Nineteen years ago today, Manon Rheaume suited up in a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey and took the ice for an exhibition game as a goalie. She was the first woman to try out for an NHL team, and the first one signed to a professional hockey contract. She was twenty years old.
Rheaume had already knocked down a few gender barriers by that time. When she was eleven, she was the first girl to play in the International Pee Wee Hockey Tournament of Quebec. She had played in the Quebec Junior Hockey League. And after her short time in the NHL, she went on to play even more hockey, many times as a part of a professional men’s team.
Her performance in the two games she played was not particularly spectacular. In her first game, she was on the ice for one period and allowed two goals. My friend and coworker Rod Gipson, a former sportswriter in the Tampa Bay area, covered that game and said her signing was a bit of a circus, a stunt meant to draw attention to the fledgling Lightning, which had been founded that year.
This isn’t to take away from her accomplishments, which are incredible and awe-inspiring. Hockey is a challenging sport at any level, but to play as a goalie in Canadian men’s leagues? That’s astonishing. (And say what you will about minor leagues, but if you’ve ever watched minor-league hockey, you know those guys are hungry. They don’t fuck around.) No way around it, she’s an inspiration. She continues to be an inspiration even though she no longer laces up, thanks to the Manon Rheaume Foundation, which provides scholarships for young female athletes.
Rheaume’s story caused me to consider the question of women playing alongside men in professional sports. It’s a pretty common discussion among sports fans, for various reasons. Some people think that will be the sign of true parity, when women and men can play alongside one another on the same professional fields. Others use the paucity of women in men’s professional leagues as evidence that women simply are not worthy of attention and admiration as athletes.
(For more reading about women in men’s professional leagues, check out ESPNW’s in-depth series on this very topic. Great reading, although the comments are…very internet comment-like. Yikes.)
I’ll admit that, once upon a time, I thought it would be most excellent to see professional mixed-gender sports. I was excited when I learned Cheryl Miller, for instance, had been drafted to play basketball in a men’s league. I thought that the best way for women to be considered legit athletes was to have them compete on the same playing field as men.
I’ve changed my mind on this, though. I’m not so sure women need to play with men to earn parity. Part of it is because I am simply not sure the majority of female athletes can actually physically compete with male athletes in the major sports. It’s not a matter of skill as much as it’s just a matter of actual physical dimensions. For instance, WNBA players tend to be much shorter on average than NBA players. The tallest woman to ever play in the WNBA, Margo Dydek, was 7’2″. (She recently passed away at the age of 37.) Meanwhile, the NBA has had several players who are well over seven feet tall. Skill and speed and agility can only only overcome so much, you know?
But what we have seen is that all-women’s sports leagues have the ability to capture the attention of sports fans. The idea that all-women’s sports leagues are of interest only to little girls and feminists is definitely dying. I mean, all you have to do is look at the excitement generated over the Women’s World Cup, and how that has carried over into the WPS. My friend Robin wrote a really excellent blog post about this earlier in the week:
Like everyone else in the country, I watched that awesome YouTube video of reaction shots to the end of the USA/Brazil match, where women and men in bars and living rooms throughout the country went totally wild over the final two goals of the game. To me, a key part of that last sentence is “and men”- it reinforces my lifelong belief that for sports fans who are about the game rather than the beer, snacks, and drama, good sports is good sports, period. It doesn’t matter who’s playing the game; it matters that the game is worth watching.
She goes on to write about attending a Boston Breakers match against the magicJack:
What was so surprising to me, besides the general awesomeness of the game and players themselves, was that the seats were filled to the brim with a really broad variety of sports fans. There were serious Breakers fans (known as the “Riptide”), many of whom were shirtless men with their chests painted in blue and white, the Breakers’ colors. There were female former soccer players-turned-fans, and gaggles of queer ladies who had turned out to gawk at the attractive ladies on the field (guilty!). I was moved to tears by a large contingent of Japanese fans who had turned out to wave their flag for the Breakers’ Aya Sameshima, a member of the World Cup champion Japanese team who plays in Boston because her club was derailed for the 2011 season due to the tsunami in her home country.
I’m not going to share more, because I want you to go read her excellent post, but I will say that she talks a bit about growing up as a competitive softball player in Mississippi, and how the lack of prospects for her beyond her youth league caused her to drift away from the sport she had so loved.
That lack of opportunity for development in women’s sports has played a major role in the lack of interest, because the women who do end up rising to the top of their sport have not had the chance to intensely hone their skills against equally talented competitors, not the way their male counterparts have.
It’s no mistake that soccer has become the first team women’s sport to really capture the imagination of the American public. Chris Sprow wrote, in ESPN: The Magazine, that women’s soccer has had a “head start” compared to the rest of the world. He compares Brazil’s Marta, who came up in a culture that did not have room for female athletes, to Mia Hamm:
Marta was discovered by chance playing in mostly men’s youth pickup games. By contrast, Mia Hamm was playing for the U.S. national team in 1987, when Marta was just 1 year old. Nurtured by an American system that offered youth leagues that fed into middle school, club competition, high school athletics and the NCAA, Hamm dominated a sport that in the U.S. doesn’t challenge any preconceived notion of machismo.
Sports journalist Wendy Parker elaborates on the role of development programs in the rise of women’s soccer:
After their college careers were over, and with no pro league in the U.S. at the time, Hamm, Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and other key figures of the celebrated 1999 World Cup-winning team benefitted from extended residency camps that few women’s national teams enjoyed. This created the atmosphere for their famous team-first ethos, and gave them time to develop first-rate fitness levels and their competitive edge.
As I’ve paid more attention to women’s sports, particularly soccer and basketball, it’s become apparent to me that what is needed is not female players on the men’s pro courts. (Now, women in the coaching staff, like Nancy Lieberman? Or in the front office? Or in the broadcast booth? Totally different story.) What is needed is a shift in cultural attitudes.
When we take female athletes as seriously as male athletes, when we provide them with opportunities to play beyond high school, when they have access to athletic development, they become the kind of athletes we as sports fans want to watch. As more and more of those athletes make their way into the professional sports leagues, the games and matches will become more exciting to watch. And when we watch the games and matches, the money follows.
I still think it’s cool whenever I hear about ladies who can hang with the men, but I no longer think that’s what it will take for female athletes to be taken seriously in this country.
What do you think? Should female athletes still strive to take part in men’s professional leagues?