National Girls and Women in Sports Day

 

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Eight-year-old me and my first love

 

It really doesn’t seem that long ago I first fell in love with sports. In my mind, it seems like just yesterday, that I excitedly came home and asked to play softball after flyers for the local girls softball league were posted in my elementary school. I remember my parents searching high and low for a left-handed glove small enough to fit my undersized hand. I remember how much I enjoyed the smell of the dirt and pinging of a bat as it made contact with the ball. Most of all, I remember how much I loved competing and the thrill of accomplishing something I worked to hard to get right.

As a six-year-old, of course, I wasn’t aware that such opportunities hadn’t always been around for young girls. A child of the nineties, I’m really not that far removed from the a time when opportunities didn’t exist for girls, period. Truth be told, for much of my twenty-eight years of this earth, I didn’t give much thought about Title IX or the women’s sports “revolution.” I was busy reading about the social and economic side of the  broader women’s rights movement and didn’t really see how the two were really related.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize and understand how important athletics are to the broader women’s rights movement and how important what we gain from youth sports really is to our physical and mental development. This is true even for someone like me who at no point in time would have been mistaken for an “elite athlete.”

I’ve also come to realize that in order to undetstand where women’s sports are in this country as well as worldwide currently, it’s imperative to know about the pioneers that laid the foundation to get where we are and simultaneously educate myself about the challenges that women’s athletics face today.

Now that my formal education has ended (finally!), I now have time to read what I want to read. My Amazon Wish List is full of books related to women’s sports both from a historical perspective but also works that examine the societal constructs that are barriers to the advancement of women in sports.

I’ve decided to share a few books today that I’ve read that helped expand my knowledge in some fashion or another. Hopefully, I’ll inspire someone to pick up a book. Here five books in no particular order:

This book examines women’s sports from the beginning of last century in a variety of different sports and different settings. It discusses how the perceptions of female athletes have changed and also how they haven’t. Topics discussed in Cain’s book range from the battle to let women compete at the intercollegiate level to homophobia in women’s sports.

This book is a good primer to an oft-discussed yet rarely fully understood area of the law. Written by a law professor, this book explains what Title IX does and just as importantly, what it doesn’t do. Professor Brake explains the framework of Title IX and how schools can comply and also examines controversial topics like “leveling down” and pregnancy among college athletes.

I probably could have saved myself the trouble and told everyone to just go read everything by Jean Williams, but in the interest of providing a wide array of voices on women’s sports in this post, I decided to include just one work by her. This book looks at the development of women’s soccer in four different countries: the United States, China, England and Australia. It’s interesting to see how the challenges faced by each country differ and also how they are the same.

If you consider yourself a serious fan of women’s soccer, you must read this book. Period. Grainey provides a solid history of women’s soccer in the United States but also provides much-needed information about the sport in other areas of the world that isn’t available elsewhere.

Billie Jean King is the most iconic figure in women’s sports movement of the 1970’s and her fingerprint is everywhere. Case in point, the Women’s Sports Foundation she created is behind NGWSD. To put it simply, if Billie Jean King didn’t like something, she challenged it and worked to change it.  The book is part biography, part a history of the broader women’s rights movement.

Let me know what you think of this list and please add books you’ve read and enjoyed in the comments!

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What’s In A Name

Cat Osterman on the mound for the USSSA Pride during the 2014 NPF season
Cat Osterman on the mound for the USSSA Pride during the 2014 NPF season.

With the announcement of two new women’s franchises in this week, it may seem a little cantankerous to find fault in the name of one of the new teams.  Critics may even say that type of thinking is missing the broader picture. Well, those people are wrong, at least in part.

It’s true, 2015 has been the year of women’s sports. (Hell yeah!) Between the U.S. Women’s National Team winning the World Cup and in the process much deserved recognition, Serena Williams’ awe-inspiring, albeit failed, attempt at a Grand Slam, and other well-publicized moments, there’s been a lot of reasons for women’s sports advocates to be optimistic about this year.

Just because the needle is moving in the right direction that doesn’t mean that fans should unequivocally accept the decisions made by women’s sports teams, leagues, organizations. If anything, it’s more of a reason to question the decision-makers – to ensure the momentum continues. Criticism, after all, is a hallmark of traditional men’s leagues and teams.

When the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced the addition of its 10th team, the Orlando Pride on Tuesday, it and its new franchise sent a very unfortunate message.

Why? Well, there’s already an existing women’s professional sports team in the same metro area with the same name – the USSSA Pride of National Pro Fastpitch (NPF). Ooof.  Seriously?

The moniker Pride in women’s professional sports is equivalent of Tigers in college sports, it’s seemingly everywhere. Aside from the now-defunct FC Gold Pride of Women’s Professional Soccer, there’s also the Boston Pride of the nascent National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).

Until the announcement of the addition Scrap Yard Dawgs into the NPF on Friday, a person could be forgiven for thinking that some very limited word bank existed for naming women’s professional sports teams. For whatever reason, women’s sports teams seem to favor names stemming from abstract concepts and ideals, but that’s a topic for another day.

Back to the topic at hand, does anyone else see the problem with this? Creating a brand is difficult in women’s sports given the general lack of resources and exposure. Having two teams in the same city with the same name certainly doesn’t help, especially when the playing seasons overlap. The NWSL season runs from April through September while the NPF season runs from June through August.  If nothing else, why create the possibility for unnecessary confusion?

Not to worry, though, the Orlando Pride isn’t concerned about this. On a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, the Orlando Pride had this to say when asked about any potential marketing or brand issues:

Q: As you guys probably already know there’s an existing women’s professional sports team that currently using the name “Pride”, the USSSA Pride of the National Professional Fastpitch League. Was there any dialogue between that team as far as using the name Pride? And do you guys foresee any issues as far as marketing or branding with having two women’s sports with sharing that name?

A: No, we don’t. I mean we went through your requisite and necessary trademark searches in order to ensure that we’d be able to register those marks and the name and the brand. No, we don’t think it’s an issue from our standpoint. We vetted that out.

Of course, the soccer Pride aren’t concerned. On Wednesday, one the worst kept secrets in women’s sports was finally revealed. Alex Morgan, the sport’s most marketable star will be traded to the new franchise in a deal in which her current club, Portland won handedly. No need to worry about marketing when you’ve got the biggest name in the sport at your disposal.

Yes, Orlando went through the legal process for securing the name, but is that really where the query should end? Is what’s legal the only that should be considered when making these types of decisions?

Orlando saw the name Orlando Pride as a logical extension of its men’s team that uses a lion for a mascot. The fact that Orlando can’t use lion imagery for its women’s team due to the fact that the NWSL and MLS have contracts with different apparel companies definitely undermines the continuity argument. In other words, the Pride in Orlando Pride has nothing to do with felines.  Again, it’s the abstract kind of pride.

And yes, the NWSL and the Orlando Pride is not obligated to care about the USSSA Pride, the NPF or any other women’s professional sport for that matter.  On a macro level, it’s disappointing that the parties involved don’t seem to, though.

Although soccer and fastpitch softball are completely different sports, the NPF and NWSL have a lot common. Low salaries, short average playing careers, woefully short playing seasons and little media coverage are all issues both leagues face. Then, there’s the whole issue of having to deal with sexist trolls who, despite it being 2015 and ample evidence to the contrary, refuse to see women as legitimate athletes. In short, women’s professional sports have enough issues already without adding to it themselves.

By making the decision to use a moniker already in use in the same city, Orlando Pride is sending the message that it doesn’t see the USSSA Pride as legitimate. Let’s face it, this would never happen in men’s professional sports today! What a kick in the teeth to an organization that has spent the last six years toiling away at building a brand while dealing with having softball removed from the Olympics, which provided the sport its biggest spotlight.

Having a variety of women’s professional sports leagues is good and something that people who support a particular sport or league should support. If people see women competing at the highest level on a wide array of playing surfaces, they’ll be more prone to accept it and maybe even support them. Multiple leagues can a long way in normalizing the concept of the female athlete, especially the female professional athlete.

On this front, the synergy between women’s professional sports teams seen between the Spirit and the Mystics in D.C. and the Bandits and the Sky in Chicago this summer was positive to see. Given the seemingly acrimonious introduction between the Pride franchises, don’t expect any such displays between these two teams moving forward.

So yes, NWSL fans you don’t have to care about USSSA, the NPF or any other women’s professional sports team or league. Just remember the next time you complain about some dudebro who’s upset that his MLS team is putting funds that could be used for the men’s team into a women’s club, he doesn’t have to care about the NWSL or women’s soccer either. Wouldn’t be nice if he did care though?

Final thought: Since the deed is done and there’s no turning back, how about turning lemons into lemonade?  With the two teams in the area sharing a name, there might as well be a real kickass Nelly circa 2000 mashup jersey, am I right?