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Women and men in sports: Separate is not equal

Why is gender segregation in sports normal? Boys and girls should play together.

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•Co-ed adult sports leagues are rife with special "gender rules" to accommodate the supposedly weaker female sex. In some basketball leagues, women get two points for every basket; the men get just one. In touch football, a female touchdown is worth seven points; a male TD earns six. A 24-year-old who plays on a co-ed softball team recently shared with us her annoyance at rules (no more than two men bat in a row, men hit larger balls, etc…) which presume that any male player is better than every female player. Her beef? She played Division I college softball.

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Of course, there are physical differences between men as a group and women as a group. That would support different rules for super-physical sports such as boxing and tackle football. But how does that account for the disparities in billiards and bridge?! Indeed, given that females are physiologically suited for ultra-endurance events, why are women's Olympic events slightly shorter than men's?

The answer to all these questions, in some form, is that sport is not merely about the game. It is, rather, about the identities of those who play and watch the game. It's about what gets established and reinforced every time sex-segregated formulas cast males as categorically superior to females.

Sports matter – and probably far more than they should. Many more people tune into the Super Bowl than the president's State of the Union address.

When we invest in sports as fans, parents, and recreational players, whether we know it or not, we become complicit in a deeply gendered institution in which male superiority and female inferiority are played out as clearly as HDTV.

Ironically, though, we've come to accept this differential treatment of males and females as "normal." It appears to be all right to charge $4 to see the Rutgers women's soccer team play and $7 to see the men's team play, for example.

Likewise, it seems that no one complained (or hardly noticed) when a Massachusetts youth soccer league put a warning in a bold-framed box at the top of the online registration page for Spring 2008. Local officials were no doubt trying to be helpful – but also reflecting a norm played out in communities across the country. It read, "Note: If you are attempting to register a daughter, please be aware that Newton Youth Soccer is co-ed, but primarily boys."

Replace gender descriptors with words reflecting race or religion, and the problem becomes appalling. Be aware that Jews are welcome, but the league is mostly gentiles? Be aware that blacks are allowed, but the program is primarily white? No way.

Sports are a path to social, economic, and political success. It is not enough to permit girls to play with boys; girls playing equally with boys should be the model. Individual ability – not gender – should be the first line drawn when organizing play, especially when sex-based athletic differences are trivial.

Title IX did open doors to girls and women to play sports on a broad scale. But it never demanded equality. Passed at a time when few could imagine the impressive, talented female athletes we have today, the law has codified a sex-separate athletic system in which men's sports are at the center and women's at the periphery. It's an insult in a non-revenue setting to charge unequal ticket prices. And for marquee sports such as college men's and women's basketball, there should be equal promotion at those institutions receiving federal funds.