Back in 2009, I had the opportunity to see the WNBA’s legendary Lisa Leslie play her final game at the Staples Center before her retirement.
I went with a couple of my teammates from my high school’s varsity basketball team and received free t-shirts with the phrase “Pass the Ball to the Girl” bolded across the front. Never had I identified more with a phrase on a simple t-shirt before that moment.
I started playing basketball when I was eight years old.
I joined the YMCA “Y-Winners” league playing on an all-girls team and instantly fell in love with the game. At school, I decided I would get in some extra playing time by joining the boys at recess. But I was met with silence and confusion. The eight-year-old me wondered why no other girls were playing with them. For a moment I considered that I didn’t belong. But I had an itch to play the game and eventually begged the teacher for permission.
Once I stepped onto the asphalt, I thought everything would be easy, like playing “House” with the girls on the other side of the playground. Yet thirteen years later, I continue to experience sexism through participating in coed sports.
No matter what age I play sports with men, I seem to always be put through the same initiation process.
The first sign of this “initiation” is the immediate reluctance on the male players’ faces. It’s 2014, but the stares and eye rolls I receive when I join a pick-up game make it seem like they forget professional female athletes exist.
The cold welcome is a painfully obvious attempt at making myself and other women feel like we don’t belong in the same athletic sphere as men. These stares are often preceded by follow-up questions: “What position do you play?” “How long have you been playing?” and my personal favorite, “Do you know how to shoot a basketball?”
Meanwhile, the constant flow of men rotating in and out for playing time were never asked these questions. It’s automatically assumed that if you’re a male, you have some knowledge of the sport and can readily join in at any time.
The second stage includes a series of painfully obvious barriers men create to keep me from actually participating in the game. It’s not until about halfway through the first game that the guys might even consider passing the ball to me.
I am instantly seen as a last resort.
I register a quick look to the other players completely guarded by the other team and finally, a toss to me. As I take the shot, the players hold their breath. Will I completely shatter their doubts of my playing abilities or confirm what they thought all along? It all rests in whether or not I score the coveted two-point shot. Knowing this is running through many of the guys’ heads builds the pressure in my own mind. If I make this, I get another chance to keep playing in the game. If I miss, goodbye to being treated as an equal member of the team.
As I survey the amount of shots missed by other men on the team, they aren’t punished for their errors or turnovers. There are no consequences for their mistakes. I, on the other hand, will usually be subbed out immediately or, after watching my missed shot, the number of male players willing to participate will suddenly dissolve. This forces the game to end and me to leave.
But if I do make the shot, it would be smooth-sailing from then on, right? Unfortunately, there are more hoops I’ll have to jump through to keep my spot on the team.
Time and time again, I’ll hear “sorry”s being uttered from the opposing male team members because they stole the ball from me or blocked a shot. I always tell them there is nothing to be sorry about. That’s how the game is played. I’m not a fragile doll unable to handle the roughness of basketball. Playing on the high school varsity team had me constantly wrestling the ball out of other girls’ arms, earning battle scars from stolen passes, and bruising from multiple elbows and knees. This was nothing new. Man or woman, I expect no one to hold back.
I’ll never forget what a man on an opposing team did during our college intramural tournament a couple months ago. Not even a minute into the game he immediately dropped to the floor, grabbed his ankle and yelled, “I think I tore my ACL!” No one was near him, and the game had just started. He then whispered, “Now you can make a free shot.” I couldn’t believe the audacity of his “chivalrous” stunt.
The last thing I want in basketball is chivalry. He and his teammates saw playing my team as a joke.
We were the warm up game for the much more “challenging” all-male teams. And because there were women on the court, it was more important to them to be nice to us and let us have a free shot because of the assumption that we couldn’t play very well.
While the men on my team applaud me for scoring, I hear the opposing team exclaim, “Are you gonna let a girl score on you?” as if my gender had something to do with the fact that they couldn’t block my shot. Even men who guard me feel shame. I can see the captain switching players around, trying to match up their strong players with ours.
Once a male on the opposing team is told to guard me, he shows a look of dejection. To the other men, he is the weakest and therefore must be paired with the girl, no matter how skilled she might be.
In their eyes, guarding me is not getting a fair chance to play. Like I’m not even a real player.
Sometimes I’m even used as a “break” from guarding another male on the team. More than once have I heard a man say, “Can I guard the girl now? I’m tired.” At that point I like to give them a run for their money and tire them out. No matter how well I do though, it’s the worst feeling to realize that you’re still looked down upon, even after you’ve played your best.
The worst part is that I don’t even feel like I can say anything about these unmissable instances of sexism. If I point out their actions, they’ll say I’m a “bitch who can’t take a joke.” If I don’t say anything, they’ll think it’s permissible. The scariest realization is that most of these men don’t even register how misogynistic they are.
My scored points are followed by laughter and excuses from the other team but no one speaks up or realizes how degraded it makes me feel. The unspoken motto: You can allow a girl to play basketball with you, but you don’t have to treat her like you would a male player. Women end up being treated as less than equal. There is a huge disconnect between what guys expect of female athletes and what female athletes can actually achieve.
From elementary school all the way up to college, boys are told to be rough, but not with the girls. Even women with experience are questioned and rarely taken seriously in their pursuit of an athletic career.
At Lisa Leslie’s last game, a story was told about how she grew up playing with the boys and constantly fought to have the ball passed to her.
I realized I wasn’t the only woman who was going through this unnecessary routine of having to prove myself to men in yet another aspect of life.
Sometimes I wear my “Pass the Ball to the Girl” shirt when I play in these coed games. It doesn’t make a difference. I’ve been shut out of coed games multiple times because some men don’t think it’s right or fair for men and women to play against each other. I’m constantly being put on a pedestal that no other men are held to, proving myself with every shot made or missed.
But I still keep playing. With every game I will dispel the misconceptions and stereotypes about the supposed inferiority of women in sports. Lisa Leslie became one of the most influential players in women’s basketball, yet she still had to ask for the ball. Women have to ask permission to play with men who are always guaranteed a spot on the court. It shouldn’t be something we have to ask for anymore.