Few 9-year-old girls are described as a “young—very young—Walter Payton.” But that’s what people are calling Sam Gordon of South Jordan, Utah. Gordon has become an Internet sensation after the spread of viral videos showing her shredding Pee Wee football defenses with a series of dynamic touchdown runs.
Her rather overwhelming awesomeness, however, raises far more interesting questions: Why do we still segregate so much of youth sports based on gender? Does the practice of doing so actually stunt female athletic potential? Would ending gender segregation foster a higher level of athletic excellence? The early women’s rights activists certainly thought so. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in a women’s issues magazine, The Lily, “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy, in romping, swimming, climbing, playing ball.”
This is not to argue that there aren’t basic physical differences between men and women. But those differences are often overstated in the name of protecting the “common sense” of gender segregation. Journalist Sherry Wolf wrote, “Let’s cut to the chase. Men tend to weigh more and have greater muscle mass than women: men have 40–60 percent greater upper-body strength and 25–30 percent more lower-body strength. However, with training and nutritional guidance on par with men, female power lifters, for example, have narrowed the gap in actual strength to between 0 and 8 percent.… While there is a connection between muscle size and strength, there is not a direct correlation, as other factors can influence an athlete’s strength such as age, limb and muscle length, and genetics.”
In addition, while the typical male may have greater natural muscle mass, women’s biology makes them provably better at sports that require endurance like ultra-marathons, Alaska’s Iditarod race and long-distance swimming. The book Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal, by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, goes through this in painstaking detail. McDonagh and Pappano argue that “coercive sex segregation does not reflect actual sex differences in athletic ability, but instead constructs and enforces a flawed premise that females are inherently athletically inferior to males.”
This premise of “inferiority” is rooted at the founding of organized, professional sports at the end of the nineteenth century, which coincided with the enforcement of gender segregation as the new normal. A very useful view into this is Jennifer Ring’s book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball. As Ring describes, baseball started as the British game Rounders, played by boys and girls together. Girls continued to excel in the Americanized game of baseball deep into the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the game was professionalized and commercialized at century’s end that girls were forcibly pushed off the diamond. Leaders of the sport like Albert Spalding worked to establish a culture that “would mythologize baseball as a manly American game.” But as Ring writes, this wasn’t just a reflection of the sexism of the age. Spalding, like President Theodore Roosevelt and other leading thinkers, saw sports and masculinity as very tied with the dominant political ideas of the time such as Manifest Destiny and US imperialism. They gave us a primordial ooze where sexism, homophobia, militarism and sports all simmered in the same stew. Straining out what’s healthy in this stew has been a slow, arduous, century-long task.
Today gender segregation in sports is rightly celebrated as a proven arena of female empowerment. Since Title IX legislation was fought for and passed in 1972, there has been an explosion of athletic participation by women. Before Title IX, one in thirty-four girls played sports; now it’s one in three. Every study shows that along with participation comes an increase in confidence, a lessening likelihood of eating disorders and abusive relationships, and greater defenses against the relentless shrapnel of sexism aimed at young teenage women. Challenging gender segregation is not contrary to the mission of Title IX but essential to it. It’s about the same thing, challenging one of the very foundations of sexism: the great lie that boys hold an innate physical superiority to girls.
There is another issue as well that speaks to the urgency of challenging gender segregation in sports. The very concept of gender is something that at long last is under the microscope. There are trans athletes as well as entire trans teams whose members choose not to identify as male or female. Then are the millions of people whose bodies combine anatomical features that are conventionally associated with either men or women or have chromosomal variations from the XX or XY of women or men, often referred to as “intersex.” Doctors estimate that “intersex” children comprise one in 1,666 births. The NCAA to its credit has even provided new rules and guidelines to make sure trans athletes have a place to play. The guidelines openly discuss at what point someone plays for the women’s team and when, whether through hormones or surgery, they need to try out for the men’s. This is a very positive step in acknowledging the existence of trans student-athletes, but it still rests on the idea that boys are on one side and girls on the other.
Resistance to a “gender binary” will grow in the future. All of sports should be ahead of the curve on this in providing inclusive space so everyone can play without fear of being pushed aside. The future of sports could be a beautiful, life-affirming safe-space or it could be an anchor on human progress, expending effort on policing gender and making sure everyone stays on their side of the gym.
For now we’ll have to make do with the glimpse into the future that is Sam Gordon. At 9 years old, she has her own reason for playing football. “Most of the times it’s just really fun to be the one scoring the touchdowns,” she said on Good Morning America. “Rather than the boys.”