I’ve been thinking more about 12 year-old MN female Ingrid Neel who will play on the High School boy’s tennis team this spring. I can see both sides of this issue. I’ve gotten some interesting emails offline and my students this morning had some thoughts as well. Here is a rough summary of those opinions and thoughts:
Why it might be good idea to let her play: the team will mirror the gender composition of the workplace in which she will largely compete against males, helps her develop life skills and “toughness” in competition, her tennis skills will improve, increased recognition which may help with recruiting, helps the boys learn to appreciate athletic talent of girls, has the potential to change outdated gender stereotypes of female athletes as “lesser”, separation of boys and girls in sport is arbitrary anyway so why not let them play together?, challenges the gender binary that all males are better than all female athletes and provides proof that many females CAN outperform or perform with males.
Why it might be a bad idea to let her play: the boys might not want her on team and it will destroy team cohesion, it might reinforce outdated gender stereotypes and ways of thinking about female athletes (the best athletes are male), her experiences will depend greatly on how the coach and the boys’ parents handle her presence on the team, Is it appropriate or should a 12 year old girl be around 17 year old males?; it takes her away from her female peers during a critical developmental window, Is it fair or healthy to ask a teen age boy to play (and possibly lose!) a younger girl…isn’t that emotional abuse?, it might open the floodgate of boys wanting to play on the girls’ team.
There are many facets of this issue to consider, which have been discussed and debated previously. To help us all think through the complexities and know the facts, I would guide the reader to Issues Related to Girls and Boys Competing With and Against Each Other in Sports and Physical Activity Settings: A Women’s Sports Foundation Position. The WSF piece is a nice summary and includes the legality of co-ed sport participation and opportunities to play under Title IX.
Related to the Ingrid Neel case, a colleague (thanks LW!) sent me a story about an Iowa wrestler who defaulted his state tournament match, rather than face a female wrestler (Cassy Herkelman).
One thought I want to share is that I think that most boys can greatly benefit from having to compete against girls. It has the potential (and I say that cautiously) to be a great opportunity for both competitors. Isn’t that the true meaning of competition…to strive together and bring out the best in each other? (NOTE: for a good book on this topic, read True Competition by David Shields & Brenda Light Bredemeier, former colleagues of mine at Notre Dame) However, the opportunity will be lost if the adults in the lives of both competitors mess it up. By that I mean if the coach or parents tease or allow teasing of the boy if he loses, which reinforces that boys should naturally be better than girls. It also tells the boy he isn’t “a real man” if he can’t beat a GIRL and therefore should be ashamed. Comments, teasing, hazing, and bullying directed towards the female competitor should also not be allowed or tolerated.
Some colleagues and I (Fink, LaVoi & Newhall, 2015) did a study of male practice players of NCAA D-I women’s basketball teams. These researchers found the men in their study respected and appreciated the female athletes, and perspectives about female athletes and women in general did change. Overall the men described it as a very positive and transformative experience, therefore providing evidence that co-ed competition can work and lead to positive development and growth.
If it can be done at one one the highest levels of competition, surely co-ed competition can be successfully achieved at the youth and interscholastic level. Let the kids play and hopefully if the adults get it right, it will be a positive and teachable moment for all involved.
I’d love to hear your additional thoughts.