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Tomboys, Soccer Pay Victory and Women's History Month

February 25, 2022

What do you think of when you hear the word Tomboy? 

Does it bring back memories of roughhousing with your brothers, tinkering in the garage with your motorbike and preferring blue jeans to princess dresses? Or do you think of sports and how your confidence and character were shaped by playing on a team and having a coach who challenged you to pick yourself right up after setbacks and get back in the game? 

For me, a Baby Boomer who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, being a “tomboy” was all about freedom. Freedom to play tackle football with the neighborhood boys, ride horses and know I could hold my own in a fight with my three brothers. 

I never had the chance to play organized sports. So I'm jealous when I see young girls in uniforms running on soccer fields and females pushing the edges of athleticism at the Olympics. But most of all, I am THRILLED when I see female athletes stepping forward as leaders to call out and challenge continued gender inequities in sports and fight for equal opportunity. Not just for themselves, but for all the girls to come.

That’s exactly what Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and their U.S. Women’s National Soccer teammates have been doing -- collectively -- for six years. Despite wining four World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals and six straight years ranked FIFA’s No 1, they had to sue their own organization, U.S. Soccer, to fight for equal treatment.

These world-class athletes refused to accept lower pay, inferior working conditions and lack of marketing support, as they dramatically outperformed their male peers in global soccer competition. They fought for equality, as a team, as fiercely as they fought for championships. 

Their collective courage and tenacity paid off.  U.S. Soccer just agreed to pay $25 million to settle the lawsuit. “Tacit admission,” according to the NY Times, “that compensation for the men’s and women’s teams has been unequal for years.”  

That’s one gigantic step forward for women in sports. 

While there's still a long way to go, let's relish this hard-fought victory and recognize its lasting legacy: the domino effect it helped to kick-start.The U.S. Olympic women’s ice hockey team, WNBA players and Canada’s women’s soccer team have all followed the U.S. soccer team’s example by fighting for equal pay in their own workplaces.

What a great way kick off Women’s History Month.  

While we’re celebrating, let’s also reflect on the tremendous impact of athletes such as Billie Jean King who, nearly 50 years ago, formed the Women’s Tennis Association, threatened to boycott the U.S. Open and led the successful fight for equal prize money for women in tennis.  

And the important role modeling of Serena Williams, considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. Gymnast Simon Biles who changed the conversation about mental health and athleticism. Baseball trailblazers Kim Ng, the first female General Manager, now leading the Miami Marlins and Rachel Balkovec, just hired by the NY Yankees to manage their minor league Tampa Tarpons team. And 19-year old Belgian-British pilot Zara Rutherford who just set a world record as the youngest woman to fly SOLO around the world. 

I suspect that all of those women considered themselves “tomboys” as young girls. If you relish that part of yourself, as I still do, or perhaps the tomboy spirit in your daughter or granddaughter, you might like the new book, TOMBOY:The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different, and my interview with the author, Lisa Selin Davis, for my POWER UP WOMEN podcast. 

The word "tomboy"has gone out of style, but the freedom and exhilaration of women discovering their own physical capabilities, as well as the inspiration we feel from watching other females prove in multiple new ways, "Yes We Can!" never will.

It's Time for Gender Inequity in Sports to Stop

March 28, 2021

As a journalist and former TV news and sports broadcaster, I have been covering girls' and women's fight for sports equity for nearly five decades. That's why I was infuriated but not surprised by the disturbing and blatant inequities between the facilities and even food (!) provided for male and female athletes competing at this year's NCAA March Madness college basketball tournaments.  

When female athletes and coaches used their social media power to showcase the differences, the NCAA began scrambling to apologize with excuses.  A "lack of space" was the explanation for female athletes given only a rack of dumbbells and a pile of yoga mats compared with the gigantic, fully-equipped weight room for the men. That was proven to be false, as a dramatically upgraded weight room for women "magically" appeared overnight. 

And how did the NCAA justify the dramatic differences in food, with men choosing from buffets while women were given boxed meals; the gold standard (PCR) of COVID testing for men's teams while a cheaper, less accurate (antigen) testing authorized for the women; and even the pettiness of including a 500 piece puzzle in the men's extravagant "swag bags," while women's much smaller offerings included a 150 piece puzzle? 

They couldn't, other than to admit it was "a mistake" and promise "a full investigation," once their hypocrisy was exposed. 

The disciminatory and disgraceful discrepancies created an uproar, once the athletes took to Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.  But they were not "an oversight," as the NCAA tried to claim.  They were business as usual.  

In 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX federal legislation that required schools to begin offering equal sports opportunities for girls, I reported on Little League baseball coaches, irritated to have to give girls the chance to try out for their teams, who required the girls to wear male athletic cups, claiming, "If you want to play with the boys, you need to dress like the boys." 

That same year, I covered a middle school track meet in Grand Rapids, Michigan where several female students went out for the school's track team, which had previously been only for boys.  I witnessed the determination and courage of the handful of teenage girls who endured taunts and jeers of parents who were terrified that their sons might be psychologically damaged if a girl happened to beat them in a race. 

A few years later, while working for CBS-TV in Detroit, I produced a 30-minute documentary, "Playing to Win, on the status of women's sports progress in Michigan, seven years after the passage of TITLE IX. 

During my research, I discovered that University of Michigan's legendary and powerful athletic director, Don Canham, was using Athletic Department funds to pay for legal challenges against Title IX.  He was furious that a young, female sports reporter dared to question him on that decision during my on-camera interview and called my station management to complain. His on-camera arrogance and irritation at his decisions behing challenged made great TV viewing, but barely budged his resistance to women's sports. 

That same year, the Michigan State Lady Spartans basketball team sued their own university over blatant Title IX violations.  I sat in a Grand Rapids District coutroom, listening as the athletes told of travelling to games crammed into stations wagons, sleeping two to a bed and four to a room and eating at McDonald's because of miserly per diems while the men's team stretched out in chartered buses and individual beds on road trips with generous food budgets. I witnessed the women practicing on a  court with buckets to catch water dripping from a leaky roof. 

The lead plaintiff in the "Hutchins vs. MSU Board of Trustees" lawsuit was Carol "Hutch" Hutchins, now the Hall of Fame women's softball coach at the University of Michigan. 

My memories are just of few of the thousands, probably millions of examples of the inequities, obstacles and resistance that girls and women have faced over our nearly 50 year fight for the equity in sports opportunity that Title IX required.  It is long past time for the pathetic charade of equity to be revealed and ended. Men's sports didn't start out as geese all laying golden financial eggs. Their popularity and fan base and pipeline of athletes have been built over a century of investment, beginning with school teams and coaches and nurtured with scholarships and hundreds of millions in marketing. 

World Cup Champion Soccer Player Megan Rapinoe testified during recent Congressional hearings on Equal Pay Day that we still don't know the real potential of women's sports. "What we know is how successful  women's sports have been in the face of discrimination, in the face of a lack of investment in every level in comparison to men." 

The sports gender inequities that still exist today are gigantic and, according to the sports advocacy non-profit Champion Women, include: 

-- Non-compliance with federal laws by too many high school and college sports programs 

-- Sexual assault issues, as high school and colleges too often are more concerned with protecting athletes accused of sexual assault than ensuring a safe campus environment

-- Women coaches face discriminatory employment practices, particularly in colleges, receiving for less pay than their male counterparts and locked out of the marketplace for coaching men's teams while nearly 60% of women's college teams are now coached by males. 

I applaud the female athletes and coaches who refused to quietly accept second class treatment. They are continuing the work of the of the girls and young women whom I witnessed stepping onto fields and tracks where they were not wanted, ignoring harassment and insults and even suing their own universities all for opportunities our culture teaches boys to take for granted. 

 So let's celebrate how far we've come, thanks to the multitude of leaders who have stood up for decades for the promise of Title IX. Let's keep pushing for the sports equity through organizations such as CHAMPION WOMEN.  And don't forget to thank the NCAA, as Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner so eloquently did, for exposing its true colors. 

"To the NCAA: Thank you! And thank you to the next generation of female athletes who are unwilling to accept discriminatory and disrespectful treatment and have the social media power to expose it! Thank you for using the three biggest weeks of your organization's year to expose exactly ho wyou feel about women's basketball -- an afterthought. It's time for women's basketball to receive the treatment it has earned. Thank you for exposure."  Nell Fortner

Enjoy this year's women's NCAA March Madness Basketball Championships. I'm picking Baylor to give UConn a run for its money! 

Not Since Billie Jean and Bobby

July 14, 2019

 

Where were you when Megan Rapinoe, captain of the USA Soccer team (let the men use the defining gender adjective), took one deep breath, moved her body to the right and kicked left, powering a penalty kick past Holland's brilliant goalkeeper to break a 0-0 deadlock in the championship game of the 2019 World Cup? 

Where were you a few minutes later when midfielder Rose Lavelle wove her way through multiple defenders to score a legendary, solo goal, putting her team up 2-0 and assuring USA Soccer its 4th World Cup? 

Did you get goosebumps, as I did, listening to the sold-out stadium crowd chanting not just "USA, USA", at the end, but "EQUAL PAY, EQUAL PAY!"

And where were you when pink-haired Rapinoe, captain of this brash, confident team that has strutted onto the world stage and earned a permanent place in our hearts, took the podium, following a ticker tape parade in New York's "Canyon of Champions," and challenged all of us to seize this euphoric national moment as an opportunity to come together and move our society forward? 

"We have to be better. We have to love more. Hate less. We've got to listen more and talk less," she told the cheering crowd. "There has been so much contention in these last few years. . . It is time to come together. This conversation is at the next step."

THE "CONVERSATION" she's talking about is much bigger than sports victories. Rapinoe, Lavelle, Alex Morgan and their teammates all understand very clearly the platform they have achieved and the responsibility they have embraced to use their voices and influence, not only to fight for equal pay, but to hold our culture's feet to a much bigger fire: GENDER EQUALITY. 

As Rapinoe put it, "Yes, we play sports.  Yes, we play soccer.  Yes, we are female athletes, but we are so much more than that. . . We have pink hair and purple hair. We have tattoos. Dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between! Straight girls and gay girls." 

NOT SINCE BILLIE JEAN KING SILENCED Bobby Riggs and his chauvinistic blatherings about male superiority with her 1973 tennis victory in the legendary "Battle of the Sexes, witnessed by millions, has there been a defining sports moment that has so stunningly toppled deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes and instantly changed the conversation about women's place in the world. We are in a new place. 

But there is a critical difference that sets the long-term impact of this 2019 World Cup moment apart from the accomplishment of Billie Jean King, who was also fighting for equal pay for women's tennis. BJK did it alone. She was a powerful and inspiring symbol of possibility for a generation of girls (me included). A solitary, super woman.   

But USA Soccer's achievement was a team victory. An example to the world of what powerful, talented focused women working collectively can accomplish. Black girls, white girls, straight girls, gay girls and everything in between! They are the affirmation, as USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan put it, of "...all the goodness that comes from raising another generation of strong, intelligent, fearless and successful women through sports." 

If you missed the games, you missed something very special. But you will not miss the cultural impact of what these leaders have done. Because they are as clear about the power of their voices and their right to use them to demand equality as they are about the power of their strong bodies and ability to defeat whatever obstacles are thrown at them. 

AND HERE'S THE BEST PART. USA Women's Soccer is merely a symbol of things to come. The tip of icebergs of new generations of women -- Millennials and Gen Z's and their daughters -- who will not settle for second class status. 

This Baby Boomer is thrilled to pass the leadership torch. But I have no intention of retiring from the fight. I will cover their flanks and have their backs as we collectively move forward toward our shared goal: Equality for all!

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