Checking the Currents of Women's Sports

'YOU can't be a female athlete without addressing questions of femininity, sexuality, fear, power, freedom, and just how good you are compared with men," Mariah Burton Nelson says. She goes on to deal with all these questions - along with male chauvinism, sportsmanship, equal opportunity, and others - in this perceptive study of a complicated and controversial subject. Women's rights have been a serious issue in all walks of life over the past two decades, and nowhere have the battles been more visible - or the results more spectacular - than in the sports arena.

From tennis legend Billie Jean King to marathoner Grete Waitz to Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner and others too numerous to mention, elite female competitors have risen to fame and riches far beyond the wildest dreams of even their most vocal advocates. And along with these top performers marches a rapidly growing army of ordinary athletes, all banding together to change dramatically the way society thinks about women and sports.

But few of these advances have come easily as this book points out, and indeed the struggle still rages in many areas. Furthermore, there have been prices to pay.

An outstanding college basketball player at Stanford University in the 1970s and since then an avid recreational athlete, Nelson has been an active participant in the burgeoning women's sports movement for two decades. She is thus able to offer her own first-person observations along with those of dozens of other athletes ranging from superstars to middle-aged joggers.

Nelson documents the inequities of earlier times and the legal remedies required to correct them - from court battles enabling girls to play Little League and high school baseball to passage of amendments to the US Civil Rights Act, including Title IX, which forbids sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds.

These and other advances, combined with society's changing attitudes, altered the landscape dramatically throughout the 1970s and '80s. And so, says Nelson, it is time to examine these changes in terms of three key questions: (1) Now that women have increased opportunities to play with men, are they playing like men? (2) How is the women's sports ethic evolving? (3) Were women possibly better off in the all-female domain of an earlier time?

These questions have no definitive answers - and Nelson doesn't try to give any. She simply addresses the issues from a variety of angles, offers her own views and those of her interviewees, and leaves us with a realization that, as in any "revolution," there are going to be minuses along with the pluses.

In general, she suggests that some aspects of the earlier all-female domain were indeed preferable (such as greater emphasis on cooperation, sportsmanship, and enjoyment for everyone). "Are we having fun yet?" she asks on several occasions, making a play on her own title to drive home the point that the "winning is everything" mentality prevalent in many male-dominated sports is counter-productive in terms of making sports enjoyable for all.

Nelson's answer to this dilemma is not to go back to separation of the sexes, but to work toward bringing more men around to a saner approach. And she details several instances of this happening in a variety of sports.

Nelson sees a new model of sport emerging - one she calls the "partnership model," in which teammates, coaches, and even opposing players view each other as comrades rather than enemies. She contrasts this to what she calls the "military model" prevalent in male-dominated sports like football, basketball, and baseball, which is characterized by "obsessive ranking of teams and individuals according to playing statistics or earnings; authoritarian, derisive relationships between coaches and players; antag o

nism between opponents; and the inevitable question, 'Who won?' "

She emphasizes, though, that she is not taking an anticompetition position. Many of the most competitive athletes demonstrate at least some elements of the "partnership model and many others could grow in that direction as integrated sports activity continues to increase.

Or as she puts it in her concluding comments, women "are joining the larger sports world without losing sight of their own values... [and] along the way they're making the ordinary athletic field a more caring, more sporting place to be."

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