It's Sunday morning, February 5, and my Twitter feed is bursting with sports news and opinions. Most are about the Super Bowl, of course, and then, somewhat less mainstream, there's the one from Talib Kweli which links to an Atlantic article by Max Fisher on "Why Thousands of Iranian Women Are Training to Be Ninjas."
Why, you may ask, are thousands of Iranian women training to be ninjas? In a word, power. Iran is a country where the supposed inferiority of women is so institutionalized that their testimony counts half as much as that of men. Yet, despite what we may believe in western societies, burqas and chadors hide women surprisingly resistant to 33 years' worth of efforts to disempower them. Sports, and in particular ninjutsu, are one visible sign of that stubborn resistance. (Fisher)
Is it really that simple? Fisher makes important points but in various comments on the article, readers affirm the strength and power of Muslim women as something that should not be so surprising, remind us that Islam is not inherently misogynistic, and point out other regimes are more repressive than Iran. Additionally, it may be argued, western society is not exactly a perfect model for the encouragement of women athletes.
One of our periodic homeroom rituals is for Martha, an ice hockey player, to announce her games, invite people to come, and/or thank those who did. The rules for girls' ice hockey are modified to discourage hits and strong checking, and Martha is quietly irritated by that. Her attitude seems to be that it's part of the game, and to disallow girls to play hockey as it was meant to be played dishonors both girls and the sport.
Meanwhile, Women's Professional Soccer has just announced it is suspending its season, though they hope to resume play next year. Since its release, the film "Bend it Like Beckham" has been a perennial favourite among my students. When it first came out, the idea that girls could dream of playing soccer professionally was bright and fresh and new and exciting. Then, the Women's United Soccer Association folded, and part of our discussions became the contrast between the exhilaration and hopefulness of the film and what the reality turned out to be. Still later, WPS formed up and our discussion shifted yet again to include a sort of nervous relief that girls could once again dream of playing professional soccer - as long as the league found a way to stay open. Now...well, we'll see.
Professional women's soccer leagues do continue in a number of other countries, and of course professional women basketball players have a plethora of teams to choose from all around the world. Most of these pay much better than the WNBA, where the starting salary is lower than what a rookie teacher makes and the maximum salary is $105,500. Minimum rookie pay in the NBA, in contrast, was $473,604 last year. In theory, our country is at the forefront of women's rights. Why then is the disparity in professional sports so great?
One common argument is that women's sports just don't pay for themselves. It is true that the WNBA has survived longer than any other women's professional league in part because of the support of the NBA, and that WPS was trying to make it on their own. Poor fan support is often cited as the main reason. My favourite WNBA team, the Connecticut Sun, has an average attendance of 7056 per game. My favourite NBA team, the Boston Celtics, has an average attendance of 18,169. So if the critical factor is fan support, then the Celtics as a team should making a bit more than quadruple what the Sun do (their season is twice as long, a fact we'll set aside for the moment), and player salaries should reflect that. But that isn't even close to reality. No, it's all the rest that makes the main difference - concessions, endorsements, TV exposure, etc. Men in this country still have more economic and political power than women, and masculinity in this country is still more highly valued than feminity. That institutionalized sexism, I suspect, is what is really at the root of the vast difference in opportunities for male and female athletes.
We spend a lot of time talking about the intangible benefits of playing a sport, and these are unquestionably important and available to any athlete of any age, gender, nationality, or for that matter skill level. I watch the JV basketball team working hard, improving, always doing their best throughout the entire game despite being probably two years younger and smaller on average than most of the teams they play. We're always working to build resilience in our students, and certainly the basketball court is one of our most important classrooms. But at the same time, I can think of no good reason why woman athletes shouldn't be able to look forward to some tangible benefits as well. "Congratulations and welcome to the WNBA! You're one of the top 130 basketball players in the world! Keep your day job!" just doesn't have the ring you'd hope it would. Our students would, I think, emphatically agree.
So now it's time to go back to the world where most people are focused on some football game, where many of the ads will be just as stereotypically male-centric as the game itself. In the back of my mind, a thought... what if, some day, the entire country puts the rest of their lives on pause to watch, say, the WNBA final? Naah, couldn't happen.
Or could it?
- Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean