real heroes for real reasons: female athletes moving the world forward

These days I can't blog about events or issues that are meaningful to me until they're old news -- which of course in today's world can mean only days or weeks past. The upside of my delayed response is an opportunity to use a wider lens and see more connections to develop. This is exactly what happened recently with several events related to women and sport.

Soccer players in Spain

In late August, players on the Women's World Cup champion soccer team refused to take the field until an incident of sexual assault or harassment was properly dealt with.

This was a brilliant and heartening episode for so many reasons. 

*** The majority of the players stood together in solidarity, backed by their union -- the oldest union in professional sport. Even after being threatened with fines and sanctions, most players continued their boycott, described in some media as "open rebellion". (Be still my heart!

*** Mainstream media reported this news factually and didn't mock the players. I have no doubt that right-wing media and social went berserk over this -- after all, it was "only" a kiss. But for the mainstream media to treat seriously and factually a nonconsensual kiss on the lips  is a huge change. I noticed as the story played out, the language changed from "unwanted kiss" to "nonconsensual" or "forcible" kiss.

*** Rubiales, who first took the usual tactic of portraying himself as the victim, then apologized, was finally forced to resign

Best of all, the players leveraged their spotlight and position of strength to focus on systemic changes. They won changes both symbolic -- the elimination of the term de futbol femenino (women's soccer) from the team's name -- and substantive, with steps that will eventually secure equal pay with the national men's team.

Tennis players in Forest Hills

Equal pay! What a concept. How fitting to see, just after the events in Spain, Billie Jean King celebrated at the US Open. Fifty years ago King won in straight sets to beat Bobby Riggs in the so-called Battle of the Sexes -- still the most-watched in tennis history. King spearheaded the drive to create a women’s professional tennis tour, equal prize money for men and women, and -- most importantly -- the passage of Title IX. The ascendancy of women's professional sports is a direct result of Title IX.

I have never been a tennis fan, but I remember very well the hype around the Battle of the Sexes. A school friend of mine pointed out that before the match, Riggs was touted as a master of a crafty game with lightning reflexes that compensated for his small stature. There was no way he was going to lose to a girl. After the game, he was suddenly "a 55-year-old man who walked like a duck". Commentators acted as if King had taken advantage of Riggs' advanced age.

In the present day, I love that Coco Gauff thanked King for making her US Open prize money possible. King's strength, commitment, willingness to fight -- and frankly, her tough skin -- ushered in a new era for female athletes.

Gymnasts saying no to winning at any cost

In the hypercompetitive world of elite and elite-aspiring sport, athletes routinely ruin their health and risk ending their careers in pursuit of victory. 

In 2004, pitcher (and homophobic asshole) Curt Schilling may have sacrificed his future to lead the Red Sox to victory in game six of the World Series. 

In 2008, Tiger Woods won the US Open while limping and in obvious pain from a badly injured knee. 

USA Gymnast Kerri Strug "heard a snap" and couldn't feel her left leg during her routine in the 1996 summer Olympics, but willed herself to finish, in her quest to secure a gold medal for her team.

These life-altering and potentially career-ending sacrifices are invariably hailed as heroic. Sportswriters and fans marvel at the players' mental toughness and unstinting determination. And those accolades perpetuate a culture where athletes on all levels -- amateurs, average professionals, and champions -- make dangerous choices in the relentless pursuit of the win. We'll never know how many young pitchers blew out their arm and burned their futures by following the advice of coaches who cared only for the short-term win. We'll never know the innumerable examples that must exist in every level of every sport.

Against this backdrop, the choice made by Olympic gymnast Simone Biles in 2020 was perhaps the most heroic of all. Biles chose her health over the win. 

From an essay by former USA gymnast Rachael Denhollander, author of What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth About Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics:

Simone Biles entered the 2020 Olympic Games with a record 25 World Championship medals and four moves so difficult that she alone out of all the world’s gymnasts could perform them.

But what took place on the competition floor made history in a way no one could have expected. On the first event of the games, which were held in July 2021, the athlete, who has an unparalleled ability to flip and twist, suddenly could no longer find herself in the air. Simone had “the twisties” — a complete loss of ability to perceive her body in space. The condition is known to lead to devastating injuries, as it nearly did for her that day. When she returned to the competition floor, it was to put on her warm-ups, give her team a pep talk and withdraw from competition.

I’ve witnessed many incredible moments in athletics, but as I watched from home that day, I knew I was watching a victory that redefined the others: Simone’s decision to value her own safety, on her own terms, above the voracious demands of an abusive and toxic athletic system. It was a moment so many of us had fought for, for so long.

Denhollander herself made an incredibly courageous choice: she came forward to tell how Larry Nassar, the sexual predator and former doctor for USA Gymnastics, had sexually assaulted her. She was the first player to speak out against Nassar. By the time the serial child sexual abuser was sentenced to 175 years in prison, more then 200 gymnasts had spoken out -- including Biles. Denhollander writes: 

We all knew that Mr. Nassar was a symptom of a much deeper problem -- a broken and abusive system that valued money and medals over the health and safety of its athletes.

Simone defied this system with both words and actions. Her choice to value her safety and well-being spoke the truth that human worth is not a prize we might someday earn. Rather, it is intrinsic to our very being.

Two years later, Biles returned to competition with a definitive win. But that future was unknown when she left competition to focus on her own health.

Here's the most important takeaway from this story: professional sports is work, and athletes are workers. 

[Biles's] triumph is so much more than the competitions she is once again winning, because it is laid on the foundation of the courageous choice she made in 2021. That, even more than her peerless athletic prowess, is what is inspiring her fans. And that’s what makes her victory resonate far beyond the sport, beyond any sport.

Professional athletes aren’t the only ones who face overwhelming pressure to perform on someone else’s terms -- to work past the point of what’s healthy, to define ourselves by what we achieve instead of who we truly are. That pressure is so common that it can be hard to remember there’s any other possibility. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Many workers have no choice. In the bad old days before labour activism forced basic changes in labour laws -- and in the present day, in much of the world -- workers must risk their health and sometimes their lives in order to keep their jobs. 

Those of us who have the privilege of choice can set the tone for our colleagues, friends, and family. We can set new boundaries for workers by setting them for ourselves. We can put down the phone, walk away from the keyboard. Take a full lunch break. End the workday earlier to spend time with our families, and our selves. Work is part of life, and it can give our lives meaning. But it is not life itself. 

This is as true for sport as it is for any other arena. 

Incidentally, this is also why watching Major League Baseball doesn't mean we support the decisions of the Commissioner or the team owners, why watching World Cup football isn't tacit approval of FIFA. We cheer for the workers, not the bosses.

A New York Times sports columnist sums it up

The Spanish footballers, Coco Grauf, and Simone Biles were on my mind when I read the final "Sports of the Times" column by New York Times writer Kurt Streeter: "How Coco Gauff Embodies the Biggest Story in Sports".

Which brings me back to a subject I considered often here, one embodied by Gauff hitting that backhand passing shot and walking off with a Grand Slam title and a winner’s check for $3 million: the rise of women in sports.

Think of all we have witnessed in this arena over the last three years.

Think of the W.N.B.A., the league’s leading role in the protests of 2020, and its continued strength as an amalgamation of women who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.

Think of the winning fight by the U.S. women’s national soccer team for equal pay, or how female soccer players across the globe and in the N.W.S.L. stood up against harassing, abusive coaches.

Did you see that volleyball game at the University of Nebraska, with 92,000 fans in the stands? Or all those record-breaking, packed-to-the-gills stadiums at the Women’s World Cup, with 75,000 on hand for the recent final in Australia?

Yep, it’s a new era.

Consider March Madness 2023. This was a year when the men’s event sat in the shadow of the women’s side — with its upsets, tension and quality. With the charismatic Angel Reese leading Louisiana State over Iowa for the national title. With Reese, bold and Black, sparking a conversation on race by taunting her white opponent, Caitlin Clark, the sharpshooting player of the year.

Yes, on the court, track, field or wherever they compete, women can be as challenging, ornery, competitive and controversial as men. That needs to be celebrated.

Where will this end? With a few exceptions, tennis being one, it’s hard to imagine women’s sports getting the kind of attention they deserve any time soon.

Who gets the most money, notice and hosannas in youth sports? By and large, boys.

Who runs most teams and controls most media that broadcast and write about the games? By and large, men.

Who runs the companies that provide the sponsorship money? Yeah, primarily men.

Change is coming. But change will take more time. Maybe a few generations more.

The decks remain stacked in favor of guys, but women continue their fight. When it comes to the games we play and love to watch, that’s the biggest story in sports right now.

. . . . 

How perfect that this year’s U.S. Open would frame that story once again. Flushing Meadows was a two-week gala celebration of the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King’s successful push for equal prize money at the event — a landmark in sports that still stands out for its boldness.

And how fitting that on this golden anniversary — with Serena Williams now retired, with Billie Jean front and center during tributes all tournament long — Gauff would win her first Grand Slam event and do it by flashing the kind of poise that marks her as an heir to the throne.

Thank you, Coco and Serena. Thank you, Billie Jean, and all the other female and male athletes who have gone against the status quo, emerged victorious, and are still in the fight.

I thank Streeter for his excellent and anti-sexist coverage of women's sports. I thank him, too, for his coverage of the racist murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the racist reactions to the upwelling of anger and displays of solidarity that followed.

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