By Laura Pappano
In our insta-age, everything you hear about is old the second you’re in on it. But one big secret isn’t out: Girls are allowed to play baseball. (Well, kind of).
It’s 35 years since President Gerald Ford signed legislation opening Little League to girls, but it remains a shocker to actually find one on a baseball diamond. OK, of course, there are girls in Little League. But there are so few that everyone notices when they see one.
Parent antennae emit an alert signal the second they scan the field before a game. Their folding chairs may not be fully positioned when the buzz starts: Hey, did you see there’s a girl on that team? It’s not said with any malice, but rather like the way kids spot advertising vehicles on the highway. Hey did you see that truck shaped like a hot dog?
It’s a curiosity, and that’s the point. That this many years later so few girls play baseball suggests nothing less than A Great Baseball Conspiracy. This is one of those open secrets that’s as embarrassing to women as to guys because it speaks to the thousand subtle ways young children get messages about who they are and what they should – and shouldn’t — do.
In 2009, it remains scary for girls to play baseball, even at young ages when it most surely is not about physical prowess. Having watched my share of coach-pitch, it’s concerning to see the level of self-censorship girls apply to joining up for baseball. Why might that be?
Maybe thanks to ordinary encounters like one last spring in which each time two girls in a first grade (first grade!!!) Little League game reached second base they got the treatment from boys in the field: “Girls don’t belong in baseball,” “You cannot play defense,” There shouldn’t be girls in this league,” and, my favorite, “You cannot hit and we will easily get you out!” (Weren’t they already on second?)
This is not just another episode of kids-say-mean-things, but a window into the way we are raising our children. It is not helpful for girls – or boys – to have baseball serve as the vessel of American Manhood. Yet, somehow, from young ages the message gets embedded that baseball is for boys and softball is for girls. Any girl who plays baseball past fourth grade gets asked when she is going to “switch over” (read: stop making trouble and go where she belongs).
It doesn’t help that some states legally consider baseball and softball to be the same sport – which means for Title IX purposes that having softball means they are providing females an equivalent opportunity. As a female baseball player pointed out recently in The New York Times, “It’s like saying Ping-Pong and tennis are the same sport. ”
That was the issue last year when Indiana high schooler Logan Young and her parents filed suit against the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Public Justice and its cooperating lawyers succeeded in getting the association to pass an emergency rule allowing girls to tryout for baseball teams (good luck finding that key vote on their web site). Victoria Ni, a Public Justice staff attorney, says the association is expected to pass a permanent rule change when the full board meets in May.
Ni, who says the baseball-softball definition is just one of several problematic rules in Indiana school sports, says other states may be just as guilty but how to know? There is no master list of all the states that classify baseball and softball as the same sport, legally, speaking. “It’s a state by state fight,” she told me. “To research these rules is extraordinarily hard because you have to get in touch with each high school athletic association.”
One good move: After a nudge from The Women’s Sports Foundation, in December the NCAA’s Legislative Council “determined that baseball and softball are considered separate sports.” According to a February 2009 NCAA “talking points” memo, “previous interpretations of NCAA legislation stated baseball and softball were the same sport for NCAA amateurism and outside competition.” Now college softball players can join baseball leagues in the off-season and vice versa.
While clearly a change meant to give players more flexibility without sinking their eligibility, this is a technical change which deserves some notice at the high school level – and younger. Baseball season is starting, it’s time for little girls to grab their mits and loosen up those arms.