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Empowering Women in Sports

A "Partnership" Model of Sports

"Now that women have increased opportunities to play with men, are they playing like men?" asks athlete Mariah Burton Nelson. Nelson damaged her knees playing basketball, buying into the no pain, no gain" philosophy. She required bilateral knee surgery. "Even at the recreational level, I sometimes see men brutalize each other in the name of victory," Nelson observes.

Professor Mary Duquin, who specializes in the psychosocial aspects of sport, describes how the "no pain, no gain" attitude puts the health of athletes at risk. "An insensitivity to bodily well being is evidenced not only in training and dieting regimens but in the valorization of athletes' willingness to sacrifice bodily health for victory. This socialization toward bodily sacrifice has contributed to an increasing rate of sport injuries among youth: annually more than 1 million in basketball, 900,000 in baseball, 500,000 in football, 110,000 in gymnastics, and 105,000 in soccer."

As an alternative to the "winning is all" attitude that ignores pain and injury, Nelson describes a new "partnership" model of sports in her book, Are We Winning Yet? How Women are Changing Sports and Sports are Changing Women. In this model, "teammates, coaches, and even opposing players view each other as comrades rather than enemies. Players with disparate ability levels are respected as peers rather than ranked in a hierarchy, and athletes care for each other and their own bodies.

However, Nelson cautions that in respecting all ability levels, players should not settle for mediocrity. "If you don't practice, and don't slide into base [for fear of hurting the first-base player], and don't lunge after the ball, and don't allow anyone to lead, the excitement and skill can be drained from the game. Players are deprived of the rich experience of playing the best they can, as hard as they can.

When physical education professors Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter applied the concept of the "female" sports model, as they call it, to intercollegiate sports, they came up with this list of principles:

  • The "student" portion of the teen studentathlete is the more important.
  • Student governance of campus programs and student involvement via student athletic associations are healthy, viable phenomena.
  • Winning is great, but can be compatible with the growth of the individual.
  • The greater the cooperation and mutual interest between the academic and athletic aspects of college experience, the better.
  • The improvement of the student as an athlete is less important than the improvement of the student as a healthy, contributing member of society.
  • Selection and fostering of a specific sport are based on the perception of participant interest and the sport's ability to provide positive experiences for the student.
  • Women, women's sports, and men's minor sports are necessary for the proper development of a balanced and responsible athletic/academic complex.
(Empowering Women in Sports, The Empowering Women Series, No. 4; A Publication of the Feminist Majority Foundation, 1995)