Recently, I took my daughter to the gym to practice shooting hoops while I ran on the track. I had to use whatever this thingie is called to manually lower the goal – back-breaking work that took minutes. Once that was done, I went off to run and she began to shoot. Until the big boys got there. There were several wide-open goals in the gym but they were immediately drawn to the one my daughter was using. The big boys really enjoy when goals are lowered because it allows them to dunk and hit shots they normally couldn’t hit. This practice isn’t great for their basketball game but really helps their egos. No one was rude to my daughter. No one told her to get lost or stole her ball from her. They were just playing and trying to impress each other. But, she felt intimidated and eventually gave up trying to shoot on the goal at all. I watched this from the track, irritated I’d gone to the trouble to lower the goal only to have my daughter pushed out from using it. Several times, I encouraged her to continue and she would. For a while. I knew if I asked these boys to go shoot somewhere else, they immediately would because mommas are scary. But, I decided not to play the Mom Card this time. Truth is, these were perfectly nice kids and they weren’t trying to stop my daughter from shooting – they just weren’t really thinking about her at all.
After I finished my run, I went down to check in with my girl. She was sitting on the bleacher, a little tearful. I asked her why and she gestured towards the goal where the boys were still playing. She explained that they had “ruined everything” and that this was the “worst day ever”- we have a lot of those. I checked that no one had explicitly told her to go away. No, they hadn’t. I asked if anyone had knocked her ball away, teased her, or been rude or mean. Nope. It was the boys’ mere presence in what she’d deemed to be her space that made her feel like she didn’t belong there. I totally got it – I’d been there before.
I made sure she knew that this was an open gym and that we didn’t reserve basketball goals. Yes, I wanted her to stick with that goal because it was the right height for her and, thus, the best place to practice. Yes, the boys would get better practice on a goal that was the right height for them but that’s for their mommas to worry about. There wasn’t a rule saying that no one else was allowed to use that goal also. Ideal? No. Fair? Yes. Then, we got to the crux of the issue. I told her if she wants to be a female athlete, which she really, really does, she cannot wait for engraved invitations from boys to get her chance to play. I explained that, in my experience, when boys are playing sports, they aren’t paying attention to a whole lot else – especially not to the little girl watching sadly from the bleachers. If she wants to just watch, that’s her choice. But if she wants to actually play, she will have to make that happen. At best, the boys won’t be outwardly rude to her but in some cases, they will be. Sometimes, they’ll be really annoyed that she’s there and do whatever they can to get her “out of the way” because they don’t take her presence there seriously. So, if she finds herself in that situation but wants to keep working on her goals, SHE would have to invite herself – not wait for someone else to do so. I reminded her that boys do not own sports or gyms or basketballs, and that she has just as much right to all of those things as anyone else. The reality of it is that to have equal access to all of that, she will sometimes have to advocate for herself – not something females have traditionally been that strong in. She will have to assert herself if someone takes her ball or is intentionally blocking her from equipment she was using. She’ll have to speak up if a boy makes fun of her free throw attempt, tells her to leave, or says she runs “like a girl.” This part really isn’t fair. It should go without saying that sports are for everyone and that the rules of kind and decent behavior don’t change when you enter a gym. But, sometimes, it doesn’t go without saying and she will have to be the one to say it.
One day, I hope female athletes will receive the respect they deserve from others. In some cases, they already do. I don’t suggest for a second that all boys are negative towards girls playing sports or that girls are never taken seriously on the field or court. I’m talking about the experiences I had growing up where I often felt I had no part to play in sports and about what happens to many of our daughters as they’re just starting out with the sports they love. I also don’t want to be seen as “blaming the victim.” Real deal sexism and sexual discrimination clearly exist and I don’t feel like women who have been victimized should have advocated for themselves in those situations. In this particular case, I didn’t think of my daughter as being a “victim” of anything the boys were doing – there was no obvious intention to cause her any harm or discomfort. But, sports have long been seen as falling into the purview of males and, although that is changing, core opinions and attitudes are always the last to progress. If my daughter truly believes she belongs there, there’s really no valid argument anyone can put up against that belief. I hope that by teaching my daughter she’s well within her rights to stand her ground and keep playing, she will feel a greater sense of inclusion and acceptance, even as we raise the goals.