March 25th, 2017


Women's sports history, what to wear, and when to cross the center line

My Dad listens to the It's Only A Game podcast and recommended really interesting episode about the history of the sports bra. The sports bra? But it was tied in with so many other themes about sports, and women's participation in sports, it made for a fascinating story. Sometimes the little things lead to such big stories.

It was an interview with Lisa Lindahl. In the early 70s she loved running but it was uncomfortable, so she and her theater costume-designing friend started brainstorming. They needed a bra that was comfortable, supportive, and she had a third poignant goal: she wanted it to be modest enough that she could take her shirt off when she was running, like she'd seen her male runner friends do on warm sunny days, enjoying the breeze. Once the design was in place her challenge was convincing sporting goods store owners to sell them, these guys looked at her like she was crazy, "You want me to have BRAS out on display? We're a sports store!" She told them they had jock straps, so what about jock bras?

It was controversial because everything about women's sports was controversial. Why should women have a place in sports? If God wanted you to run why did He give you breasts? Besides, for decades before that, there was all this concern about women "over-exerting" themselves. I had to do more reading about this. She'd made a comment in the interview about girls playing basketball without crossing the center line... WHAT? It was a tiny quip but I had to read more.

So here you go friends, meet Six on Six Basketball. Played mostly by girls and only through about the 1950s and 60s, each team had six players: three forwards and three guards. If you were a forward you stayed on the half of the court with the opposing team's basket, if you were a guard you stayed on the half of the court with your team's basket. Dribbling any distance wasn't allowed. You could bounce the ball once then had to pass it. Nobody thought girls should be running up and down a basketball court, or maybe they just thought any boys sport needed a watered-down, less intense version for girls to enjoy it.

I shot Dad a text to ask if he remembered this and he just said there weren't girls sports at all when he was in school, so I suppose we should be grateful that something existed.

The history of women's sports is full of these stories. At the turn of the century scientists worried that women would over-exert their reproductive organs if they participated in too much activity during their periods. There's only so much a body can do. Our future baby-having was in peril. How did this apply to laborers, I wonder? Did we just not care about them? Women were working in farms and factories, but we thought physical activity was dangerous? It's ironic now that we've found out how important it is to be in shape when you're pregnant. I go on walks now, but when I was pregnant I HAD to walk, stretch, be in some kind of better shape, otherwise I could immediately tell. Physical activity was hard, but missing physical activity made me feel even worse.

Back to basketball... here we are this month all watching men play the NCAA tournament. There is a women's tournament too but the bracket contest is never as interesting, why? Because the teams are too easy to pick. Try it sometime. There aren't 64 schools that really invest in their women's basketball teams so there isn't the depth, there isn't the "who knows!" factor of the men's bracket. It's 2017 and Connecticut has won the past four years. As the rest of our week here unfolds there will be Baylor, Maryland, and Stanford up there as contenders, as always, occasional upset but not that hard to call most of the final four.

Incidentally, I think there is one sport where women's rules are still a bit off. That sport is women's hurdles. In track and field, men's hurdles heights increase from 33" to 39" to 42" in junior high, high school, and college, respectively. Women's hurdles go from 30" in junior high to 33" in high school and stay there.

Given the fact that the average man in the US is not even 6" taller than the average woman, it doesn't make much sense that mens' hurdles are 11" higher than women's. Men's hurdling is a genuine challenge. Women's hurdle races are a sprint. We especially noticed in the 90s when Gail Devers just took everything, she was so fast at 100 meters it didn't matter to her whether the hurdles were there or not, she still won.

There are three people in the world who have noticed the discrepancy and care about it: me, my high school track coach, and my dad. Dad has powerful memories from his transition from high school to college when the 39" hurdles he was used to suddenly went up to 42" - hurdlers train to waste no energy with extra height, he claimed he could knock a dime off a 39" hurdle, he was shocked to hear women's hurdles just stayed at the same height forever.

That's a detail for another day though. For now I'm just happy women are allowed to run. The world has realized we deserve fitness too, and are strong enough to do great things.