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 organized 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: The 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…