Jumping over hurdles: defeating the gender gap in professional sports

Track runner Raquel Reyes jumps over a hurdle in practice. Photo by Bianca Ruiz/The Plaid Press

In 1931, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell, one of the first female pitchers in professional baseball history, struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig during an exhibition game. In the 1920’s and early 1950’s, respectively, players such as Lizzie Murphy and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson made headlines with their skill, and the Bloomers, an all-female team, played against men’s minor league and semi-professional teams during World War II.

In 1952, however, Major League Baseball (MLB) prohibited women’s contracts. It argued that baseball was too strenuous for women, a claim still employed as a defense of why women should be blocked from the sport today.

Today, the United States women’s national baseball team consists of 20 dedicated and talented athletes who are among the best in their sport, and who compete against equally skilled female players on other national teams. Despite its members’ skill and potential, the team receives little attention and even less support.

Nonetheless, women have been playing baseball since the sport’s conception, a time long before women gained equal rights. As professional baseball grew as an industry, women were increasingly ousted from baseball and encouraged to participate in the supposed “women’s version,” softball.

According to Emma Span in her New York Times article, “Is Softball Sexist?” however, softball is a distinct sport with different pitching, equipment, and setup. While the sport is arguably just as demanding as baseball, it was in fact developed by men in the late nineteenth century as a game easier and more acceptable for women to play. In the same vein, high school baseball teams are often unwilling to allow girls to play, often citing physical strength and the existence of softball as two major reasons.

However, Dr. Glenn Fleisig, researcher and medical adviser to USA Baseball, has studied the pitching mechanics of both male and female baseball pitchers, and stated that there is no biological reason a woman could not pitch to Major League hitters.

“A female pitcher will likely throw a fastball with lower velocity than a male pitcher. But that is not going to disqualify her from pitching in the majors. If you watch major league baseball, you will see that there is a wide range of fastball velocities among pitchers there. And there is no obvious correlation between those who pitch the fastest and those who are the most successful pitchers,” Fleisig said.

There are always exceptions to every rule. Players like 20-year-old Melissa Mayeux, the first woman to be added to the MLB’s international registration list, and 17-year-old Mo’ne Davis, the first female player to pitch a shutout at the Little League World Series, are testing the boundaries of gendered sports.

Attitudes which limit women in sports are not limited to baseball, however. In the realm of football, women on college teams are virtually unheard of, and women in the National Football League (NFL) are nonexistent, though some, like Katie Sowers and Kathryn Smith, assistant coach for teams such as the 49ers and the Buffalo Bills.

In 2019, nevertheless, more girls are playing football in high school, some of whom are now gaining attention for their accomplishments. High school players such as Anna Zerilli, the first female freshman in American history to score in a varsity game, and Savana Melton, the first girl to play and score in a 7A State Championship game, have gained renown for their achievements.

Outside of college, however, there are virtually no opportunities for female football players to compete. If players aspire to play full-time after college, they often have little choice but to either push for opportunities in men’s football, like Toni Harris, an NFL aspirant, or join a women’s football league, such as the Legends Football League (LFL), previously known as the Lingerie Football League.

The LFL, whose players play 7-on-7 tackle, has gained a significant amount of attention over the past few years. It is a franchise notorious for sexualizing the female athletes who participate in the sport. Players are chosen based upon talent, but their “value” is ultimately weighed in terms of their perceived attractiveness, and their uniform consists of lingerie and minimal protection.

In addition, several former LFL players have claimed that the league’s owner, Mitch Mortaza, benches players who do not meet his standards of attractiveness. Players are not provided with the proper training to meet NFL standards, and are often advised to focus more on entertainment than playing time. Players are paid based on ticket sales, and often are not compensated at all. However, many LFL players view such downsides as necessary evils, citing their love of the sport as justification for their desire to continue playing it.

Ultimately, women are not given equal opportunity in the sporting world, and many sports are still primarily male-dominated. However, as more women achieve visibility and break new ground in traditionally male sports such as baseball and football, they encourage sports fans to embrace more progressive mindsets and encourage future generations of young women to follow in their footsteps.

Author: Apsara Senaratne

Apsara Senaratne is a junior at Granada Hills Charter High School and Feature Editor of the school newspaper, The Plaid Press. She feels very strongly about the right to free speech, and views journalism as a medium through which she can openly express controversial views, both political and personal.

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