Are women’s sports “separate but equal”?

Posted on March 19, 2010


We are rightly suspicious of arguments that justify institutional arrangements that promise to be “separate but equal.” These three conjoined words have had a unique ring in American culture ever since the landmark unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case (1954). The Court declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Most of the questions I was asking yesterday about how to rank women’s and men’s comparative athletic accomplishments come to me first as punditry puzzles. They are like asking, “which team was better, Babe Ruth’s 1927 Yankees or Mickey Mantle’s 1953 Yankees?”

But I am curious about whether these puzzles lead to questions of social significance. Of course, there are academics and others who ask these questions in their day jobs. So I have just ordered Eileen McDonagh’s and Laura Pappano’s Playing with Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports (Oxford University Press, 2009). Here’s the blurb:

Athletic contests help define what we mean in America by “success.” By keeping women from “playing with the boys” on the false assumption that they are inherently inferior, society relegates them to second-class citizens. In this forcefully argued book, Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano show in vivid detail how women have been unfairly excluded from participating in sports on an equal footing with men. Using dozens of powerful examples–girls and women breaking through in football, ice hockey, wrestling, and baseball, to name just a few–the authors show that sex differences are not sufficient to warrant exclusion in most sports, that success entails more than brute strength, and that sex segregation in sports does not simply reflect sex differences, but actively constructs and reinforces stereotypes about sex differences. For instance, women’s bodies give them a physiological advantage in endurance sports, yet many Olympic events have shorter races for women than men, thereby camouflaging rather than revealing women’s strengths.

I’ll report back when I get a chance to read the book. When we ask whether girls or women should compete head-to-head with boys or men, we don’t expect the answer to be simple or uniform. But it is striking that sports remain one of the last bastions of “gender apartheid” in modern societies. So the question must be posed.

And here’s another question. We think it is normal to cope with the way different physical abilities make for an “unlevel playing field” by introducing age categories in many sports (these often top out at “under-21,” but, especially in golf and in recreational leagues, they may also include exclusive categories for older athletes), and divisions defined by maximum weight in other sports.

So what would the world look like (now; a decade from now…) if the NCAA abolished the gendered categories for basketball and instead had, say, three divisions based on height: 5′-6″-and-under, 5′-11″-and-under, and open? And in particular, what percentage of women might we find on teams in the first two categories? (And how would basketball strategy adapt and evolve?)