Sep 062012

A conversation today reminded me of this post from my old blog, so I decided to clean it up a bit and repost it here:

I’ve always loved baseball. I can’t quite explain why, and it seems a little odd that I would like it at all given that my interest has received such little encouragement. My parents themselves are lukewarm about the sport, although they did sign me up for softball when I was 8. Not a naturally gifted athlete, I had to compensate with enthusiasm and a solid work ethic, which met with only limited success seeing as I was not quite popular enough to avoid benchwarming, as certain coaches only played their daughters and their daughters’ friends, of whom I was rarely one.

But I stuck with the sport because I really really really wanted to play. However, what I really wanted was to play was baseball, like the Yankee players I idolized did. For years I harbored the standard childhood fantasy of growing up to be a major league ballplayer. As it is for most people, limited athleticism proved to be an obstacle to making this dream a reality. But it was not the only obstacle.

The most significant obstacle to improving my baseball skills was that I didn’t get to play baseball. I only got to play softball. Now, I like softball. It does contain many of the same elements that baseball has: hitting a ball with a stick, throwing, catching, etc. But it contains several differences, including the tempo of the game, the size of the ball, the throwing style, et al. It’s a fun game of its own, yes, but it’s not baseball. However, because I was a girl, that’s all I got to play.

Initially it was because my parents were afraid I’d get hurt by the faster ball. Eventually, though, they relented and I got to play little league baseball instead of softball for the last two years I was eligible. I wasn’t great, but I liked it and worked hard in practices. Indeed, I was not the worst player on any of my teams…

Soon I was in high school, and I wanted to go out for the JV team. Unfortunately that’s when I ran into a wall, because I was not allowed to go out for the team. And it had nothing to do with my ability – the tryouts would determine who got to be part of the team. My problem was that I wasn’t even allowed to try out, simply because I was a girl. Because I was a girl, I was only allowed to go out for softball.

The law, the school told me, says that we have to let girls have the same opportunities that boys do. So if there’s only one team, like football, we have to let girls play on it. But when we offer a girls’ version and a boys’ version, we don’t have to let the girls play on the boys’ team.

Fine, I said, if the two versions are truly equivalent. But baseball and softball are not equivalent. For heaven’s sake, they aren’t even CALLED the same thing.

And then began a battle of semantics, as I explained to the head of the sports department for the high school that in this case, girls’ softball and boys’ baseball were separate and undeniably unequal opportunities. That there was too much difference between the two sports for girls to feel that they were getting an equal shake when they were essentially banished to their sex’s allocated athletic endeavor. (To that point the director got defensive. Are you saying there’s something wrong with girls wanting to play softball? he demanded. No, I said, but there’s something wrong when they don’t get the CHOICE.)

And lo and behold, my argument won the day. They let me try out for baseball.

During that tryout period I put in everything I had. I learned skills I’d never before been taught. I ran faster, threw harder, and played smarter than I ever had before. I watched everyone play, and noted where my abilities fell in relation to others’ playing. They fell in the middle. Right where the cut was made on who got to make the team.

I didn’t make it. I don’t know why – it was plausible that my abilities were below the cut-off, and it’s just as plausible that the coach really didn’t want to deal with having a girl on the team. I’ll never know. Because by that point I was physically and emotionally exhausted. The physical part was from the tryouts, but the emotional part was from the battle, of having to first win the argument to even get the chance to try out for the rest. It was like the school had stuck a spigot in me and drained me of my energies before finally letting me do what I wanted – and was entitled – to do. I look back and wonder what would have happened if I’d pressed the point, if I’d argued that I really was good enough for the team and it was just sexism that had kept me off. But I couldn’t, because before the season had even started there was nothing left to give to it.

It isn’t the school’s fault, of course, that I’m not a Major League ballplayer. Genetics played a part… and so did youth sports generally, which will someday be the subject of another critical post. But the genetic facet that should have had absolutely no business playing any role in the sport I got to play was my two X chromosomes. And that goes not only for me, but for any other girl who wants to play whatever sport she wants to play. To be banished to something lesser or even just different because of them is absolutely wrong, whether it be me not getting to play baseball or another girl in the same town not getting to play basketball with regulation-height nets*. She’s won her battle, it seems, which is what inspired this post. But it is one (especially 15 years later!) she should not have had to fight.

In the original blog post I cited excerpts of the article about the girl who wanted to play basketball:

An agreement that would allow coed teams was signed late Friday by the Ridgewood Biddy Basketball program, the state Division on Civil Rights and the parents of Caitlin Alvaro, 12, who was barred from playing with boys even though she was considered as good as many of them.

In late October, Caitlin signed up for the fifth- and sixth-grade boys team mostly because they use a regulation hoop that is 10 feet high. The fifth- and sixth-grade Biddy girls teams shoot at an 8-foot hoop, which Caitlin said would throw off her game, since she played with a regulation hoop in two other girls basketball leagues.
The board denied Caitlin’s request, saying her participation would “undermine the program and would, over time if not immediately, have a negative effect on the quality of opportunity of play with the various leagues,” according to papers filed with the state.

Her parents – Joseph Alvaro and Frances Edwards – filed a complaint with the state Division on Civil Rights. After a two-month investigation, the division found that Biddy prohibited Caitlin “simply because she is a female and not for any reason associated with ability or other non-discriminatory basis.”

What had sent me around the bend, however, was this part of the article:

… The civil rights division petitioned the Ridgewood school district in January to intervene, since the games were played in school gyms.

State officials said the school system did not agree to the settlement, and that part of the dispute will be heard by an administrative law judge. District officials would not comment Tuesday.

The same school district I had to fight. Apparently it had learned nothing.

 Posted by at 4:31 pm

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