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A Few Questions for Laura Pappano

Laura Pappano, co-author with Eileen McDonagh of Playing With The Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Good Housekeeping, and The Washington Post. Pappano and McDonagh’s book is about how women have been unfairly excluded from participating in sports on an equal footing with men. The book calls for sex-sensible policies in sports as a crucial step towards achieving equality for men and women in our society. Pappano was kind enough to answer some questions for OUP. Her answers are below.

OUPblog: What first inspired you to write this book?

Laura Pappano: Eileen and I first began discussing the connection between the “rules” around how sports are smallpappano.jpgorganized and how this related to power structures in politics when we were both visiting scholars at The Murray Center at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. As a kid playing on a boy’s newspaper carrier league baseball team I’d felt firsthand that sense of not being considered equal (even though I played as well as any of my teammates) just because of my gender. I stole a base once and the other team was so upset they wanted me to go back – and then my own teammates (who didn’t like having a girl on “their” team) told me to go back, too. I refused. Every game and practice was an opportunity for me to be reminded by my teammates that I was intruding on their territory. I can’t tell you how many car rides home (one of the boy’s moms was the manager who drove us) I spent staring down at my shorts and sitting in silence as they teased. In good ways (I played field hockey at Yale) and bad I have seen the power of sports to influence who we are and what opportunities and status we have available to us. Sports matter too much to be allowed to stand unchallenged in their role as enforcers of gender inequality.

OUP: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing females in sports?

Pappano: 9780195167566.jpgThe biggest challenge is that women are often afraid to challenge the status quo for fear of losing what “progress” has been made. The problem is that we have codified a system of organized sports which places male athletes at the center and female athletes at the periphery.

OUP: What has been the biggest gains for females in sports in the last century?

Pappano: There is increasing recognition that female athletes at the top of their game are exceptional athletes in their own right (it used to be that recreational male tennis players, for example, presumed themselves superior to even the best female players. Most guys now realize they can’t beat Justine or Venus or Serena.) We also see grassroots examples of not mere fan support – but actual mania – for female teams and players like the 1999 U.S. Women’s Soccer team and, increasingly, for the women playing Div. I college basketball. Fans now recognize that the quality of the play and the competition is every bit as compelling and captivating as all-male play.

OUP: What are some ways individuals can help reform gender-roles in sports?

Pappano: We need to create more opportunities for mixed-sex play. It may be at the very top levels of competition (some Div. I college sports, some – not all – professional sports) that males and females may need to compete in same-sex arenas. But this should NOT be the dominant way that sports at EVERY level are organized. For most of us – from pre-schoolers to older recreational athletes – gender should not be the dominant consideration in creating teams, playing opportunities or competitions. We should also encourage boys & girls to play sports that have not been traditionally played by athletes of their gender, reinforcing the message that sports are played by individuals, not a collection of sex-group attributes. (The final chapter of the book also has other suggestions).

OUP: Did/Do you play sports? If so what sports?

Pappano: I have played sports all my life and continue to play sports. As a kid, I played baseball, softball, field hockey, soccer, and gymnastics (eek – should have played basketball!) I played varsity field hockey at Yale. I also played intramural touch football. After college, I played first base on a Yale Medical School coed softball team, the Blasts (my now-husband was in med school & team captain). In my 20s, I was the only female in a weekly pick-up basketball game and nearly every Saturday in good weather played touch football with friends. I now play team tennis and am part of a regular pick-up soccer game organized by former college players. Road races have always been part of my life and I have run the 8-miler in New Milford almost every year since high school. I have coached sports for my kids, including soccer, basketball and softball. I am also chair of the board of the West Suburban YMCA, where I encourage co-ed play and have made it my mission to support opportunities to play and compete for people of all ages and abilities.

OUP: Is there any sport that is gender neutral? Is there any sport in which women absolutely can not play with men?

Pappano: Women can compete and play alongside men in many sports. What we call “third party” sports – car racing, horse racing, dog sled racing, other equestrian events, sailing – are one class of sports in which women can and do compete alongside males. Other new sports like ultimate Frisbee also support coed play. Other sports should be gender neutral but often aren’t – including billiards, bridge, chess (yes these are Olympic trial sports). There are many other sports at which males and females can compete but which may separate competitors by gender, including ultra-distance running and distance swimming (rifle shooting is sex-integrated at the college level, but sex-segregated in the Olympics). In most every sport, males and females can compete with one another. There is no reason female and male golfers cannot compete together and women can and do play football (what position they play may have more to do with their particular, individual body type than their gender – which is also true of males wanting to play football).

OUP: Who are some female athletes we should be following?

Pappano: Some of the most exciting female athletes playing today are doing it in a variety of sports – from basketball (both Div. I College play and WNBA) to golf. Some of my favorite athletes include Abby Wambach (soccer), Candace Parker (Basketball), Diana Taurasi (basketball), Annika Sorenstam (golf), Morgan Pressel (golf), Loren Ochoa (golf), Venus &; Serena Williams (tennis), Paula Radcliffe (marathon), Danica Patrick (auto racing), Pam Reed (ultra marathon).

OUP: What has been the impact of title IX and how can it be improved?

Pappano: Title IX opened doors for females to play sports, but it opened sex-segregated doors, effectively limiting women’s athletics to second-class status. Title IX never demanded equality – only improvement – and it is not well-enforced and budgets for female sports dwarf spending on men’s sports, particularly football. Ticket prices for women’s events are lower than comparable men’s teams- even when a team (like the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team) far outperforms its male counterpart on the national stage. Publicity, television and print exposure for men’s teams remain the primary focus of college sports offices. This is not fair, particularly at institutions receiving federal funds. We need a wholesale re-thinking of the way organized sports are structured and supported.

OUP: What are your favorite books?

Pappano: I have a lot of favorite books on a wide range of subjects, fiction and non-fiction: The Grapes of Wrath, Friday Night Lights, King of the World, America’s Game, This Boy’s Life, anything Jane Austen (she was such a keen feminist observer!), A Clearing in the Distance, Mamaw, Ulysses, The Blind Side, Playing Nice, Chekhov (by Troyat)…I could keep going here…

Recent Comments

  1. […] in Sociology , Leisure , A-Featured , Media on November 5, 2007 | Share This Laura Pappano is a former education columnist for the Boston Globe and co-author of Playing With The Boys: Why […]

  2. Ken Newfield

    Ms. Pappano,
    In the New York Times article today about study abroad programs, you quoted only female students who had studies abroad, and only one male who actually did not. Your article omits one glaring anomaly, why study abroad students are mostly female. Do you know why this is? Why not bring this up, I ask because you seem well versed in gender issues.
    Sincerely, Ken Newfield

  3. […] Stephanie at OUPblog (that’s Oxford University Press) forwarded on to me a post on a topic that us feminists don’t seem to talk about very often — the discrimination against women and girls in sports. […]

  4. Karen W

    AS a female engineer and one who remembers the days before Title IX, I would be concerned that the push for co-ed teams in football and basketball etc.. woudl give universities the excuse to cut womens programs altogether which would in my opinion be a step back for female athletes who while talented would be unable to compete in sports where making the team is often subjective adn not made by pure standards compared to other sports like swimming and track etc. where your time says it all.

  5. Chad

    There are huge flaws in “Playing with the Boys.” For one, the book suggests that there should be as many girls represented in sports as there are males. Why doesn’t this take into account that there are more boys who want to play sports than girls do? Title IX enforces this discrimination against boys. It would give 100% of girls who want to play sports that right (a good thing), but at the expense of a larger percentage of boys who want to play but now can’t (a decidedly worse thing). For another, it wants teams to be co-ed. Even if girls proved better in try-outs to rightfully win a position, it doesn’t make it appropriate. It is disrespectful to both men and women to treat their physicality in the same way. For example, men don’t share a locker room with women not because we view them as inferior, rather we don’t treat them the same as we would men, out of respect for them as women. As for the claim that women would be just as good as men in sports if the rules and organization changed, that is purely speculation without any supporting evidence. Karen W. above, is correct, time says it all: Men hold the most measurable records in sports, simply because in general they are stronger, faster, and more athletic. Politics won’t change that!

  6. Bryan

    I just listened to an hour-long interview on the radio promoting the authors’ latest book. What a disappointing interview and a flawed take on sports and gender! The arguments are so close-minded and rigid that anything short of the authors’ point of view is unacceptable, even when their own arguments are terribly weak.

    I respect women’s sports and the 100% encourage women to compete with men, if that’s what is desired. But don’t bash men’s sports because women’s sports haven’t been as lucrative or as popular.

    If you want equality, then let men play in women’s leagues. We’ll see how well these arguments, drunk with feminist rhetoric, hold up in open play on the sporting field.

    Maybe learning to celebrate and respect differences between genders is a better approach to sports than trying to argue that “we’re all equal” or, on top of that, women are discriminated against, too?


  7. Anonymous

    Laura Pappano wants it both ways. I got no problem with opening up all male sports to women. Lets let the women compete directly with men for spots on the team.

    But if you are going to do that, its absolutely hypocritical and unfair to block men from trying out for women teams.

    I seriously doubt Pappano would support the LPGA being opened up to men. I seriously doubt she would support opening up NCAA womens basketball teams to men.

    You cant have it both ways. If Pappano REALLY wants a gender-neutral sports environment that means both all-men AND all-womens teams have to be abolished. But of course she’s not advocating that.

    My guess is that if this scenairo were to happen, men would comprise 95% of all athletes in the big sports: football, basketball, baseball, etc

  8. Anonymous

    AS a female engineer and one who remembers the days before Title IX, I would be concerned that the push for co-ed teams in football and basketball etc.. woudl give universities the excuse to cut womens programs altogether which would in my opinion be a step back for female athletes who while talented would be unable to compete in sports where making the team is often subjective adn not made by pure standards compared to other sports like swimming and track etc. where your time says it all.”

    This is exactly right. If we got rid of all-mens and all-womens teams as Pappano is proposing, the net result would be disastrous for women. Women could take some spots on the smaller scale sports such as skiing, rifle shooting, bowling, etc but for the big sports that everybody watches on TV at least 95% of it would be dominated by men.

    The only position that a woman could get on a football team would be a kicker or maybe punter. For basketball a woman wouldnt get a spot at all. For baseball maybe 1 woman would make the team.

    The bottom line is that the # of women athletes would plummmet overnight because men would beat women out for 95% of the spots on teh major sports teams.

  9. a.spicuzzi

    I think blaketed statements like “all single gender sports teams and leagues from professional to the most novice skill levels should be abolished” is a bad idea. I also don’t think that anyone is trying to make this point, including the authors of Playing With the Boys.

    The point is: until women and girls receive the same respect of skill (or competency) as men and boys in the general sports arena, we should not expect that same respect in many other of life’s arenas.

    So for this end, we should not separate based SOLEY on gender.

    A great example is in golf. Why is it assumed that I, a woman who is an experienced golfer, should automatically be given the advantage of a closer tee to the pin than any given man (even if he is a novice), based on gender alone? I most likely hit a more consistant more accurate shot and have a lower handicap.

    Why is it that on so many co-ed soccer leagues in which I’ve played, when a woman scores it is counted as 2 goals, and when a man scores it is worth 1. I have been playing soccer for 25 years, many men on the co-ed leagues I’ve played on are novice. By all rights, I should not get an advantage, because I am much more skilled, but some how my competence is not assumed…

    The golf and co-ed soccer leagues are 2 of countless examples where womens’ competence in sports is not assumed, even when it’s deserved.

    As a person I am extremely insulted when my competence is not assumed (at work, on the field, in general)…especially when I am beyond competent (sometimes above average, or even good compared to others in the leagues…imagine that!!)

    So here’s a blanketed statement that I do think is okay “don’t assume I am not as good just because I am not male.” And don’t perpetuate the idea that females are not as good with institutionalizing these ideas by putting them in the rules.

  10. Kevin Carey

    My name is Kevin Carey, a past Sports Comissioner for Arlington County and Co-ed sports was one of my issues. Arlington Public Schools has a graph that demonstrates the physical difference between boys and girls. I think you are on the right track, but baby steps are needed. For instance a 10 year old girl is competitive in leg speed with an 8 year old boy. The spread grows by 3years by the time a girl is 15. Baseball discriminates by allowing no one to use a Little League field past the age of 12. This rule continues with the Babe Ruth Bambino league. This ddiscriminates against girls because the graph shows a 15 year old girl physically equal to a 12 year old boy.
    By addressing these differences boys and girls could compete together.
    You are on the right track and any help including these graphs I will provide to you.
    Sincerely, Kevin

  11. Greg Smith

    Do we need invent some new games that allow men and women to play together? So much of what we play and watch today favor physical advantages of one sort or another. We will never get to an intregrated level trying to modify the games we have to all coed play that is interesting to watch or play.

  12. […] and Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. Laura Pappano is currently a writer-in- residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. and […]

  13. […] and Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. Laura Pappano is currently a writer-in- residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. and […]

  14. Jon Tippmann

    I’m definitely in favor of trying to create programs and sports teams where men and women can compete together. I think as athletes get stronger the divide between performance of the genders is closing, and having co-ed competitions would be a nice change.

  15. […] Pappano in an interview at the publisher’s website, “The biggest challenge is that women are often afraid to […]

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