I was one of those awkward kids who never knew to do with their bodies. I was clumsy: tripping, falling, crashing into everything. I always dreaded P.E. class whenever it occurred. I was the smallest. The slowest. The weakest. The lowest. The girl who was always picked last.
Not to mention the fact that, amongst family and peers, sports was clearly a “boy” thing. We watched my male cousins play baseball. We cheered at their basketball games. I attended my brother’s soccer and karate matches. My job was to watch: not play.
Admittedly, I didn’t exactly ask to play. None of the girls I knew played sports. Theater, dance, and music were our thing. I also loved to read. I could gobble up a book an hour. But out of all the childhood stories I remember to this day, not a single one featured girls playing sports.
Basically, I didn’t think playing was a possibility. It wasn’t part of our culture: my family’s or mine. Sports were an alien, foreign thing.
But then, halfway through my 4th grade year, we moved to North Carolina – to a podunk town by the name of Burnsville with a population of 1,673 people. There were no ballet lessons to be had. Singing lessons were unheard of. I didn’t participate in a single play the entire six months we lived there.
There was, however, one thing the 4th grade girls in Burnsville enjoyed doing. One thing which they participated in together and formed fast friendships doing. It was the thing that consumed their waking moments, that brought out their competitive streaks. It was the thing that made them feel like they belonged.
I had never played softball. I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know there was “baseball” for girls. I could ‘t wrap my head around it. But there was nothing else to do and no other way to get “in” with those shy, mountain girls. So, for the very first time in my life, I decided to play a sport.
And I loved it.
My competitive streak, which was a mile wide, was channeled into a positive outlet. Yes, I played catcher and left field (aka the positions for people who suck). Yes, I was still clumsy and awkward and tripped all over myself. But the way I felt about myself changed dramatically. I felt strong. Brave. Significant. I didn’t feel small. Or weak.
I had a team. A safety net. A place where I belonged. I had friends who believed in me and cheered me on – even when I failed. Angel, Tuesday, June: I still remember their names.
When my parents told me we were moving back to Florida and that I’d miss our softball finals, I sobbed. Bitterly. It felt like my 4th grade world was ending.
Worse still, when I got back to Florida, our old culture reasserted itself. My team was gone. My strength was gone. I was slow and small again. I went back to dreading P.E. To being the last girl picked. To being fiercely bullied for being weak. I never played sports again.
I returned to a world where only boys could succeed athletically. I observed them on the field. On the TV screen. Passively watching was my game.
This passivity, this lack of agency, was the hallmark of my young life. It followed all the way into adulthood. And into an absuive relationship.
When the story of Ray Rice broke on the news, I never asked why Janay didn’t leave. I knew the answer: she didn’t know how. She’d gotten too used to watching. She didn’t have anyone to encourage her when she failed.
She was stuck in a boy’s game.
The toxicity of this cultural tendency cannot be understated. And if you think there’s no correlation between the lack of gender parity in professional sports and violence against women, you’re not just mistaken: you’re wrong. As much as we might wish it to be so, we do not live in a post-feminist society. And the consequences of gender inequality are vast and far reaching.
Turn on your computer. Your television. Stop on the first sports-related thing you find. What will you see? Men. Only men. Sports are still for boys.
We know it shouldn’t be this way. Even the old guard knows it. But they’re not quite ready to do something about it, so they try to placate us instead. They give us “A Crucial Catch” and have their football players wear pink. They give us fitted baby doll tees emblazoned with our favorite teams’ logos. They tell us that women can be passionate about sports too, that we have a place in the arena.
Then they courteously dust off a bench and give us a seat on the sidelines.
But the tendency to marginalize women in sports isn’t confined to the NFL: it permeates our society as a whole, infecting even some of our most cherished organizations.
The American Library Association has long been an advocate of equality. They’ve championed the rights of minorities nationwide and reminded everyone that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. But diversity isn’t restricted solely to ethnicity or sexuality. It also includes gender.
And, when it comes to supporting gender diversity in sports, ALA has just failed. Utterly.
ALA Booklist’s “Top Ten Sports Books for Youth: 2014” was published on September 1st. And normally, most librarians would think of this as an exciting thing. These are the sort of lists we wait eagerly for and use to add books to our collection.
Except, in this list, not a single sports-playing protagonist happens to be female.
Let me say that again: all of ALA’s sports books feature only male MC’s.
I expect this from the NFL. Not condone, but expect. But to see this “boys club” mentality trickle down to ALA? In 2014? I am embarrassed for my profession.
Children are not dumb. They can read between the lines. They pick up on the cultural cues espoused by our books and media. And when girls don’t see themselves in sports books, they internalize the message that sports “aren’t for them.”
So I’ve compiled my own list of “Top Ten Sports Books for Youth in 2014” – books that actually feature female protagonists who are passionate about participating in sports. I’m going to be reading each and every one of these books over the next several months. I’m going to promote them to the teenagers in my life.
I hope you’ll do the same.
Better yet: come up with your own list. Visit blogs like Sporty Girl Books. Hunt with me for titles published specifically in 2014. Then hop on twitter and tell ALA’s Booklist what you think of this nonsense. Let’s start a storm. #girlsplaysports #sportygirlbooks @ALA_Booklist
The Loudmouth Librarian’s “Top Ten Sports Books for Girls in 2014”