Practicing Women

Maybe female athletes will never play like the men. But imagine what they could do.

Historically, however, women haven't asked nearly as much from their physical selves as they could have; they weren't expected or encouraged to do so. Whenever people have defined what's possible for women athletes, they've tended to be insulting. Until the 1980s, Olympic officials, for example, put off attempts to add long-distance track events for women because they were "too strenuous": The marathon wasn't introduced until 1984, 17 years after women started sneaking into races in Boston and New York; the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races were instituted in 1988. It makes you wonder what activities now largely off-limits to women will become tomorrow's popular female pastimes: Football? Sumo wrestling?

These changes notwithstanding, women athletes continue to exist at once as athletes and women; and the qualities important to success in sports, such as competitiveness and aggression, are still not qualities widely considered important to success as a woman. Any defiance of low expectations for women in sports must walk hand in hand with a defiance of social expectations for passive, pretty "femininity."

At least you'd think so. And it did start that way, back in the 1970s. But eventually it has worked out that sports have become a safe haven for women to exhibit and cheer the forceful behavior they do not always feel free to display in their "regular" lives. All the Nike ads in the world have not made it okay for women to be openly aggressive in business--or in dating, for that matter. And more than one feminist critic has pointed out how some women athletes model extreme feminine behavior off the playing field, as if to say, "Don't worry, at home I'm a lady."

Not the aggressive type?: The Lynx's Brandy Reed (left) and Trisha Fallon
David Kern
Not the aggressive type?: The Lynx's Brandy Reed (left) and Trisha Fallon

Strung between these two imperatives, female athletes often must push themselves to do things that come "naturally" to men. "My coaches are always telling me I'm not aggressive enough," says Lynx forward Fallon, a slight six-foot-three at 165 pounds. "I'm pretty quiet, generally; I'm not the aggressive type, so it's something I'm still working on. It's something you have to do day in and day out. You can't say, 'Oh, I don't feel like training today.' You've got to be aggressive every day, whether it be on the court, or on weights, or any type of training you do for your sport. As you do it every day, it becomes natural, and you don't think about it."

Fallon, age 26, has been playing basketball since she was 14; Smith, age 24, since she was four or five. Coaches have been pushing them to develop a combative "instinct" most of their lives. What's strange, at least to me, is that the traditional American method to instill competitiveness in athletes is humiliation. When I shrink at Agler's hectoring--which is no more brusque than, say, the courtside manner of female University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt--I'm not sure whether I'm objecting to the teaching technique or exposing my own "feminine" reluctance to meet the challenge.

"I had a great coach as a kid," remembers Smith, a 1997 Stanford graduate who is fighting for a spot on the Lynx (the 13-player roster is slated to be cut to 11 on June 9). "He was really hard on me--he was a screamer. He always had us in tears. But it made me tougher for things that I've gone through in college and even here, so I really appreciate that." I'd like to believe that a teaching based upon respect rather than shame would result in the same inner toughness. That could be a feminist fantasy. I guess there is a difference, though, between telling a woman she can't physically accomplish something and telling her she can't yet, but could if she'd only try harder. "WE'RE NOT QUITTERS!" is not bad as a slogan for women working to make up ground.

The last half of this century--when women began to play sports in significant numbers--has seen amazing improvements in female athletic performance: A chart mapping world records in any women's track event will show a steep cascade of dropping times, while men's times inch down relatively slowly. Sports sociologists like Dyer and Staffordshire University professor Dr. Ellis Cashmore have begun to talk about women competing with men, particularly in sports such as long-distance running, cycling, and swimming where endurance--something women's bodies seem to be built for--counts most.

Given the struggle the Lynx had with the Generals, any union of the NBA and WNBA looks like a distant dream. (When the USA national team played an exhibition game against the French junior men's national team, Folkl recalls, they lost by a basket.) And that's all right: The point of women engaging in sport is not necessarily to compete with men, but to make inroads into the uncharted land of their own potential. None of the Lynx players I've talked to feel they've reached their peak as players.

"It's nice to be an underdog," says Folkl, "nice to not know what your limits are." Playing with men, Fallon stresses, pushes you toward those limits: "Obviously they're stronger and a bit quicker and more physical, so it gets you ready for teams that play like that. It's hard work--and it improves your game." Folkl, Smith, and Fallon all cite the dunk as the imminent female achievement in basketball. At six-foot-two, Folkl can and does dunk in practice, as do other women in the league, but she has not yet attempted it in a game. She says that right now most women need a step or two to get above the rim, "and most big players aren't going to get breakaways." She laughs. "It's evolving. 'Cause it's only recently that people started saying, 'Hey, why don't you just try it?' And as you keep trying it, you get a technique down."

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