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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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Some argue that because the men "play above the rim" it's a more exciting game. Ridiculous. "Exciting" is about talent in the face of talent: competition. The Women's Final Four in recent years has been every bit as nail-biting as the men's NCAA playoff. Differences in style of play certainly don't keep fans from tuning into college football just because of the NFL.

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Men and women, playing together

Some worry that having males and females take the field or court together would be a disaster for women's sports. It may be true that the top male players in the most competitive athletic events outperform the top female players. But look at the larger pool and you see vast overlap in the athletic performance of males and females.

Plus, "having game" is not just about raw speed or strength. If that were the case, NFL scouts who clock college players in the 40-yard dash and note how much they bench press would have a simple job on draft day. They don't.

Because females have historically faced athletic disadvantages, they should be able to play on all-female teams if they choose. But they shouldn't be barred from playing on traditionally male teams.

It's in our collective interest to create a playing structure that encourages men and women – at whatever level they can compete – to pass the ball to one another. Professional golf shows us multiple ways to create compelling competition. Stroke play, match play, partner play, skins. Why not pair Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam against Phil Mickelson and Lauren Ochoa? Who wouldn't watch?

The road to coed play – like the road to the Final Four – goes through many venues. Let's recognize that creating such opportunities is not only possible, but critical. Because sports – however much we may wish it were just play – carries wider social and political implications. So credit Maryland coach Brenda Frese for showing off her reproductive power and her coaching power in a single, provocative vision.

And know that one who dared register for that "primarily boys" soccer league (and try out for Little League) is a 9-year-old girl who intuitively "gets" the athletic power axis. She wears her hair short, wears boy's clothes, and will only play on teams with boys. Her mom told us why: "She wants to be taken seriously."

Laura Pappano and Eileen McDonagh are coauthors of "Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports."