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Breaking down gender barriers in male dominated sports

PLAY LIKE A GIRL

When freshman Abby Hay was eight years old, she and her baseball team were competing in a tournament in Kansas City, Mo. As the only female player on the field, she said the opposing teams’ coaches and other players were blatantly making fun of the fact that she was a girl playing baseball. They didn’t think she was “going to be good.” Hay’s older brother told them to “shut up and mind their own business.” Despite the tormenting, Hay said her team won that tournament.

“You just gotta ignore it and keep playing, and show them that I’m not bad, and I can do anything,” Hay said.

Hay started playing baseball when she was around three or four, beginning with tee-ball. Her brother and father, who is the current RBHS baseball coach, both played baseball. Her father even did so in college. Hay grew up playing baseball but, for the first time, played softball for RBHS last fall. She rendered a significant role in the teams’ first ever Final Four appearance and third place state title. Her primary positions on the softball team were catcher and third base, she said.

Did You Know?
Softball and baseball aren’t too different from each other, the fundamental essentials of the game are the same for both. However, there are some differences. For example, the bats in baseball tend to be longer, have a greater diameter and are heavier than those used in softball. Also, softballs are much larger than baseballs. Lastly, pitching is one of the most notable differences between the male and female sports where, firstly, softball pitchers are much closer to home plate and, secondly, they pitch underhand. Information according to Rules of Sport.

“Baseball has been there my whole life, and softball I just started last year,” Hay said. “I felt like softball was kind of a softer sport, and baseball was a more tough sport that not a lot of people would play, especially girls. It’s more challenging. The people I’ve played with, I’ve played with them since I was like five, so we’re just a big family, and it’s really fun.”

Currently, Hay is the only female baseball player in Columbia’s upper leagues. In the 2017-18 school year, 1,762 girls participated in high school baseball, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), only 0.36% of total high school baseball players. Additionally, NFHS found that more than 100,000 girls play youth baseball. In an article in Time magazine, Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball For All, a non-profit that provides opportunities for girls and women to play the sport through tournaments, camps and teams, said countless girls are “bullied off of teams” as nearly 99,000 quit or transfer to softball before entering high school.

Although she said she had a lot of people standing up for her in the face of adversity, including her mom, brother, father and her teammates, other young female baseball players aren’t so lucky, Siegal said in the same article in Time magazine. Hay plans to try out for the RBHS baseball team this spring but also enjoyed her first high school softball season.

“The night before [softball] tryouts, I told coach I was going to try out. And no one thought I was going to try out, and then I came out,” Hay said. “I’m glad I tried out. I met a lot of really fun people, and it was just a fun season.”

Initially, Hay was dead set on only playing baseball in high school. After a spur of the moment decision, she gave in to the upperclassmen girls trying to get her to join the softball team. Invited to tryouts for the national girls’ baseball team last summer, Hay had to be 16 to play, but at only 14, she said she still went for practice. She also attended a Major League Baseball and USA Baseball development camp called the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series at the Jackie Robinson Baseball Complex in Florida. Hay, after an extensive selection process, became one of 64 female high school baseball players to go to the camp from the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada and Europe, according to an article in the Missourian. Hay said she’s excited to continue her passion for baseball and inspire young girls to do so, as well.

The mission of Baseball For All is to “empower girls to break stereotypes, be themselves and to follow their dreams.” Hay said more girls should venture into baseball and other male dominant sports because “we can do it, too.” She said girls can be just as successful in the sport even though the majority of participants are males. As a result of an increasingly open mindset in female athleticism, the San Francisco Giants announced in January that they hired the first full-time female coach in Major League Baseball history: Alyssa Nakken, a former softball player at California State University — Sacramento.  

“I’m still getting goosebumps,” Nakken’s coach at California State University — Sacramento, Kathy Strahan, said in a Washington Post article. “I always knew she’d do something great, I really did, but didn’t know what because she could do so many things. I think she’ll bring a lot to the organization.”

Similarly, Katie Sowers, San Francisco 49ers assistant coach, became the first openly gay and first female coach in Super Bowl history this year. Sowers, who played football as a quarterback, led the U.S. national team to a gold medal at the Women’s World Championships in 2013, according to an article in Sports Illustrated. In the same article, she advocated for inclusivity in the National Football League, a male dominated sport and conference.

“No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are,” Sowers told Sports Illustrated. “The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.”

Sophomore Anna Stephens takes this message to heart when stepping onto the mat every day. Stephens has been wrestling since seventh grade. Her father was an avid wrestler and immensely inspired by the sport, she said. Stephens said he begged her forever to compete. Currently, she is one of two female members on the wrestling team, a girls’ program that only began last year. Stephens placed sixth overall at the 2020 state meet, becoming RBHS’s first All-State girls wrestler. 

“I’ve been called provocative names, and I just learned how to ignore the name calling and being made fun of and being called a man,” Stephens said. “I had to ignore the situation and just let it slide over my head because I know if I step on the mat and show what I’m made of they won’t call me names anymore.”

Stephens said she enjoys the sport mainly because she doesn’t have to rely on anyone other than herself. She said she is capable of fixing her own mistakes and continuously working independently to succeed. 

“I think at the pace [women’s sports are] moving, having women step up and do more should be kept the same way,” Stephens said. “I think it’s a good thing to show women can do as much as men can and can be equal.”

In cultivating women’s sports, RBHS Athletic Director David Egan said RBHS has struggled to grow its girls’ wrestling program. Initially, wrestling was a co-ed sport in high school, and at the state level female wrestlers would compete against male wrestlers. Last year the Missouri State High School Athletics Association piloted its girls’ wrestling program and only expected a few hundred girls to wrestle at most, Egan said. Across the state, however, Egan said somewhere between 800 to 1,000 female athletes participated. 

“When you provide opportunities and when you provide access, kids will take advantage of it. So, I think it’s a good lesson for schools to try to provide more access and more opportunities to different things,” Egan said. “There’s a financial component to it; you have to be able to fund this stuff — I get that — so those are some of the challenges, but to me it highlights why we need to have wrestling at our middle schools … There’s so many opportunities there to get kids hooked into something.”

What female athlete(s) do you look up to and why?

"I look up to Serena Williams because she balances being a mom and being an athlete and is able to do both at the same time." -Phoebe Morgan, freshman
“I look up to Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky. Simone Biles [because] I used to be a gymnast so of course I was in love with her, and I think she just has a really strong personality and I think she just has a lot of nice things to say. She is very empowering to young people. Katie Ledecky [because] she is a swimmer on the US team, I look up to her a lot because I swim also. I get inspiration from watching her swim.” -Hannah Kuhnert, sophomore
“I look up to Taylor Cummings because she is a phenomenal lacrosse player and works so hard all the time. She’s an advocate in growing the game and selflessly dedicates herself to lacrosse all the time. On top of it all she’s a great athlete and is so skilled.” -Evelyn Wilbur, sophomore

Only 6.3% of high school wrestlers are girls, according to NFSHS. In 2018-19, NFSHS also reported high school participation in wrestling declined for the first time in 30 years, but girls’ wrestling increased by 27%. After becoming one of very few female wrestlers, Stephens said all athletes should have the opportunity to compete in whatever sport they are inclined to, despite gender.

RBHS girls’ golf coach Melissa Coil has coached the team for 16 years, securing 11 district championship titles, seven sectional championship titles, two state championship titles, one second place state finish, two third place state finishes and two fourth place state finishes. With the exception of the 2013 season, Coil has sent a team to state every year she coached. She said there are fewer than 10 female girls’ golf coaches in Missouri in Class 2 of more than 100 programs.

“When I first started, there were probably even fewer than that,” Coil said. “I can remember showing up to our very first tournament, and I’m the only female in the room. I think people just thought I was clueless, which I probably was at that point, but I’m not anymore. And so I think it’s just in my personality. I tend to speak my mind. I also tend to not be intimidated by those things, which I think is probably not what the males expected. So, I have voiced my opinions. I have said my piece.”

Coil said most males think girls are worse than boys at golf. When making decisions, she said female coaches have a smaller voice at the table than their male counterparts. She said she views dismissive male coaches as a part of the “good ‘ole boys club.”

“No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are …”

Katie Sowers, San Francisco 49ers Assistant Coach

“I think the hard thing is when you look at [sports] that make money or get more TV time, most of those tend to be at the collegiate level,” Coil said. “Like, football, boys’ basketball, all those are, you know, tend to be your big money making sports for a university. And so those are the ones that get a lot of [publicity] because money is money, so they fund their programs.”

Coil said she wanted to build a stronger appreciation of golf in the local youth, especially young girls. She then started a summer co-ed golf program about 11 years ago through the Columbia Golf Foundation. In the beginning, only one or two girls showed up. Currently, her camp welcomes 60 girls. She said the growth in high school girls’ golf programs is somewhat attributable to exposing female youth to the sport early on.

Both Stephens and Hay said their passion comes from the sports they play. Competing at a high level allows both of them to empower and inspire other young women who want to get involved in athletics. Although girls’ sports aren’t as well recognized and appreciated as they should be, Stephens said, phenomenal role models — including Stephens, Hay, Sowers and Nakken — and accomplished athletic programs continue to promote women’s sports, not only at the high school level but also nationally.

“It’s hard to get people to come and appreciate you. I don’t know how to change that,” Coil said. “You promote your program and your sport to the people that care and hope that it continues to spread.”

What is the importance of positive female representation in male-dominated sports?

"We need strong female athletes to look up to because everything is all guys. Especially because, when females do sports, a lot of people look down on us because we're girls and they don't think we're as strong. In Bruin Girls, a lot of people don't think that it's a real sport, dance especially. Everybody just thinks we wave around our arms and [just] cheer on the football team; we do cheer on the football team but that's like five percent of all the hard work that we actually put into everything. I think that female representation in sports really helps me and other people that we work just as hard as everybody else and that we can achieve so many great things." -Olivia Guess, senior
“It's important that females are represented in sports because it shows how powerful women can be. This specific industry is so big and influential it is crucial for them to show equality especially because in past times the sports industry was very sexist. Women have been discriminated against for a long time and it's important to show that these females are as good as males and maybe even better.” -Joan Kwon, freshman
“I think it’s really important because it allows for a precedent to be set to where more women are not only encouraged but welcomed and people are being more open to the idea [that not only men can do it]...The sports industry has become more equal and [has given] more chances for women to become involved and it [has shown] that women can be just as successful if not more so than men can. Like, look at the US women’s soccer team they’ve won way more world cups than the men have.” -Gillian Barrett, sophomore

Why do you think it’s important for women to continue participating in male dominated athletics? Let us know in the comments below.

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1 comment

Scott Orr March 31, 2020 at 8:56 pm

Go girls, you all rock! Great well written story. Really enjoyed it and learned a lot

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