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The arguments most often used to justify discrimination against women in sports—that athletics are bad for their health and femininity, that women are not skillful enough or interested in playing games—have on the surface a nice paternalistic, even altruistic, quality. Recent studies indicate such assumptions are incorrect and self-serving nonsense. It simply happens to be in the best interest of the male athletic establishment to maintain the existing situation. Anything beyond token sexual equality in athletics represents a formidable threat to male pride and power. "The status of the female athlete is not something implicit in the nature of the female but rather a manifestation of the ego of the male," says Dr. Ken Foreman, the head of the Seattle Pacific College physical education department and a track coach. "Males simply cannot tolerate a serious challenge from a woman."
Any discussion of collective egos is tricky and extremely speculative. But there are numerous incidents that suggest, at least in competitive sports, the masculinity of males is a more tender and perishable commodity than the femininity of females.
?Charles Maas, secretary of the Indiana State Coaches Association, commented glumly on a recent decision by his state's Supreme Court permitting girls to compete with boys in noncontact sports, such as golf, tennis, track and swimming: "There is the possibility that a boy would be beaten by a girl and as a result be ashamed to face his family and friends. I wonder if anybody has stopped to think what that could do to a young boy."
?Ellen Cornish, a senior at Frederick (Md.) High School, is one of the best distance runners among American women, good enough to have been a member of the U.S. cross-country team that took part in the 1971 world championship. Though she has represented her country, Cornish never has been able to compete for her school. The reasons are the usual ones. Frederick High has no girls' track program and Cornish has not been able to run on the boys' team even though she regularly has better times in practice than most of the boys. In the spring of 1972 arrangements were made for Cornish to enter a two-mile event in a dual meet between Frederick and Thomas Johnson High School. She was to compete on an exhibition basis, that is, any points she won would not count in the meet score. As things turned out, she was handicapped in an even more obvious and effective way. At the end of the seventh lap of the race, with Cornish fighting for the lead, she was pulled off the track, according to a previous agreement between the coaches. This was done to protect the male runners from the morale-shattering possibility of being beaten by a girl, a possibility that was probable.
?Several years ago Becky Birchmore won a place on the University of Georgia men's tennis team and played in Southeastern Conference matches. Since then, Dan Magill, Georgia's tennis coach, has had time to mull over the Birchmore matter and he now regrets that Birchmore was allowed to play against men. "I used her against Auburn one time," says Magill, "and she won. The boy she beat was embarrassed to death. It ruined him. I really wish I hadn't done it."
Male defensiveness about female athletic prowess is not restricted to head-to-head confrontations. Accomplished women athletes, even when they are competing against one another, seem to ruffle the psyches of many men. That there are many women athletes superior to men is indisputable. There surely are a hundred or so male tennis players who could defeat Billie Jean King, but there are hundreds of thousands who would be fortunate to win a set from King. The same situation prevails in most sports. "For obvious reasons it is often the more sedentary, unathletic, spectator-oriented man who has the most derogatory things to say about outstanding sportswomen," says Ken Foreman.
A frequent ploy used to maintain the illusion of total male athletic superiority is to compliment a skillful woman by saying, "She plays almost like a man." (There is a barb in the compliment—the insinuation that this babe's hormones are probably so weird that she is or nearly is a man.) Not long ago a male coach commented on the style of Micki King, the only American diver to win a gold medal at the Munich Olympics. The coach said King "dives like a man," a statement that drew a sharp comment from Jack Scott, the athletic director of Oberlin College: "My reaction on reading the quote was that she sure as hell does not dive like me or any other man I ever met. In fact, she does not dive like 99', of the men in America. What she obviously does is dive correctly."
Just as many men feel menaced by the athletic activities of women, many organizations are becoming nervous over the rising expectations of women in sport. Long-standing by-and-for-male principles are being threatened, as are by-and-for-male budgets. "I know the men who head the high school athletic associations in all 50 states, and I don't think there are more than three or four of them who genuinely want to see a girls' program comparable to that of boys'," says Wayne Cooley, the aggressive director of the Iowa Girls' High School Athletic Union. "Some are hostile; a more common attitude is apathy. Right now some state associations are getting a lot of heat from parents and from courts, so they are putting in token programs for girls. They will hire a woman assistant who is not aggressive and schedule a few so-called state championships and then they let the whole thing go."
The bedrock reason for this institutional fear—and the fierce resistance to improving girls' athletics—has been pinpointed by Harvard's Dr. Clayton Thomas: "Women traditionally have not been allowed the same share of funds for athletics and recreational equipment. The appearance of girls' teams to utilize sports facilities not previously required by them will have great economic impact on schools, colleges and communities. If, by some miracle, women suddenly began using public and private athletic facilities to even half the extent they are used by men, then the overcrowding would be catastrophic."
Whether or not the situation would be a catastrophe depends on one's outlook. But a marked increase in participation by girls and women certainly would bring about radical change. Most organized sport in the U.S. falls into three categories, that which is sponsored by colleges and universities, by public-school systems and by community recreation organizations. It is a guess—and probably a conservative one—that no more than 1% of all college and university athletic funds are spent on women. In junior and senior high schools, girls get perhaps 5% of the funds and facilities. In community recreation programs the figure may be as high as 20%. If females were given as little as 25% of the resources, the shape of the American athletic system would be altered far more drastically than it could be by all the designated pinch hitters, franchise shifters, NCAA rulemakers and carping reporters rolled together.