Our Daughters' Choices: If You Let Me Play Sports

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Back in 1995, there was a Nike commercial popularly known as "If You Let Me Play Sports," which featured girls reciting the statistics associated with female participation in athletics. If the assertions are true, your parents hopefully got your ass onto a field at some point because women are 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer, more likely to leave an abusive relationship, and less likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy if they do.

Unless you count running, I've never been much of an athlete. I'm more of the just-grateful-to-be-picked variety when they were doling out the teams at camp. I don't know the rules of most games, therefore, I don't really watch sports either. I'm happy enough to be dragged to a baseball game, but again, it's more that I like being part of something than eager to follow the game. I am more likely to daydream the secret lives of the players than to focus on how many people are on base when a certain player comes to bat.

I wanted things to be different for my daughter, mostly because my mind was influenced by that 1995 commercial and the unspoken message that runs beneath it: If you don't have your daughter on the playing field, she is going to be shit out of luck in the self-esteem department and suffer from depression.

So far, my daughter's obsession with ballet has eaten up all the time that could have been dedicated to a team sport. She just started gymnastics, though her interest in gymnastics seems to stem from the fact that the Berenstain Bears take gymnastics. I'm not sure what will happen with that activity if the bears, let's say, decided their time was better spent studying organic chemistry.

Though, when we were watching the Olympics, she'd turn to me and shiver with excitement as the women went hurtling down the ice trail on their luge. "I would never want to do that, but I loooooooooooooooooooove watching it!"

But is that close enough to letting her play sports?

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With the exception of when the object of her affection, Shani Davis, was on the screen, my daughter wanted to exclusively follow the women's events. I taped her the men's half-pipe, and she watched it for a few minutes before asking me where the girls were.

The one exception to the rule was a certain male snowboarder that she informed me may look male but is "all woman."

I'm not sure I love this route either -- the exclusive desire to support female athletes at the expense of any male athletes. What about balancing it out and supporting the most exciting athletes, the ones that bring the most interesting messages to their game?

She wanted me to fast-forward past Apolo Ohno, Steve Holcomb, and Evan Lysacek, craving Lindsay Vonn, Noelle Pikus-Pace, and -- since she can get pretty indiscriminate as long as the person had a vagina -- any woman whose costume involved sequins and turquoise.

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I love this quote from Johnny Weir, which he stated to explain the fact that his parents never pressured him to conform:

"Every step of my life, it's been one thing my parents had preached to my brother and I (sic). You must always be yourself and always enjoy what you are doing and take no prisoners. You can't care what anyone else thinks because really there is no basis for that in your life. You have to live your life for yourself. So even when I was little I was playing on a soccer team and running the complete opposite way pretending to be a zebra, an ostrich or something. So I have always been like this."

Say what you wish about Johnny Weir -- I think he has a healthy attitude, and it would serve kids well to have a quote of the day calendar spouting his ideas. The people who call him the Lady Gaga of skating sort of miss his point, which is that each person is unique and should never conform, instead following their bliss wherever it takes them without regard to how it comes across to others. All people, insofar as personality, are incomparable because unique beings should have no comparison. Johnny Weir is no more the Lady Gaga of the skating world than Lady Gaga is the Johnny Weir of music.

Hearing his quote made me rethink the idea of letting girls play sports, because maybe it's not about sports at all, but the idea of finally releasing the barriers that kept some girls -- those interested in sports -- from following their bliss. Girls sport teams certainly weren't as prolific and mainstream back in the early 70s as they are now. Generations of girls were funneled into "girl appropriate," home ec-y activities (though there were always a few who luckily broke free of the mainstream pack and followed their bliss). The ones who were naturally inclined to find their bliss through ballet and art and baking were set to go, reaping in the self-esteem that comes from doing something you enjoy -- often times well because if you enjoy the activity, you'll dedicate yourself to it. The ones who were interested in sports but told they couldn't play? How could they build self-esteem when the message sent was this: You're not good enough because of your vagina?

And how much internalized self-worth can a girl build if others make decisions for her? If others tell her that her desire to play sports is unladylike and shunt her off to learn crocheting from grandma while her brothers play tag football? At the same time, I can't see it as healthy if we now berate our girls onto the field in the name of statistics without regard to whether they show any inclination towards sports.

Maybe the statistics associated with girls playing sports has nothing to do with girls playing sports, but instead is a sign of how much we used to hold our girls back and in releasing them to be themselves, we have by default built self-esteem and curbed depression, allowed them to find their voice because they are expressing themselves either on the field or in the art room by following their interests instead of having them dictated by outside sources. Maybe girls are less likely to stay in an abusive relationship or experience an unwanted pregnancy not because they are finally handed a baseball mitt, but this statistic could apply to all people who are allowed to explore their interests with the full support of people they respect behind them.

Five-year-olds, I have learned, have the attention span of a pancake. Today, my daughter loves ballet. By tomorrow, it may be dragon wrangling. Or Cheerio sculptures. Or rugby. Therefore, I can't tell you if she'll ever make it onto the field.

What I do know is that one needs to be prudent to guide instead of lead, to allow a child to completely follow their bliss and learn all the rules necessary for playing the sport or performing the activity while still leaving room to be an ostrich running across the field.

Did you play organized sports, and if so, which ones (and were you born in the sixties, seventies, or eighties)? Did you want to play on an organized sports team but had no opportunities? And what do you think you gained from being on the playing field if you were an athlete?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

Recent Posts by Melissa Ford

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