticism for wanting to do so.”

In other countries, they lack access to equipment, training, facilities or, as Diana Barakzai, captaining of the Afghani women’s cricket team, observes, women “are victims of unacceptable rules that prevented them from leaving the house.”

If sports can make stronger leaders and foster economic independence and stability among individuals – as Kotschwar’s analysis of research argues – then how can that not breed economic independence and stability for developing nations? Doesn’t it just make good sense, she points out, to consider athletic opportunities as a piece of nation-building?

Difficult as it is to roll out of bed at 4:30 a.m., more young women need that chance.

It IS March Madness: Still a Shadow Championship

March 18, 2014 – 5:42 pm

By Laura Pappano

Get ready: For the next few weeks college basketball will be everywhere you turn. Unfortunately, few of the games that will be playing non-stop on screens will feature women’s teams.

Yes, women are playing — just not where you will notice them.

Every year, I get excited and whoop up the crowd like a women’s basketball mascot — Fill out your brackets!! Did you see that game last night on ESPN2??!! — but I am aware that as great as the women’s play is (and it’s fantastic), the klieg light of attention given the men’s game leaves this brilliant show of female ball talent in the shadows.

I worry that the NCAA is only making things worse.

It is one thing for media empires to vastly out cover the men’s tournament and another for the NCAA to do it. Go to the jazzed up NCAA website and you quickly notice that after years of looking like a dowdy, but institutionally-sober event, the men’s bracket now rivals the glitz of the ESPN bracket challenge. The new website makes abundantly clear that the men’s championship is the main event.

Yes, you can go to the NCAA site and land on the women’s bracket (notice the “print bracket” button). If you look at the bottom of the page you see a new feature — a “play now” icon. Click it and — even though you are on the women’s bracket — it delivers you to an edgy page and invites you ESPN-style to fill out and play and invite others to join — the men’s bracket.

As I said, you can still “print bracket” if you dare to be interested in the women’s bracket challenge.

In this era, the click rules. Whoever can deliver you quicker with better design wins the competition for attention. Why make it so difficult to hold an office bracket challenge for the women’s tourney?

On the NCAA site, the endless electronic loops that navigate you over and over again to all things Men’s March Madness (unless you specifically click “Women’s Tournament”)  reveals all we need to know about the NCAA’s view of gender equity.

Women’s basketball may be one of the most successful and compelling women’s sports in America. The timing and overlap of the men’s and women’s tournament has long been a subject for debate. But the lopsided web favoritism for the men’s championship is unnecessary, annoying, and demeaning.

And, as I said. It tells you all you need to know.

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If co-ed youth sport is a Pandora’s Box, then Game On

January 15, 2014 – 10:55 am




By Laura Pappano

Much of the modern life has evolved — and at breakneck pace — but too many adults in positions of power continue to enforce a maddeningly old-fashioned mindset when it comes to young female athletes and co-ed play.

I was recently contacted by a mom whose third grade daughter – eight years old – was first allowed to join a community youth basketball team with boys and then tossed off the roster. May I repeat: This is third grade.

The reasoning?  The organization’s board chair, this mom wrote, “informed me that the majority of the board members were of the opinion that girls should not be allowed to play with boys. He stated that although this is just 3rd grade, allowing them to play now opens a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of issues and makes it more difficult for them to disallow it in the future.”

Obviously, Pandora’s Box was flung opened a long time ago. You can also bet that all the young Pandoras growing up today have no intentions of shutting it.

Earlier this week in Pennsylvania, U.S. Middle District Judge Matthew W. Brann ruled that the Line Mountain School District could not bar 12-year-old Angie Beattie from the middle school wrestling team. Beattie, who has wrestled since third grade – may we pause to recognize that starting early gives girls a chance to develop skills to compete successfully? – earned a 5-3 record last season in club wrestling.

The frustrating thing? The school district’s arguments against Beattie sound like the arguments against 3rd grade co-ed basketball – and like the arguments that have been struck down in previous court cases. School officials argued that letting girls wrestle boys presented psychological, physical, and moral risks.

School officials back in 1996 reached for the same argument when Tiffany Adams of Wichita, Kansas wanted to wrestle on the Valley Center High School team. The court ruled that while student safety was, indeed, an important goal that Tiffany was no more in need of protection than any other qualified student who wanted to wrestle.

The ruling includes a message that school officials in Line Mountain (and board members barring a girl from 3rd grade basketball) might well heed. The notion of “protecting” qualified girls but not boys, the court said, “suggests the very sort of well meaning but overly paternalistic attitude about females which the Supreme Court has viewed with such concern.”

The most striking part of the court ruling, though, was the finding that barring Tiffany from the team denied her the ability to develop her skills as a wrestler and this had caused her “irreparable harm” and violated her constitutional rights. Wow.

It’s a point school officials and recreation board chairs ought to think about next time they drag out the tired claim that they are “protecting” girls by excluding them.

Better to let them know that Pandora has her uniform on – and she’s ready to play.

Amnesia Bowl: FSU and Winston Catch a Pass, Send Troubling Message on Campus Sexual Violence

December 30, 2013 – 5:00 am

By Megan Wood

 Bowl season is underway and, with it, a surfeit of TV football coverage leading up to the BCS Championship game on Jan. 6 between #1 ranked Florida State and #2 Auburn.

 In it’s giddiness over the nation’s #1 ranking, Florida State – and the Football Industrial Complex – have conveniently ignored what should be more than a footnote in this Cinderella story — namely that nearly a year ago QB Jameis Winston was accused of raping a classmate.

 The Heisman Trophy – which Mr. Winston won by a wide margin – is a high honor to be bestowed upon a player who “best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” No doubt he is an excellent athlete, but how much was “integrity” on the minds of those who gave him a booming standing ovation at the celebratory dinner?

 Maybe people just forgot about the rape accusation?

 Or perhaps they were eager to be satisfied with a slapdash investigation with clear missteps including victim intimidation (common problem in rape cases) so they could get back to celebrating Mr. Winston’s impressive athleticism – and the upcoming national championship?

 Should we really be done talking about this? I’m not so sure.

 Let’s first get a key fact straight: Mr. Winston was NOT exonerated as FSU Head Coach Jimbo Fisher and supporters alike have mistakenly claimed. To exonerate means to “to prove that someone is not guilty of a crime.” There’s no proof of his innocence—there simply wasn’t enough evidence available, according to State Attorney Willie Meggs, to charge him with rape. Be sure to watch the press conference of Meggs delivering his decision. His laughter and carefree demeanor are disturbing.

 The investigation was flawed from the start. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg highlights the unusual delay in police action and calls the investigation “botched.”

 Justice served? Think again.

 Just weeks after the state decided against charging Mr. Winston, he won the Heisman Trophy, read the Top 10 on David Letterman, and is prepping for the championship game. There’s buzz about whether he might play baseball at FSU and be the best two-sport player that ever lived.

 It’s no wonder big-time college sports like football have an image problem. Not surprisingly, we also have a problem on college campuses with sexual violence. Study by the National Institutes of Justice suggests that over the course of a college career one-fifth to one-quarter of college women can expect to be victims of sexual assault.

 Couple those numbers with the fact that campuses have lousy follow-up and response and the real message of Mr. Winston’s case is not that FSU is going to the dance, but that women on that campus – and elsewhere – are being counted out.

 Wake up, America. We have a problem! Idolizing athletes and breezing over their sexual crimes sends a troubling public message to women that charges don’t stick to stars.

Sharing the Hardwood: Mixed Sex Ball Plans Excitement and Equity

December 22, 2013 – 10:07 am









By Mariah Philips

Professional sports have long been segregated by sex, so what happens when men and women play on the same team? In a high-profile sport like professional basketball? We are about to find out.

The Mixed Gender Basketball Association, MGBA, Inc., has a mission of integrating both men and women on the court. Exhibition game is Jan. 24 in West Orange, NJ. I asked Paul King, National Director of Operations, about their plan to create an alternative co-gendered league.


FGN: Why is it important to start a co-gendered professional sports league?

PK:  Sports and entertainment are historically one of the greatest portals for justice, forgiveness, and change. It has been proven that integrating the game by allowing the gifted and talented of all races and gender to perform at the highest level has enhanced sports. Greatness can be found in anyone and anywhere.  By including talent, the game becomes more perfect.  If you love something, you want to see it reach its ultimate potential. By including women, we believe this is the next progression of the game of basketball.


FGN: How big do you expect this to get? Will it catch on at the ESPN-like level?

PK: We are confident our league will reach the major sports level. All networks look for new content that will increase viewership. Our league will bring the spectator looking for the fundamentals (commonly found in the female game) as well as the flash and excitement (commonly found in the male game) together allowing major networks like ESPN to gain viewers and increase ratings.


FGN: Since it seems so far there is a predominantly male turnout, how will you reach more women?

PK: After our tryouts in NJ, word of mouth has piqued interest of female players resulting in an increase in female turnout. This will be seen in the NJ exhibition games as well as the NY tryouts.  Additionally, we believe the 2014 graduating class and professional overseas players will bring a larger turnout for our summer season.


FGN: How can the concept of “equal pay, equal play” more broadly pervade society?

PK: The idea of “equal pay for equal play” will take hold once companies realize workers will be more productive with a equal pay model.  We will be the proving ground for this model in sports, and with our success, it will defuse into more sectors of society.


FGN: How will this league help men abandon the shame attached with being shown up by women?

PK: Our men and women players are professionals and competitors. Competitors lose shame as they began to realize that the person they are playing against is a formidable opponent.   In practice, women show up the men at times in front of cameras,  spectators, potential investors and team buyers.  The men are not afraid of being shown up by a “woman” because they respect them as players.


FGN: How do you think this will influence the perception of women in sports?

PK: As women have success in our league, the public doubt of women being able to play basketball at a high level will fade.  It also will allow marketers to create new avenues of advertisement.  We believe some sports will change their stance on women playing because of moral or financial convictions.


FGN: Do you foresee it spreading to other sports as well?

PK: Yes, co-ed sports are popping up all over the country on an amateur/recreational level.  I do not think our league will cause this change alone, but it will ignite the change that has started at the recreational level. Our league is proud to take the lead on a professional level.


FGN: What is your target demographic, and how will you sustain the league?

PK: Our audience consists of basketball fans of the Millennial generation.  We do not believe mixed gender basketball is a gimmick but the next progression of sports. We are building the company with that long-term view by exploring foreign markets and mixed gender youth camps in the states and abroad.  We believe the next generation will see mixed gender basketball as common as my children see an African-American President. For them it is not an accomplishment but the norm.


FGN: How will the game look different than what we have come to understand as “the men’s game” and the “the women’s game”?

PK: Our approach will emphasize the flash and acrobatic play of the men’s game and purity of the women’s jump shot and style of play.  Our approach spotlights interesting line-up changes (3 men 2 women quarters, 3 women and 2 men quarters), 4-point shots and a dramatic 2-minute surprise. Coaches will be scratching their heads as they plan for this unique and fast-paced game. We will restore professionalism in sports where men and women can excel equally on the hardwood.

Prize money problem in squash: Women’s purses still petite

October 18, 2013 – 3:28 pm

Tennis may have long ago recognized that unequal prize money sends a troubling message (and is just wrong), but that other racquet sport — squash — persists in offering different purses based on sex. Check out this new post from Squash Site Carte Blanche and, just for comparison, take a tour through FGN blogger Sarah Odell’s 2009  Q&A with Squash pro Suzie Pierrepont. How long must this go on?


False fret: No proof female HS X-country runners can’t go .62 more

October 10, 2013 – 8:59 am

By Vanessa Wilkins

“Go the extra mile — it’s never crowded,” so the saying goes. But what about an extra .62 of a mile?

For thousands of girls on high school cross country teams, racing to the finish means running a course 1,000 meters shorter than their male counterparts.  In 2012, ESPN reported that ten states — Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Mississippi – have a course for females that is 4K (2.48 miles), while male cross country runners cover 5K (3.1 miles)

In the past year, two of those states –Texas and Nebraska — have given distance equity a chance by tacking on another 1,000 meters for female runners.

Why do others keep the girl’s race shorter?

Some worry fewer girls will join cross country teams if the race is longer. Even Olympic marathoner and running celebrity Kara Goucher sympathizes with “the reasons that some people don’t want to see a jump to a full 5K,” and those who “fear the farther distance would discourage girls from running.”

It’s a popular argument, but it simply hasn’t turned out to be the case in states that extended the race distance for girls. In 2008, for example, Connecticut added 1,000 meters to the girl’s course – and participation actually increased, from 2,630 in 2007 to 2,691, according to the National Federation of State High School Association’s participation statistics database.

What’s more, in states where an equal race distance has been in place for five years or more — Ohio, California, and New Jersey, for example — differences in boys’ and girls’ participation rates have remained steady, at about 15-30% more for boys. That, by the way, is the same as in states with shorter race distances for female runners (the exception being Minnesota, where girls’ participation outpaces boys’ by nearly 20%).

 What is really at play here: Antiquated notions about women’s athletic capabilities. Goucher doesn’t take a direct stance against an increase in race distance for girls, but her sympathetic “understanding” perpetrates the myth that girls are afraid of extra running, feeding the fire of sexist ideology. Having this voiced by a running role model only spurs girls to question their own capability to compete at the same distance as boys.

Boys’ times do tend to be quicker. But that is not what this is about. The question is whether girls are capable of covering the extra distance (may I remind you that it’s a tad over half a mile?)

When one considers that, historically speaking, female runners have not been allowed or encouraged to train on par with male athletes it begins to look like it’s time to level the playing field – or lengthen the race course.

How else can we expect to develop a new generation of female runners to compete with the best on an international stage? There may be some catching up to do, but I bet the extra 1,000 meters will only make the race course more crowded with ambitious girls.

Thai women grab volleyball title; find focus on their looks

September 30, 2013 – 3:57 pm

By Mariah Philips

The elation of a surprise victory is universal – and infectious.

The emotion is so powerful that it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, what team it is – or the sex of the players.

Everyone loves a come-from-behind winner on the international sports stage, whether it’s America’s Cup or, as I discovered, the Thai women’s volleyball team grabbing victory by beating the Chinese and the Japanese.

When I pulled open the door of the cafeteria at Khon Kaen University in Thailand (I’m studying here for four months), the Thai women had just earned the surprise win and students, eyes riveted to the TV broadcast of the Asian Women’s Volleyball tournament, erupted in celebration.

I soon discovered that the mania was not just here. The tournament coverage seemed to overtake every TV screen throughout Isaan or the northeast region of Thailand.  Even in the most rural villages, I learned, families tuned in to watch the games. My host family in the small village of Huay Ra Hong in the Chaiyaphum province watched intently while my host father bragged about the team. Even in my limited understanding of the Thai language, I could feel his deep national pride – pride that was symbolized by these talented women.

Back on campus, it felt almost surreal seeing so much energy and enthusiasm toward a women’s team (check out the Bangkok Post: “Thailand Gripped by Volleyball Fever”) I’ll admit I even I felt little envy: Why wasn’t there this kind of excitement for women’s sports in the U.S.?

But as I followed the post-play coverage, my heart sank: Everyone was talking about how attractive the players were. Men joked in interviews that they were dating a player, wanted to date a player (or in some cases, had the audacity to ask a player out in the interview).

They weren’t intentionally malicious, but focusing so much on the physical attractiveness, the sex appeal, shifted attention from their gritty victory to their feminine appearance. (My Thai roommate said Facebook was ablaze with statuses focusing on how cute the players were).

It’s a tired — but annoyingly persistent — theme in women’s sports: Are the athletes being watched for their athletic skill or their sporting good looks?

It’s one thing to note an athlete is easy on the eyes — and another to see it dominate the post-victory discussion.

But what jarred me most was seeing the Thai women’s team, after their victory, drop to the floor and bow (or “wai” as it is referred to in Thai) as a sign of respect to their fans.

I don’t want to diminish the country’s support for this team, but how incredible would it be to see citizens mirror these players’ elegant respect?

Thai women's volleyball team wai (bow) after victory -- as caught on TV

Thai women’s volleyball team wai (bow) after victory — as caught on TV


Battle of the Sexes Puzzler: Throw the match to pay a debt? If Riggs had won, he would have gotten $100K in prize money

September 20, 2013 – 5:04 pm

By Laura Pappano

Exactly 40 years ago, over 30,000 spectators filled the Houston Astrodome and 50 million more tuned in on TV to watch “The Battle of the Sexes.”

Billie Jean King, a 29-year-old who would be #1 in the world for five years (winning six Wimbledon Championships and four U.S. Open titles), took on Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old former tennis champion (he won Wimbledon in 1939), dispatching him in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

The question swirling around this anniversary: Was the match real?

Last month an ESPN report featured Hal Shaw, a 79-year-old former assistant pro at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa, Fla. who came forward for the first time to share a big secret.  Shaw says that one night while he was working – a few months after the match – he overheard mobsters talking. His claim? Bobby Riggs owed $100,000 – so he threw the match against King to pay it off.

King has doubted this scenario, Riggs in 1995 took a lie detector test (and passed), and Gail Collins last month argued the absurdity of the claim.

One little focused-on fact: The match was a $100,000 winner-take-all contest. If Riggs had won, he would have walked away with the cash. (OK – Uncle Sam would take a cut, but still….)

Yet, the revived debate about what happened (we may never really know) is more interesting for what it says about gender equity and power.

In 1973, the match drew attention because of the context. Bobby Riggs had made a male chauvinist pig of himself to promote the event. “Women,” he insisted at the time, “belong in the kitchen and the bedroom and not on the tennis court.”

And you could replace “tennis court” with “boardroom,” “executive suite,” “corner office,” “high elected office,” “Supreme Court” – any number of positions of power. The contest was a big deal because women themselves weren’t so sure that Riggs wasn’t right.

When Billie Jean King won it awakened possibilities. (In 1975 when Seventeen magazine polled readers Billie Jean King was the most admired women in the world.) The win also surprised people – not that a tennis player in her prime beat a retired champion who may not have been in his best shape – but that a woman beat a man. No matter the contest (or position of power) men were always supposed to win. This disrupted the order.

Claiming that the match wasn’t “real” today sounds desperate.

Sure, it has sparked debate, but the lasting legacy of the anniversary may be that the meaning attached to that moment cannot be overturned. Billie Jean King changed people’s minds — and they are not about to be changed back.

Mom on son’s concussion: “It really affected him mentally”

August 10, 2013 – 7:39 am

By Katie Culver

The risk of getting hurt is part of playing sports. We parents of athletic children understand that. But rising awareness of concussions presents a new avenue of worry. How can we spot a concussion and what can we expect if our child suffers one? I spoke recently with a mom I’ll call Kathy about her 12-year-old son, whom I’ll call Jack, who suffered a concussion last year.

FGN: How did you know that Jack had a concussion?

K: He came home from playing pick-up football the Friday after Thanksgiving and 20 minutes later started crying hysterically saying his head hurt. He had fallen backwards and hit his head after a two-hand-touch game turned into tackle. I called our pediatrician who told me to check for vomiting or pain in his eyes. He had none of these symptoms; just a bad headache. On Monday when I picked him up from school he was white as a ghost and complained that his eyes hurt, he had a terrible headache and could not concentrate in school. I took him directly to Bryn Mawr Hospital. They gave him a balance and memory test. The result: He had sustained a concussion.


FGN: What was the treatment? How long did it take?

K: We would go to duPont [Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE] every two weeks for balance, cognitive and visual/memory tests. Because we didn’t have base-line testing done, his scores were compared to other 12-year old boys with similar grades in school [duPont required academic records to determine this]. Jack’s performance was very erratic until March, when he fell within the range of his peers. Then he had to complete a final three-hour test with a physical therapist to clear him to resume normal activity.


FGN: How did the concussion affect Jack in school?

K: Jack missed almost the whole month of December. He would go for two hours here and there and then I would have to pick him up. He could not read, couldn’t concentrate and had constant headaches. He missed his entire basketball season, which was heartbreaking for him. Once he returned to school in January, he had to check in with the nurse 2-3 times a day and often would lay down to rest. [NOTE: The symptoms and treatment are consistent with the Academic Accommodations for Concussion suggested by Premier Orthopedics and Sports Medicine].


FGN: What was the most difficult part of this experience?

K: The concussion affected him mentally. Jack is an outgoing, happy kid who is always on the go. The headaches made him not want to do anything and he couldn’t play video games with his friends, watch T.V.  or have sleep-overs. He was exhausted all the time. It really affected his psyche—he became depressed and actually had this really scary episode one night were he became hysterical and said he had this thought that he wanted to kill himself. He was mostly scared by the thought and didn’t actually feel like he was going to do it but was just totally out of whack mentally. When we spoke to the concussion doctor she said that was a really normal symptom—that she had 19-year old-guys bawling in her office and expressing the same desperation after concussions.


FGN: What advice would you give parents of a child with a concussion?

K: To have the base-line testing performed. And to wear any protective gear they have. I feel like I want to have Jack in a bike helmet at all times, which of course isn’t possible. But I am reminding him as soccer season begins what he can’t do and that he absolutely cannot head the ball. We went to an amusement park the other day and Jack had a scare in bumping his head while on a roller coaster. You don’t think about all of the possible situations. I hope we never have to go through this again.