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Four thing we learned in 2011 (that are worth remembering in 2012)

January 1, 2012 – 12:20 PM

By Laura Pappano

SOMETIMES YOU LOSE – AND IT’S OK. The Women’s World Cup championship game between the U.S. and Japan honored the rise and intensity of women’s soccer. The back story was compelling: The U.S. Team’s dramatic run-up with Abby Wambach’s YouTube-play-it-again (and again) headers versus the determination of a team whose nation hungered for a win in the wake of the tsunami. The game was memorable for being both gritty and elegant. It reflected best things about sport: A game played hard and well – and fairly.

THERE ARE OTHER COLLEGE SPORTS BESIDES FOOTBALL AND MEN’S BASKETBALL: The sex abuse scandal at Penn State is just the latest and most troubling reminder of the power gap between big-time sports programs and other teams on campus. The power dynamic is further skewed by commercial quests of big-time teams that – as in the cast of conference realignments – change which other colleges a team will play. The Big East, for example, beginning this year will stretch from San Diego to Providence – and it’s not just football and basketball players getting on planes and missing classes. It’s field hockey players, cross-country runners facing six-hour flights to away games. Might college sports need a new structure – one that separates big-time sports-entertainment ventures from the extracurricular activities of student-athletes who fully intend to stay all four years and earn a degree?

GIRLS CAN DO WHAT BOYS CAN DO: We saw Justine Siegal become the first female to throw batting practice at MLB spring training. The Olympic Committee (finally) voted to add women’s ski jumping in the next Winter Olympics in 2014. We saw high school girls, including Monique Howard playing football – on the defensive line — and saw girls and boys in Massachusetts competing for swim titles. In New Jersey, a boy wasn’t allowed to play on a high school field hockey team, but a co-ed field hockey team in Princeton is growing and USA Field Hockey now wants boys to join the sport. Rigid gender divisions may still rule in sports, but common sense (and budget pressures) are changing the landscape and revealing that – gasp – males and females can compete with and against one another (or in the same events). We don’t, in other words, need to start with gender as a hard dividing line (most especially in school and recreational sports).

THE WOMEN’S MARATHON RECORD IS STILL 2:15:25. The IAAF’s decision to change the rules by which women runners can compete for world record times in the marathon – and the decision to revoke and then reinstate Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 London Marathon record – reveals challenges ahead. Women being paced by men can run faster. It reflects the maturation of the sport to require particular courses (only loops) and conditions (women’s race separate) for an official world record. It’s a quest for uniformity in a sport that takes place out in the natural world. But what about other factors? Rain? Temperature? Winds? Crowds? Seeking a standard may make sense for record books (though eliminating mixed-sex races narrows the acceptable pool and, in real time, sends a negative social message by exaggerating the gap in male and female performance). We are far from the days when running the distance was the simple point. But the pacing issue still lacks resolution. Men may still have rabbits, and it’s helped spur records. Women can’t have male rabbits, but they do need female ones.  We now need women who are able and willing.

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