Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Invisible Barrier

We celebrated Jackie Robinson yesterday, and the breaking of the color barrier.

The importance of Robinson cannot be overstated.

There was one barrier, however, Robinson could not break. No one speaks about it, because half of the time we forget it exists. You wouldn’t know it exists, anyway—not if you looked at the mix of fans in the stands, or the press box, or the front office personnel for baseball as a whole and multiple major league franchises.

Still, on the field, the barrier exists.

There’s no rule written that puts it in place; it just seems to be one of those things that comes across as understood.

Genders don’t mix in professional sports.

On the surface, the reason seems understandable enough—physically, differences between men and women would seem to dictate that they should play on separate teams—but when you think about it, that argument doesn’t carry much weight.

All you have to do is consider Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs .

For some reason, we keep forgetting that the arguments to keep men and women’s sports separate are based straight out of the Victorian ethic—women are physically inferior and thus more fragile…never mind the strength it takes to go through childbirth.

More importantly, we seem to forget that separate-but-equal is not equal, and that was decided a half-century ago.

Women’s sports have made considerable progress in the past century; this is undeniable. Where women were once forbidden from playing many sports for fear of being physically unable to handle the pressure, there are now women’s teams for, more-or-less, every sport known to humankind. In certain sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics, women’s events garner higher ratings than men’s.

However, on the baseball field, the gender barrier still holds fast. In many high schools, there are no girls’ baseball teams; just softball. This isn’t to impugn on any softball players out there—the traditional argument is that softball is a harder sport to play than baseball, and I haven’t found anything to contradict that—but what do you tell a little girl who wants nothing more than to play for the Yankees or the Red Sox?

What does Alex Rodriguez tell his young daughter, should she develop an interest in her father’s game? Does he tell her to dream big, encourage her to play and perhaps she’ll break barriers? Or does he tell her to dream on, that if she wants to make big money playing professional sports, she should take up tennis or figure skating or gymnastics or golf?

Off the field, baseball has made progress—there have been female owners, female front office personnel, female beat writers and there is a significant female fan base to sell products marketed directly to women—but there are no female players, no female coaches, no female umpires (at least at the major league level).

People talk about the color barrier all the time. They mention Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby and they are right to do so—those men were, if not saints, then heroes, but no one talks about gender.

Maybe it’s because in nearly every other aspect of the game, aside from what happens on the field, women have a semblance of an equal footing with men; when Jackie and Larry integrated baseball, that started on the field before moving off of it.

It’s true that women’s sports today don’t draw like men’s do, but it’s not for lack of trying. The WNBA might be the most successful of women’s professional leagues; it’s certainly the most visible. Still, you have to go back to the separate-is-not-equal concept. If women were to play in the same league as men, would the crowds really diminish that much? As far as I know, women can be just as—if not more—fanatical about sports than men.

Why is it that we automatically assume that women don’t have the physical capabilities to perform at the same levels as men? I grant you that women and men may have different strengths, but in a sport like baseball, the tools you need—hand-eye coordination, decent speed and a knack for a good mental game—are familiar to both genders. I’m not sure you’ll have a hard time finding a woman that’s faster than Jose Molina (no knock on Molina) or a woman that understands baseball better than Steve Phillips (okay, I don’t think you’ll have a hard time finding a child that understands baseball better than him, but that’s not the point).

Title IX is crucial in providing an opportunity for women to play at all, but more needs to be done to overcome the bias that women can't because they are physically inferior to men.

Baseball is America’s great national pastime. It will be greater when anyone—regardless of that sort of equipment—can step on to a major league field and play.


  1. A sports writer in a chat fielded a question a couple weeks ago- "Will I see a women in MLB in my lifetime." I wish I could remember who...

    The answer is simply no. There is no female version of Little League- girls graduate from T-ball to softball.

    Then there is the physical difference- muscle mass being the main separator.

    The Billy Jean King argument is a poor one. King was the best female athlete on the planet- she had won 3 of the 4 majors the year before, while Riggs was over 50 and far past his prime.

    As for Title IX, take that away and you can kiss all the low revenue sports (everything but football, basketball, and in different locations hockey and baseball) goodbye.

  2. I'm not saying Title IX is not important.

    It is.

  3. The color barrier has often (always?) been broken before (and probably will continue to be broken before [re: Obama vs. Clinton]) the gender barrier.

    I'm not sure that sports is the best place to highlight it, because male and female bodies are different, but it is an interesting question.