Keeping Score: Playing like a guy

I’m not sure how the phrase “you play ball like a girl” became the ultimate sports insult, but the idea behind it — that a guy’s masculinity should be questioned when he “plays like” or is beaten by a girl — is alive and thriving today. We saw it in the Fox Sports list of women athletes who compete against men, in HBO’s documentary Kick Like a Girl and now on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where a female tennis player helped her boys’ high school team sweep three major city tournaments this year.

After transferring from a school in Florida, Hannah Berner joined the men’s tennis team at Beacon High School, simply because there was not a women’s team for her to play on. Well, that and the fact that she’s so much better than other girls her age.

“I prefer playing with guys,” she told the New York Times. “I have an unconventional game for a girl. I try to go on the court and play like a guy.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that she left some sore losers in her wake — 16 losers out of 18 matches, to be exact. The Times quotes two opposing coaches who argued that her “gender unnerved her opponents” and that playing against her is a “lose-lose situation,” because “if [an opponent] wins, he’s supposed to win. If he loses, he lost to a girl.”

The idea that men are supposed to win when playing against women is drilled into children at an early age. In Kick Like a Girl, it’s not just the young boys who say things like, “I thought, ‘We’re playing girls? We’re going to cream them!’ But in the end, they creamed us. It was pretty surprising, I thought.”

The mother of one of the girls on the soccer team said, “These poor boys. If they beat us, they were supposed to. If they lose, it’s embarrassing.”

Why is it embarrassing? Why were they supposed to beat you? How does an eight-year-old boy decide his team should cream a girls’ team based simply on gender? It’s the height of absurdity, especially in pre-pubescent male and female athletes, because their muscular development at that age is almost identical.

The sentiment behind the assumption, of course, is that winning and losing in sports is not about athletic prowess, but about masculinity. If a girl can out-serve a boy, out-kick him, out-score him, out-swim him, out-run him, it must be because he isn’t “man” enough, or that she is just abnormal.

I have coached the same little league basketball team since the girls were in first grade. This year they are in sixth grade, and for the first time ever, my best player lost a one-on-one game — against a boy. Later she told me she threw the game on purpose on her mom’s advice. My little point guard had a crush on the boy she was playing against. When I explained to her that you don’t have to pretend to be bad at something to make a boy like you, she said, “If you’re really good at sports, people think that you’re a freak.”

Worldwide, women are getting better and better at athletics. It is evidenced in the parity that has finally come to the world of women’s basketball, in the increased popularity of women’s professional sports and in the continued gap-closing in men’s and women’s elite track events. Why, then, do you think society still perpetuates the myth that boys are simply supposed to be better than girls at sports?