BY ELLEN KRASIN
We often tell children that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be, but is that really true? Is our society set up to allow such an idealistic theory? In the case of young women in male-dominated sports, this is being put to the test. Can girls compete with the boys? Should they?
In the past, there has been a stigma against young women playing on boys’ teams. Sports like football, wrestling, rugby, and hockey didn’t have many, if any, female participants. Now, Title IX guarantees that every sport offered to boys at the high school level must allow girls a fair shot at tryouts. More girls than ever are taking on the challenge of these sports, but according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, female players still only make up 0.2% of participants in high school football. Girls’ wrestling is seeing a huge surge in the United States, but female wrestlers are still rare to see on high school teams.
With more opportunities opening for young women to play these sports, people’s attitudes towards that participation need to evolve. The perceived lack of availability combined with the lack of visibility of female players as role models keeps a lot of girls from even considering a male-dominated sport as an option. Stories about female athletes succeeding in a male-dominated sport are inspirational, but also portray those athletes as oddities, the outliers. Until we normalize female participation in these sports, the idea of girls playing on a “boys’ team” will continue to feel transgressive.
Young women have the potential to be just as successful as young men in sports like football and wrestling. While physical differences between young men and young women are undeniably present, it does not dictate their abilities to perform physically. Yes, young bodies are constantly developing, and that happens at individual rates.
Testosterone and estrogen contribute to different distributions of muscle and body mass. But given proper nutrition and training, young women can develop a muscular, athletic build comparable to young men their size. With good coaching strategies, athletes can be taught how to use their strengths to contribute to their team. What some young women may not have naturally in size, they can compensate for by being coachable, observant, strong, agile, and strategic in their gameplay. A great coach can easily fit those types of athletes into their active roster.
Including young women into these sports, contrary to the idea of them causing more drama, can have emotional benefits for all the athletes involved. Normalizing the involvement of girls on teams with boys allows the kids to develop respect for and comradery with members of the opposite sex as equals. With girls typically maturing emotionally slightly ahead of their male peers, young women on the team can step up as leaders, providing focus and motivation. Working together to address challenges and find innovative strategies are skills that every athlete is better off for learning.
Women have been breaking the glass goalposts for years. From athletes like Babe Didrikson, who was the first woman who competed in a PGA tournament back in the 1930s, to Helen Maroulis, who grew up wrestling on boys’ teams and won the first Olympic gold medal for the US in women’s wrestling in 2016, to Jennifer Welter, the first female coach in the NFL, there are constant role models for young women athletes who want to fight for equality. Illinois just became the 25th state in the country to sanction girls’ wrestling as a high school sport. Even more locally, Richwoods High School has been in the press recently for their full team of female wrestlers. The field is changing, and it’s a movement that is long overdue.
If we are truly a country that champions and celebrates equality, then we need to let go of gender bias, and that includes women in athletics. Let the girls play alongside the boys as equals. We all might be better for it.
Ellen Krasin is a 2002 Bradley graduate and mother of three children, one being a daughter who plays football and wrestles.