Gender Integration: Tiffany Brooks’ Perfect Sports World

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(Stephanie Perleberg is the Communications & Resource Manager for @WomenTalkSports; She is also a Media Studies MA student and National champion steeplechase runner. Perleberg writes on gender issues relating to women in sport).

Last week, the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) ruled that men can no longer pace women in road racing events. Understandably, many women (and men) are upset about this ruling. On one hand, I believe the new rule will help develop a stronger culture within women’s running. Looking within to find pacers, or to find where people are running the fastest, is how the sport will develop.

On the other hand, taking away any record for a rule that was not in place during race time is inexcusable. Many in the running community are actively protesting the change. Paula Radcliffe crossed that line. Deena Kastor did the same thing. Both women used their own two legs to attack the 26.2 miles and break the tape in record times. Yes, pacers might provide an edge, but how much does it benefit the runner? It will be thrilling to see these eager and determined women prove that they don’t need male pacers to run World or American Records.

So where is the line between male and female when it comes to sports? Should all sports be segregated by sex? How about when a guy wants to play on a female field hockey team because there isn’t a male team on which to play? Or a girl wants to play on her high school or college football team? Should a girl be forced to play softball when she is a baseball player?

A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of speaking with trailblazer Tiffany Brooks who is no stranger to gender controversy in sports. An accomplished all-around athlete, Brooks owns a business (Brooks Baseball and Softball Academy) that teaches young girls and boys the games of baseball and softball. She also has a MFA in creative writing and to top it off, she is the first female baseball player to play in the professional California Winter and Arizona Summer leagues. Quite a list of accomplishments.

Tiff AWL vs Yuma -- 2010 Arizona Winter League. Photo credit: Richard Hopkins

I've always found that those with the most interesting lives have the most to share. Brooks is one of those people. She grew up participating in all types of sports, from track and field, basketball, to flag football. She was a born athlete. She could have picked from a variety of sports in which she had talent, but she chose softball - a conventional decision at the time given the fact she wasn't allowed to try out for her high school baseball team.  She went on to play softball at Gonzaga University in Washington, but baseball kept calling her name. So, she made the switch.  

The transition from softball to baseball was pretty easy for an athlete like Brooks. Softball is a quick sport because of the distance between the mound and home plate, and from base to base. “You have to get the ball where it needs to go quickly” she explained. In the beginning her baseball coaches had to repeatedly remind her to take her time,  “[she] wanted to grab [the ball] and throw it and get it over there, but [she] had to relax.”

Despite the fairly easy physical transition between the two sports, there were other hardships upon entering a predominately male sport. Brooks explains: 

It requires, first, a passionate love for the sport to go forward and play what you love in the face of a majority of people who really don’t think you should be out there.”

Although she does play with and know many who are supportive of her, Brooks may understand sexism and segregation in sports more than anyone I know. Her life experience has led her to dream of a sports world she hopes to see in the future.  She shared her dream with me. This dream sports world has inclusion written all over it.

Brooks’ described a time - 200-300 years ago - when it was imperative to to make sure the species survived. A woman’s reproductive track was vital. Now “we’ve got plenty of us on the planet”. Now, we can switch up the traditional gender roles without fear that we will become extinct because some women choose to run, throw, or jump.  Women are stronger and science has proven that participating in strenuous activities will not damage the female’s reproductive system.

It seems that many countries have welcomed gender integration in sports, however several (including the U.S.) are still behind. Sweden, for example, practices Brooks’ dream world. They are inclusive of both men and women in many aspects of life. Why is the U.S. falling behind on this movement? Brooks’ believes it is due to our media based society:

if we can get media buy-in and coverage not just of women’s sports themselves but sports where women are integrated with men [then] once those things become more common place… more accepted.  It isn’t just about the women, but “showing men playing sports that are traditionally female” is a key factor as well. It has to be known that certain sports, such as softball are not just for girls, they are for everyone.

Brooks laid out her vision for me. In an integrated sports world there would be different tiers, such as the “A” tier for the most talented athletes, “B” as the next best, and so on. In an integrated world there would be no hiccups for athletes like Caster Semenya (a South African track athlete who was forced to undergo hormone testing to prove she was female).. It wouldn’t matter if an athlete was male or female.  

In an integrated world, no one would flinch if a woman, like Tiffany Brooks, was the pitcher on a baseball team. In an integrated world, seeing a female on the mound (or elsewhere on the field) would be normal. In an integrated world Tiffany Brooks’ wouldn’t be the only female playing professional baseball. Men would be playing softball with women, women would be playing professional basketball with men and women would be running with men…again.

Brooks’ admits that the idea of integrating genders in competitive athletics is a bit controversial. Regardless, it’s an impressive attempt to level the playing the field. However, questions do arise. Would steroid use in women rise? Would women ever compete in the top tier? Would a woman ever win another Olympic gold medal? Would we see “survival of the fittest”? So many questions are unanswered regarding a sports world of total integration.

The IAAF’s move is a huge step away from Brooks’ all-in-one, dream sports world. So I wonder, is integration the answer? Is building a separate culture for female athletes good…or is building a culture as a sport even better?

 

@womentalksports

changing the conversation

www.womentalksports.com

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