My history with sports is a melancholic love story highlighted with sexist undertones. It started when I was five; my mother enrolled me in the local softball team. My friend’s mom was our coach. She gave us the self-confidence and enthusiasm we needed to succeed. The team was about half girls, half boys and I remember having a blast. At seven years old, we graduated to “fastball”; the pitchers now threw overhand instead of underhand. I decided to quit before trying it out and stated the following as my reason: “I was scared the boys would hurt me by throwing too fast”. I am not sure where I got that idea, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with it on my own. After all, I had been playing with boys for two seasons already and it was great.
At nine-years-old, I got to compete at the regional level for the best free thrower. The goal of the tournament was to score as many baskets as possible, with a certain number of shots given. My parents drove me an hour and a half away to a nearby city where I won against a bunch of boys. It was a great feeling. At that time, I didn’t notice it was mainly boys at the tournament. I’m very competitive and was just happy to win.
In primary school, we had co-ed gym classes. It loved it. I got to play slow-pitch again and learned how to play others sports like football (soccer). I always volunteered to be the goalie because I hated running. What I do remember from primary school gym class is the girls getting picked last. I was never the very last pick and sometimes got picked before other boys. I was proud to “not be like the other girls”, but now I see it was wrong. Sometimes, the teacher forced the team captains to choose their team by alternating the gender for each pick. That did help a little.
For a few years, we played co-ed softball against other schools. Every time I would go up to the plate with my bat, the other team would scream “girl” and move infield by three meters. They automatically assumed a girl wouldn’t be able to hit the ball further than first base. My teammate and pitcher looked at me and mouthed, “mid-field”. When I hit the ball, it would fall exactly where the opposing team had been standing before moving forward. It was fun to watch them scramble for it while I got onto first or second base. Again, I was proud. They were wrong about me. It’s completely insulting that they thought I would fail before they even saw me try. It taught me to use sexist assumptions to my advantage.
In Grade 6, my gym teacher encouraged me and four of my friends to join the girl’s volleyball team because there weren’t enough 7 and 8 graders willing to play. I was hesitant at first, but I am so happy I accepted. I kept telling the teacher I wasn’t good enough but he convinced me that I would learn. And, did we learn! By the time we were in Grade 8, we went toe-to-toe with the boy’s team and also won our region’s yearly tournament. Our team got to compete at the provincial level. There, we got our asses kindly handed to us by much better teams, but it was a great experience. Without that teacher believing in me and my friends, I wouldn’t have enjoyed primary school as much. I really loved being part of a team.
At thirteen years old, I started attending high school in a larger city. A few weeks in, I tried out for the volleyball team. Sadly, the two “coaches” were senior male students that only seemed to be interested in the girls for their appearance. I was completely put off by that and dropped out before knowing if I was picked for the team or not.
A few months later, I went to the basketball try-out; it has always been my favourite sport. I was excited and told my father about it. He told me my math grades were slipping (at 65%) and I had to work harder and give up basketball. I felt like I had no choice, so I quit the team before the first game. Of course, my grades got better and I ended up regretting my “decision”. This is a classic case of discrimination against young people. This type of discrimination is called adultism and can be defined as: adults thinking they know best and kids should have no say. My dad thought he knew best and didn’t trust me to make my own decisions.
That same year, three of my old teammates and I joined a 3 vs.3 volleyball tournament. I remember this moment very clearly. We were playing against taller boys from the other high school. They were good, but so were we. We ended up losing, but there was one moment that stayed with me. One of the guys tried to smash the ball and I blocked him to score the point. He looked at me with utter disbelief. A shorter girl blocked me?! Hell yea.
In high school, every student had to take gym for the first two years. The weird thing to me is that they segregated girls from boys at that point. Why? Up until now we always had gym class together. Am I not able to play with the guys? Or did they think the guys couldn’t handle being in the same room as girls in shorts? Either way, it’s unfair to both genders. They should show girls that they are perfectly apt to play with the boys and show the boys that they can be in a room full of girls in shorts. Boys aren’t wild sex animals, they can control their urges.
That first year of segregated physical education class, we had an old-school male teacher. He can only be described as a classic misogynist. For two entire weeks of class, we had to complete Billy Blank’s one hour Tae Bo workout. Our teacher rolled a TV into the gym and got us to do the exercises while he stood behind us and watched our asses. Every time we had a question for him, he would lean in closer to talk to us. We would have to lean or step back because he was invading our personal space and had the worst permanent hangover breath. When we’d step back, he’d lean in closer. I really hated being around that teacher.
The semester after mine, the girls went on a cross-country skiing trip with that same gym teacher. He “helped” some of the girls over a hill by pushing them up with his hands on their ass. They reported him and brought the case to court. Some of my friends we asked to testify and they were terrified. The defendant’s lawyer asked one of the girls if she remembered what gloves she was wearing that day. When the girl said no, the lawyer implied that if she couldn’t remember the gloves she wore, how could she possibly be sure our teacher sexually harassed her. She cried. The teacher won the case and went away scot-free.
In Grade 11 and 12, the gym class was mixed again and the boy/girl ratio was 5 to 1. One magical day, I was picked second out of all the girls for basketball because the picker’s best friend told him to pick me. He said something along the lines of “trust me, she’s good”, but the other one hesitated. My basketball skills were graciously discussed in my presence without even acknowledging my existence. Oh yea, and while the rest of the class watched on. Eventually, he picked me. Once the game had started and I scored a few baskets, the best friend told the picker “I told you she was good”. It felt nice to be vindicated but also sad that a guy had to vouch for my skills. The picker obviously dismissed me as a girl who possibly couldn’t know a basketball from a golf ball. The best friend and I played basketball together a few more times that semester and our team won every game. It felt like I had found the perfect dance partner.
Even though it’s depressing that I was dismissed unless a man spoke up for me, I think we need more men like the best friend. He saw an injustice and pointed it out to his friend without hesitation. Until we reach equality, we need more men to stand up for women like the best friend did for me. Thank you best friend, I have always remembered you as one of the good ones.
That same year, I tried out for the girl’s basketball team and made it! It felt good to do what I loved again. We didn’t win many games, but that didn’t matter. Life shouldn’t be about winning but about giving everyone an equal chance to play. Girls don’t need to be protected from sports or kept from playing with boys. Girls need to know what it’s like to be part of a team, to sweat and to get that heart going. So, let’s all go out there and play without fear of shame, discrimination or harassment. Let’s throw like a kid again!
Extra-curricular reading: whether you love sports or you think sports isn’t for me at all, then you need to read Eat, Sweat, Play by Anna Kessel. It’ll get your blood pumping, in a good way!