Girls & Sports: Life's Lessons in the Games We Play

Amherst Junior High School, author second from right

Amherst Junior High School, author second from right

In seventh grade I tried out for the cheerleading squad. It's what girls did, especially those who wanted to be popular. Girls rooted for the boys who played the games. On NFL sidelines and near midline of basketball arenas, scantily clad women still do. Perhaps this is why I like baseball best.

By eighth grade, I left cheerleading behind, forever, and was playing on the girls' basketball team. No one showed up to watch our games except an occasional mom. Mine arrived with younger siblings who could never sit still and sometimes ran onto the court, so my mom had to leave. We didn't have cheerleaders jumping up to spell A-M-H-E-R-S-T when our team took a time out. The cheerleaders only cheered for the boys.

In the memoir I'm writing, I reflect how the rules governing girls' play on the basketball court echoed through our lives as girls off the court. Let's start with how we had to play:

When I played on my junior high school’s basketball team, our rules dictated that before I dribbled the ball a fourth time, I had to stop to pass it. It was a silly rule, as were others, such as one that kept four teammates stuck in half of the court; they played “stationary” guard or forward, but never both at the same time, though two others on the team were allowed to be “rovers,” moving anywhere we liked. When boys played this same game, they switched effortlessly between guard and forward, depending on which team had the ball. Those who promulgated our rules wanted to be sure girls didn’t run too far, play too fast, or compete too fiercely. To compete wasn’t what girls did.
— Melissa Ludtke, forthcoming "Locker Room Talk"

Off the court, societal norms constricted us in similar ways, and with similar consequences:

A boy was free in ways I was not. He got to decide, much more than I did, where, what, how and when things happened in his life. On the basketball court, when a boy saw an opening, his path to the basket, he dribbled the ball for as long as made sense, zigzagging his way to get where he wanted to be. Rules weren’t the only thing holding girls back. Attitudes did, too. What grown-ups thought girls couldn’t do, we didn’t see ways to do. Still, I don’t remember us using the word ‘unfair’ to describe what was happening to us. We knew nothing different. It was just how things were, the natural order about which I heard few complaints. Nor did those older than I was appear upset that girls played by one set of rules and boys by another. So I wasn’t, either.
— Melissa Ludtke, forthcoming "Locker Room Talk"

Once I was on the basketball team, I never was a cheerleader again. From then on, I always played on one team or another – volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, tennis in the spring. In the summer I skippered our family's cat boat as the only girl at the helm in races against the guys. In college I discovered rowing – it's my passion, still – and became an inaugural member of Wellesley College's intercollegiate rowing team – in the same year Title IX was birthed.

Wellesley intercollegiate crew team, 1972. Author, second from left.

Wellesley intercollegiate crew team, 1972. Author, second from left.

With my own girlhood sports experiences, I was lucky. It was the 1960s and America was a decade away from Title IX opening opportunities for girls. As I found out later, back then few girls my age had sports teams they could play on. In my hometown of Amherst, MA, we did.

On the basketball court, we were the Lady Hurricanes. We won a few games each season, lost a few others. A scorekeeper tracked the points we scored and our fouls. Not many spectators came. I don't have a single photograph of me playing in a game, expect one in a yearbook I can no longer find. Nor can I go back to our school newspaper to find stories about our games. No one wrote about the Lady Hurricanes.

Until Maddy Blais did.

By then it was the mid-1990s and after just about being state champions for several years in a row, the Lady Hurricanes finally did win the state final in 1993. That season Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Maddy Blais, a journalism professor at the nearby University of Massachusetts, followed the Lady Hurricanes as they finally triumphed after the succession of soul-crusting defeats.

Maddy knew these girls' story was worth telling. She titled her book: "In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle," and I commend her book as a terrific read. 

In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle.jpeg

When she set out to write this story, it didn't matter to Maddy that the Lady Hurricanes played in gyms sparsely filled with spectators – until a championship seemed within their reach. She came to tell a story about athletes founding within themselves what it takes to overcome self-doubt, push through adversity, mend differences, and bond as a team to achieve their shared goal.

Theirs is a universal story, though one too often reserved as a narrative fit for male heroes, especially when it comes to sports. Yet this story echoes today as Americans celebrate the U.S. women's hockey team's gold medal. Four years ago some of these same women hockey players lost In a heartbreaking overtime game to Canada. While battling powers that be in their sport for the gender equity in pay, treatment and respect they felt they deserved, these women dug deep within themselves and built this team's mental fortitude so they'd not be defeated again.

In my next blog post I'll write about Dave Kindred, a sportswriter who covered every major sports event that a man of his generation could attend and received awards recognizing his excellence. Now in a small town in Illinois, Dave attends every game the Morton High School Lady Potters basketball team play and writes a story about each one.

Defying Stereotypes: It's What Girls and Women Do

Chloe Kim, gold medalist in snowboarding 2018 Winter Olympics

Chloe Kim, gold medalist in snowboarding 2018 Winter Olympics

As the White mother of my 21-year old Asian daughter, Maya, who was born in China during its one-child policy, I've learned a lot about the assumptions that Westerners too often make about Asian girls and women. We call it unconscious bias, a term describing how we perceive others even if we don't know that these biases are driving us to do so.

Because Maya has shared with me what it's like for her to move in the world, first as a girl, now a young woman with an Asian face, I've been able to learn how powerful Americans' unconscious biases are. This is especially true when it comes to labeling an Asian person based entirely on her Asian face. I'm offering a few words from an essay that Maya recently wrote touching on some challenges she has had in coming to terms with the duality of her identity as my daughter:

I struggled early on as I navigated my shifting sense of identity. My mere appearance presented challenges. Strangers would often assume my family was Chinese, and that I spoke Mandarin fluently. Small stories reinforced this daily. At a gas station with my mom, I was buckled into the back seat. My mom was talking with the man pumping gas when I heard her mention that I was her daughter. He laughed in disbelief. Yes, I do not look like my family, and my appearance has been made fun of. I think it helps explain why growing up I sometimes felt lonely.
— Maya Ludtke
Maya and her mom

Maya and her mom

Like any other Asian girl, growing up she dealt with assumptions made of her. People would presume that Maya had mastered a musical instrument – isn't that what Asian girls do? She didn't. Or that she excels in math; she doesn't. Or they think they know about her temperament just by seeing her face; they don't. A lot else is occasionally bundled with these most typical stereotypical assumptions.

All of this explains why I'm thrilled that Jiayang Fan's wrote her essay in The New Yorker in which she reminds us how sports can be a powerful vehicle for shifting our biased perceptions.

Kim Yo Jong, Chloe Kim, and the Shifting Images of Asian and Asian-American Women at the Olympics

Here her opening paragraph that kicks her essay into high gear, where it remains:

Whether she appears onscreen or in the popular imagination, the Asian woman tends to fall into one of several predictable archetypes: the evil temptress, obliging mistress, loyal servant, fanatical tiger mom, ruthless overachiever. This facile parsing offers the convenience of manageable stereotypes and feigned knowledge. One of the pleasures of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has been the number of Asian and Asian-American women defying the stereotypes. Among those who have most captivated audiences this past week are Chloe Kim, the teen-age snowboarder from Southern California who won a gold medal in the half-pipe; Mirai Nagasu, the first American woman to execute a triple axel at the Olympics; and Nagasu’s teammate Maia Shibutani, who, performing in the ice-dance competition with her brother, Alex, also helped the Americans win the team bronze medal. (Half of Team U.S.A.’s figure skaters are Asian-American.) On the other side, so to speak, are the North Korean women, whose presence has been used to reinforce some of the old categories: the ‘army of beauties’ cheerleaders and, especially, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, whose appearance eventually managed to incite pretty much every stereotype on record.
— Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker

As I girl, I played sports. As a young woman, I wrote sports. I know the power of sports to push societal change and alter societal perceptions – witness Jackie Robinson in baseball, the end of apartheid in South Africa, propelled by a global sports boycott, and the raised fists on Olympic podium in 1968 Summer Games.

Of course, let's give thanks to American girls and women's greatest lever of all, Title IX.

How Title IX First Changed the World of Women's Sports, Time magazine


Title IX Time magazine cover.jpeg