The Boys’ Team and the Girls’ Team—or One Big Team

Playing with the boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal
Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano
New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 349 pp., $28.00, hardcover

Equal Play: Title IX and Social Change
Edited by Nancy Hogshead-Makar and Andrew Zimbalist
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2007, 313 pp., $34.95, paperback

Reviewed by Pat Griffin

Playing with the Boys is a provocative, thought-provoking, and well-researched analysis of the current state of sex equality in sport. Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano start from the premise that sport matters. It is more than entertainment; it is a powerful social institution in which attitudes about gender are constructed and reinforced. In turn, these attitudes limit women’s ability to succeed in all other arenas. McDonagh and Pappano argue that for this reason, sport is a critical site for achieving sex equality.

Their basic premise is that the sex segregation in athletics that most people take for granted does not reflect actual physical differences between men and women. Instead, it reflects outdated, inaccurate stereotypes based on a flawed notion of inherent female athletic inferiority. According to McDonagh and Pappano, sex segregation in sport reinforces the idea that men’s sports are the real deal, while women’s sports are a second-class approximation.

Moreover, the authors believe that Title IX, the landmark 1972 federal law banning sex discrimination in education, enforces this notion of women’s natural athletic inferiority by mandating sex segregation in athletics. They argue that accepting “coercive sex segregation” dooms women in sport to a neverending, futile battle for equality. The way out of enforced inequality, they say, is for girls and women to play sports with boys and men. They believe that integrated sports should be the standard, not the exception, and they propose ten recommendations to achieve this goal.

Mcdonagh and Pappano make their arguments forcefully and persuasively. They begin with a historical overview of American sport, with its foundational beliefs in male strength and competitiveness, and female weakness and frailty. They point out that the construction of these gender roles has required women athletes to conform to rather than challenge traditional standards of femininity. Female athletes, they point out, are judged on the basis of their sex appeal to men, not their “athletic zeal.” Presenting data on the physiological differences between the sexes, they go on to discuss gender-testing in the Olympics during the 1960s. What was undermining fair competition, they say, was not that male athletes were masquerading as women but rather that some female athletes (males too) were using steroids. Finally, they contrast federal laws prohibiting race, sex, and disability discrimination in employment with Title IX, which, they say, actually enshrines inequality. They provocatively claim that Title IX relegates women’s sports to the status of a kind of “same-sex Special Olympics” by defining women athletes as “disabled” in comparison to their “able” brothers.

McDonagh and Pappano identify six kinds of coercive sex-segregation that they believe are based on flawed conceptions of gender differences:

1. “Different sports for males and females”—Wrestling for boys; gymnastics for girls.

2. “Same sports, sex-segregated teams”—“Gender crossover,” such as boys on the field hocky team or girls on the baseball team, is the exception.

3. “Same sports, sex-segregated teams and/or sex-segregated rules”—Even though the rules for men’s and women’s basketball, for example, are more similar than they used to be, there are still differences between NBA and WNBA rules.

4. “Same sports, sex-typed styles—Female Olympic gymnasts perform seventy-to-ninety-second routines set to music; men perform fifty-to-seventy-second routines in silence. Women are judged on gracefulness; men on explosiveness.

5. “Same sport, required stereotyped sex role rules”—Men and women perform together as figure skaters, but it is the man who must launch his female partner, rather than “the stronger partner [launching] the lighter one.” Same-sex couples cannot perform as Olympic figure skaters at all.

6. “Sex-segregated structure”—Everyone runs together in the Boston Marathon, but men and women are ranked separately. Yet “the top male runners as a group do not outperform top female runners as a group”: in 2003, for example, “the first fifteen runners to finish were men, but the next four were women. These four women outran all remaining top male performers.”

McDonagh and Pappano argue that these kinds of policies should be replaced with gender-neutral ones that enable females and males to compete together based on individual interest, ability, and skill. They would make exceptions only for “voluntary segregation for a ‘subordinate’ group, to compensate for past discrimination.” They call for using “bona fide athletic qualifications” to determine when sex segregation in sport is legitimate—similar to the bona fide occupational qualifications used in employment discrimination laws.

As I read Playing with the Boys, I found myself agreeing with many of McDonagh and Pappano’s theoretical arguments. Their list of coercive sex-segregation policies provide thoughtful criteria for challenging the benefits of sex-segregation in specific contexts with specific sports. They point out many needless forms of sex segregation in sport that could be addressed immediately and would benefit females and males. Yet I resisted their call for ending sex-segregation in sport altogether, and I chaffed at their criticism of Title IX. I felt reactionary—am I so embedded in the acceptance of sport segregated by sex and the belief in the beneficial effects of Title IX that I have become part of the problem they are analyzing?

As a sport feminist, I find myself in a very uncomfortable place. I have coached girls and women’s sport teams at both the high school and college level. I have played on women’s teams in high school, college, and beyond. I’ve competed in organized recreational leagues against men in racquetball. I am an avid fan of women’s college basketball, professional golf and tennis, and many other women’s sports. I see value in having women’s teams, both as a participant and a spectator, despite the ongoing struggle for equality with men’s teams. McDonagh is a political scientist and Pappano a journalist. Perhaps these perspectives enable them to approach the topic theoretically, without the complicating passion for and personal experience of “coerced sex-segregated sport” that I admit affects my reactions to their proposals.

McDonagh and Pappano argue that sex-segregation in sport relegates women to permanent second-class citizenship. They believe that making sex-segregated teams the exception rather than the rule would lead to equality, in that boys and men, and girls and women, would be sorted by skill and performance rather than by gender. However, I fear that, at least at present, disregarding sex would also drastically decrease the number of girls and women on high school and college teams in many sports and demote most of the top women athletes in many sports to bench warmers or junior varsity-level play. That is what would result in second-class citizenship—for all but the few exceptional women who could compete successfully against men. Do McDonogh and Pappano seriously believe that having a top collegiate basketball player such as Candace Parker sit on the bench of a sex-integrated team would constitute equality?

Title IX is not a perfect solution to sex inequality in sport, and no Title IX advocate I know would claim that it is. But the phenomenal changes in women’s sports since my pre-Title IX playing and coaching days are evidence of success, not failure. The increased participation of girls and women in sport, the proliferation of teams and resources, the growing public interest in women’s sports, and the higher level of play in women’s sports should not be brushed aside in favor of a sex-neutral vision of equality in high school and college sport that I fear would not benefit most girls and women interested in competitive athletics. In addition, I firmly believe that any law that provokes the sustained ire and resistance of people in power, as Title IX has done, must be on the right track.

I applaud McDonagh and Pappano for writing a book that makes me question traditional thinking and my own ideas about of equality in sport and provides clear criteria for change. Everyone who cares about sex equality in sport should read this book. However, just as I believe there is still a need for affirmative action in achieving the broad goals of sex and race equality, I believe that there is a need for sex-segregated sport in the journey toward sex-neutral sport.

Equal Play, edited by Nancy Hogshead-Makar and Andrew Zimbalist, traces the 35-year history of Title IX and the struggle between conservative political forces that want to weaken it and liberal political forces that want to strengthen it. Hogshead-Makar and Zimbalist describe their mission as an exploration of the governmental processes that form and shape all public policy, which uses Title IX as a case in point.

The book is divided into five chronological sections describing what women’s sport opportunities were before Title IX, the enactment of Title IX, the initial backlash against it during the 1980s, the accelerated pace of change during the 1990s, and the second wave of backlash during the second Bush Administration. Hogshead-Makar and Zimbalist have assembled an impressive array of contributors including Susan Cahn, Vivian Acosta and Linda Carpenter, Julie Foudy and Donna DeVarona, Don Sabo, and Christine Grant. They also include original legal documents, commission reports and recommendations, conservative political attacks on Title IX, and forceful counterarguments that respond to theattacks. The documents and the data make this book a rich source of information for researchers and students.

The authors of both Playing with the Boys and Equal Play are committed to the goal of sex equality in sport. Their routes are different, although both are bumpy, with many setbacks and a long way to go. While Playing with the Boys criticizes traditional thinking, Equal Play assumes that Title IX and sex-segregation are the best strategies. McDonagh and Pappano embed their arguments in the broader cultural and social contexts of sexism and, to a lesser extent, heterosexism, while Hogshead-Makar and Zimbalist maintain a tight legal focus. Neither book addresses race or class as intersecting variables.

Both books make clear the contaminating influence of money on any social-justice agenda in school sports. The escalating “arms race” in big-time men’s collegiate football and basketball presents a formidable obstacle to achieving equality for women athletes or even for men in nonrevenue-producing sports.

The value of both books is that, from different perspectives, they invite the reader to think critically about sex equality, how we recognize it, and how it is best achieved, in a society with so many political and social agendas and divisions.


Pat Griffin is professor emerita in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of the It Takes A Team! Education Campaign for LGBT Issues in Sports, an initiative of the Women's Sports Foundation.

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