Pitch and the Argument for Gender Neutrality in Sports

Kylie Bunbury as Ginny Baker on FOX's Pitch.

FOX recently came out with a new series, Pitch.  In it, Ginny Baker becomes the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, the San Diego Padres.  And fittingly, she was given the number 43 by her team - which is one more than the number 42.  For those who are unfamiliar with baseball, the number 42 was famously worn by Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play for a Major League Baseball (MLB) team (the number 42 is retired in all of MLB in honor of Jackie Robinson).  Another point, the MLB is an American men's only professional league.  And even though the San Diego Padres are a part of that league, Ginny Baker's character is a fictional one.

That does not take away from the debate that is going around; whether sports should be gender neutral.  Instead of having the Nigerian soccer team and the Nigerian women's soccer team, that there only be a Nigerian soccer team.  PS:  ever wonder why the Super Eagles are not referred to as the Nigerian men's soccer team, but just as the Nigerian soccer team; yet a distinction is made for its women's counterpart.  That is just a sexist observation that I have picked up.  Any way.

The official trailer for the new FOX series, Pitch.

Personally, I have no issues with sports being gender neutral.  But there are some people that might have issues with the idea, which I can only hope to answer some of their hypothetical questions.

The first question I am going to address is the issue of interest in sports with regard to women.  About 2/3 years ago, I & my girlfriend at the time were having a debate about why women's sports aren't as popular as the men's.  She said it was sexism, and I was like, 'no it's just the x-factor that is missing' in women's sports.  And if I recall correctly, I remember saying that women just aren't as good at soccer as the men are.  My arguments were a counter to her sexism claims.  But come 2/3 years later, I admit, sexism is a pretty good reason as to why women's soccer is not as popular as that of the men.  And when it comes to interest, I have observed when I watch women's sports that there tend to be more women in the crowds as opposed to men.  It got me thinking that maybe the reason women do not show as much interest in sports according to us men, is because from an early age we form our men only little clubs of sports with no women allowed.  

There is also an issue of inclusiveness in sports (be it on race or in this case, gender).  When we were little boys playing street soccer or cricket, it was always a no-girls-welcome zone.  And if a girl was persistent in her pursuit to play with the boys, she was either ridiculed by the boys or other girls as being not girl enough or whatever.  Because there is a clear lack of inclusiveness that starts from an early age, women grow up not showing any interest in men's sports (but we men only see that lack of interest because we are only concerned about men's sports, while not seeing the high interest in sports by women for women sports). 

The other question is, are women as good as men at sports?  Given the chance, I believe they are.  Racism & sexism are a lot alike, as my ex-girlfriend has taught me.  They are both backward evils that we ought to rid society of.  Like racism, sexism is used as a tool to fight against inclusiveness.  Imagine if Brazil's Marta grew up playing in the same system that bred Ronaldinho.  I sincerely believe that it would have moulded her into a much greater player, who is able to go up against any male defender and probably beat them.  All that is needed is a chance for a woman to be proved wrong, or right, that she too, is as good if not better than her male counterpart.

The third question is the issue of strength.  Naturally, women aren't as strong as men are.  With that said, how then, will they be able to compete against men?  Maybe in individual sports they might not be able to compete with men.  But in team sports I believe that they can compete.  Stamina/strength in all men is not constant.  I am a man, but I'm not as strong as Hulk Hogan, no!  My favorite team sports is soccer, and I'm going to use it as an example of how strength & sports are not at all correlated.

Neymar Jr., is not the strongest male soccer player in world soccer right now.  He certainly does not look like it the way he is easily brought down by defenders on the field.  Alongside Pepe of Real Madrid, Neymar Jr. is no equal in terms of strength.  But the fact that Pepe is a stronger player does not stop Neymar Jr. from easily going past him.  Because he lacking when it comes to the physical attribute of the game, he has adapted other attributes like his high technical skills that aid him in taking on more physically imposing players than him.  A woman, too, can adapt her game to compensate for probable inferior physical attributes.

Not all women are for gender neutrality in sports.  As we have seen the debate around Caster Semanya of South Africa at the Rio Olympics and throughout her whole career.  Other women athletes were speaking up against what they saw as her having an advantage on them because her body is able to produce and absorb an excessive amount of male hormones.  So, maybe when it comes to individual sports, gender neutrality will never be a thing.

Gender neutral sports is something that would probably never happen, but then again, it's a debate that likely to never go away either.  It's a needed debate.  Girls need not be shamed in wanting to play soccer rather than playing house.  Boys need not get shamed either when a girl is better than them in a sporting field.  Because, honestly, we are not born with a set of gender roles written across our foreheads; these are things that we learn as we grow up in this world of our forefathers and foremothers.

Oh, by the way, it's a great show & I recommend that you tune in, if & when you can.

Edward-Mekondjo Nailenge is African by birth, but a citizen of the world by choice. He is an opinion writer at aKoma.  He can be reached at edward.mekondjo@protonmail.com

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