Why I find hope in the story of Paige Sultzbach and the forfeited baseball championship

Paige Sultzbach, 15, tried out for baseball because the school does not have a girls’ softball team.

In 1972, an 11-year-old girl named Maria wanted to play Little League baseball in New Jersey.  She tried out for the team and was so good they made her pitcher.  However, the organization’s rules forbade girls from playing, and so she was kicked off the team and her uniform taken from her.  Maria’s family, with the help of the National Organization for Women, sued.

Maria ultimately won the fight (although she was too old to play by the time the case made its way through the courts) but along the way she faced some fierce opposition.  The Little League organization spent $2 million to fight her participation in the league. According to Colette Dowling in The Frailty Myth, the teams actually voted to suspend activities rather than play and entire families marched on the state capitol to protest.  The cost was personal, too, as her family endured death threats and harassment.

I write about the story of Maria Pepe to illustrate how far we have come in forty years.  This past weekend, two of my friends (thanks, Shawna and Nicole!) sent me the story of second baseman Paige Sultzbach, the teenage girl whose presence on the diamond was so offensive that an opposing team chose to forfeit a state tournament rather than play her.

Lydia at Bloomer Girls has some background information on the private school that forfeited the championship:

According to ESPN, the aptly named Our Lady of Sorrows is “run by the U.S. branch of the Society of Saint Pius X.  The group represents conservative, traditional priests who broke from the Catholic Church in the 1980s” after disagreeing with then-recent reforms enacted by the Vatican.  The school does not allow co-ed sports, because “proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty” under those circumstances (er…are they worried that the players will have pre-marital sex on the base path?) and because “Our school aims to instill in our boys a profound respect for women and girls.”

Sultzbach had already sat out the two regular season games against Our Lady of Sorrows out of respect for their beliefs, but she didn’t want to make the same decision for the championship, and why should she?

As you can imagine, I have my share of criticisms of the school’s policy.  For instance, I wonder if the school worries that the boys will fail to have a profound respect for the boys on the opposing team, since they seem to believe that competing against someone in sports and having profound respect for that person are mutually exclusive.

But the fact that this school – a school that adheres to a conservative wing of a religion that is notorious for having a crummy view of women, no less – has made this stand is not nearly as interesting to me as the way people have responded to the story.  I often wince when I read the comments on anything, but I take the hit because a big part of me wants to know what people are saying about a given story.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that the vast majority of people I came across had the same opinion I did, which is that the school’s decision was ridiculous.  Man, woman, older, younger – it didn’t seem to matter.  Most of the commentary I read came from people who thought the school had made a really terrible choice.

What a long way we’ve come in forty years!   The outrage is no longer at the girl who wishes to play with the boys; now it’s aimed at the institutions that cannot accept that society is changing.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I look at those institutions that are resistant to change, and I have to laugh. They seem so silly, don’t they?  Clinging to their traditions that are based in social mores established by people whose bones have long since turned to dust, repeating justifications that no longer make much sense.  I know their days are numbered, as do many of us, and I suspect that deep inside their hearts, these guardians of “tradition” know it too.

I had a similar experience while watching the Masters, and seeing old white man after old white man, dressed in those heinous green blazers, as they talked about the “proud tradition” of the Augusta National Golf Club.  Never before had the phrase “dying order” had such a visible representation as it did in those men.  They may believe they will never admit women into their ranks, but those men will retire and they will be replaced by a new generation of men who will not share their beliefs.  I imagine that in 1988, the board of directors never believed the club would admit a black man, either.

And I thought about it again while reading this post by Rachel Held Evans, in which she criticized older Christians for clinging so tightly to its outdated ideas about homosexuality, and for doing so at the cost of younger Christians, who were fleeing organized religion thanks in large part to the way the leadership has responded to GLBT people.

And I thought about it once again when Running USA released the results from its survey which found that seven million women finished a road race in 2011.  Not to shabby for a bunch of people whose uteruses were sure to fall out if we ran more than a half-mile at any given time.

It can be so easy to think of the world as it is now and become discouraged by the amount of work that remains to be done.  I feel that way often.  Sometimes I think about the world and I feel such despair, such fear that things will never get better.  But then I remember that in many ways, things have gotten better.  Things do get better.  The actions of individuals do have a cumulative effect in the world.  The decisions we make do matter.

Yes, much remains to be done, but let’s also take a moment to reflect on just how far we have come.

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2 responses to “Why I find hope in the story of Paige Sultzbach and the forfeited baseball championship

  1. Pingback: Link Love (16/06/2012) « Becky's Kaleidoscope·

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