When Are Coed Sports OK?

Last month freshman wrestler Cassy Herkelman made national news when she won her opening match at Iowa’s state championship by forfeit. Her male opponent refused to wrestle her.

This week, Chantal Sutherland became the first female jockey to win the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap, riding Game On Dude, and Danica Patrick finished fourth in the Nationwide Series race in Las Vegas, the best ever finish for a woman in a national NASCAR race.

As a general rule, sports are an institution where the sexes don’t mix, but recent events have shown us that situations are now arising where men and women, girls and boys are competing with and against each other – and in many cases the girls are holding their own.

The question is, when are coed sports OK?

When I played Pee Wee baseball, all of the teams were co-ed. That lasted until age 8, at which point I kept playing baseball while my former female teammates switched to softball. Never again, outside of pick-up basketball games, would I compete with or against girls.

As a general rule, segregation by sex in sports makes sense. There are physiological differences between men and women and boys and girls—differences in size, strength, speed, and flexibility.

korfballTo my knowledge, the only sports that were designed to be coed are mixed doubles tennis, mixed doubles badminton, and korfball. In korfball, teams of four men and four women try to put a ball through a basket atop a 3.5-meter pole. (Because a korfball team must have equal numbers of men and women, every college in the country could establish a korfball program without worrying about running afoul of Title IX.)

Auto racing and horse racing, though they weren’t designed to be coed, are the two major sports in the United States where men and women don’t compete in separate leagues and likely never will. Physical differences between the sexes are muted in these sports, as they are less significant than the differences between the cars the athletes drive or the horses they ride. (In 2005 driver Robbie Gordon actually suggested that Patrick had a physical advantage over her male competitors because she is so much lighter than most of them. That’s probably true, but Dirk Nowitzki’s 7-foot frame gives him an advantage over other small forwards, and no one ever complains. Size and body type are factors in almost every sport.)

In 1976 Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for a NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) race. In 1977, she became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. The following year, she finished ninth at the Brickyard. But in the decades that followed, women remained a rarity in major American motorsports.

Now, a new generation of women has taken strides toward making auto racing a true co-ed sport.

A record four female drivers qualified for last year’s Indy 500. Later that season four women qualified for a NASCAR Truck Series race. While Patrick’s 2008 win in Japan remains the only win by a woman at the highest levels of racing—providing fodder for those who feel that female drivers, particularly Patrick, get a disproportionate amount of media attention and endorsements—women have won the Indy Racing League’s Most Popular Driver award in nine of the last ten years. (Patrick won six times; Sarah Fisher won three.) Patrick has twice finished in the top five in Indianapolis and have finished in the top ten of the IRL points standings in five of her six seasons. Fisher has one second-place finish and one pole to her credit.

Chantal Sutherland is one of several active female jockeys, but no woman since Julie Krone in the 1980s and 1990s has been nearly as successful. Neither thoroughbred horse racing or the equestrian events at the Summer Olympics segregate by the gender of the jockey.

When it comes to mixing the sexes, contact sports obviously are more complicated than horse or auto racing. The wrestler who forfeited his match against Cassy Herkelman cited religious and moral teachings about using physical force against girls as his reason for bowing out. Jasmine Plummer, who as an 11-year-old quarterback led her team to the Pop Warner Super Bowl (and was the subject of The Longshots, starring Ice Cube and Keke Palmer), eventually gave up football because the “boys got too big”. Katie Hnida, the first woman to score points in a Division I-A/FBS football game, reported being molested and verbally abused by teammates when she was a placekicker for the University of Colorado.

Herkelman has three girls’ state titles and four girls’ national titles to her credit. She wrestles against girls when she has the opportunity, but when she wrestles for her school, she must wrestle against boys. Many girls find themselves in similar situations. While three states—Texas, California, and Hawaii—hold girls state wrestling tournaments, other states (including Iowa, where wrestling is a religion) do not. After the forfeit, Herkelman lost her next two matches and was eliminated from the tournament. Maegan Black, another girl who qualified for the Iowa state tournament, also lost her first two matches. But Herkelman is only a freshman—a freshman who won 20 matches and qualified for state—so she’ll probably have other chances. And she and Black are by no means the only girls to have success wrestling boys. In 2006 Alaska’s Michaela Hutchison won the state title at the 103-pound weight class.

coed-field-hockeyGirls aren’t alone in challenging gender norms in sports. Several boys in New England, for instance, play for girls’ field hockey teams because boys’ teams aren’t available.

In an ideal world, schools would field girls’ wrestling teams and boys’ volleyball teams whenever enough students showed interest. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where many school districts are cutting athletic budgets and struggling to hold on to the teams that they have. There aren’t many school boards right now that would approve money for a boys’ field hockey or girls’ football team. Perhaps if high schools continue to trim their athletic budgets, AAU sports and club sports will become more prominent and will give athletes of both sexes a wider variety of options.

Coed sports raise difficult questions and make a lot of people uncomfortable; but they aren’t going away. When those difficult, uncomfortable questions arise, I feel that we should err on the side of opportunity. Parents, coaches, leagues, and athletic departments should give young athletes as many opportunities as possible to exercise their physical gifts and talents and to play the sports they’re passionate about. But we also can’t forsake safety. We need to be mindful of differences in size or strength that could put an athlete at greater risk of injury; and we need to protect athletes from sexual assault and harrassment.

So, anyone interested in putting together a korfball team?

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


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