Why Have There Been No Great Women Athletes?

Like Linda Nochlin’s question in her essay from which the title of this entry is taken, this query is not to be taken entirely at face value. Nochlin in her ARTnews essay states that a great artist is focused “on historical analysis of the basic intellectual issues”, rather than centered on “the present and its immediate needs”. Nochlin claims that female and feminist artists possess the “naive” idea that “art is direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms”, whereas, she claims, “Art is almost never that, great art never is.” Keep in mind here that this is 1971 and the quality of “greatness” as it was applied to art at this time was generally limited to a more formalist and modernist approach.

While at first this might seem to have little to do with athletics, lets take a more broad approach to some of these issues. I don’t think it is a particularly large jump to reformulate Nochlin’s thesis to be that there have been no female athletes who have made a truly “great” impact in American sport (I will stick to American here, as this is what my knowledge is limited to – sorry Britons). Certainly, there have been impressive female athletes: Mia Hamm, Kerri Strug, Michelle Kwan, etc. However, right here we can see the first problem. Americans don’t really care about the sports of soccer, gymnastics (only debatably a sport), and figureskating (again, debatably). So, what sports do Americans care about the most? Well, we’ve got the team sports football, baseball, basketball, and hockey in about that order. After that, its probably golf, tennis, boxing, and the like (I’m not including NASCAR as a sport), but those are definitely secondary to the “big four” of American sports. While there are a few popular personalities in that tier of athletics like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, it is exceedingly difficult to make a good case that these sports possess the same (historical and current) popularity and cultural relevance as the big four.

Have their been any “great” sportswomen in any of these four sports? Well, there really haven’t even been any organized women’s teams for football teams until the past few years, so we can safely say no for that one. Only one woman, Manon Rhéaume, has ever played for an NHL team and that was only a couple abbreviated appearances in exhibition games for the Tampa Bay Lightning. There aren’t any notable female hockey leagues to speak of and certainly nothing compares to the NHL in terms of skill. As for baseball, interested women are generally pushed towards softball – an issue we will get to later. This leaves basketball, which means the WNBA. What to make of the WNBA… well, lets put it this way. A friend of mine asked me, while watching a basketball game, how well the best WNBA team would do against the worst NBA team. After some consideration, my conclusion was that the WNBA team would probably score at some point during the course of a regulation contest. There’s just too large of size and strength difference. An NBA team would score every time just throwing the ball into the post and backing down the female defender, whereas a WNBA team could not score in the paint at all and would have to rely exclusively on outside jump shots.

Here, at this point, it is necessary to notice a divergence between art and athletics. Nochlin asserts that “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.” Now, I believe that this is correct – that the reason a woman has not appeared in any meaningful way in a men’s professional league is due to our cultural institutions. However, men do have obvious natural advantages of greater strength and height which, while not important to the creation of great art, is vital to sport. Is the best female player in any of these four sports good enough to play at replacement level? For football, the answer is definitively no. Amateur football for girls is far too early in its development to warrant even brief consideration. How about baseball? The existence of college softball is draining the talent pool for women’s baseball, making the answer a solid no. Hockey is a much more interesting case. I would like to think that the top female Olympic hockey players would be able to skate with some of the lesser players in the NHL. Maybe they could, but the stats of Rhéaume, who goaltended for Canada’s national team at Nagano in ’98 (and thus, was assumedly one of the best female goaltenders of the time), against IHL and ECHL teams (AA teams essentially) were less than stellar. While a WNBA team would get trounced by an NBA team, I think it is quite likely that a few female players could play in the NBA. Though center and forward positions would probably be impossible due to the requirements of height and strength, it is quite imaginable that a current NBA player could adjust enough to be a serviceable to good point guard or shooting guard. Its quite probable they would get shoved around on defense and could be frequently exploited with picks and mismatches, but I still like to hope that the best female players could be better than Eric Snow.

There are currently strong amateur and college systems in place for women’s hockey and (obviously) basketball. Football will most likely get there at some point. Women’s baseball, on the other hand, has a large institutional obstacle in its path – softball. I don’t feel I need to extol the virtues of baseball; they are self-evident enough and, if not, there are a great many writers who have acclaimed the beauty of America’s pastime. Additionally, softball is severely lacking in historical and current (mainstream) interest. Why do women play softball instead of baseball then? The main reason seems to be that women are funneled into softball for what were sexist reasons (women can’t play a “man’s sport” like baseball) and the formation of collegiate softball (institutionalization, as Nochlin describes the construction of such cultural barriers) has meant that this has become the norm for young girls.

Why do I write all this? I think my reason is selfish one: I wish to see sports played at the highest level. This is not possible unless we are drawing from the largest talent pool available. By excluding women from the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL, we are reducing the pool by 50%! I realize, of course, that there are not rules explicitly forbidding women from joining these leagues, but then there were no rules banning black players from baseball in the first half of the 20th century either. Now, there is an important distinction to make; while the Negro leagues had talent that stacked up to that of MLB, women’s talent in the four major sports is not there yet. Because of this, I hope MLB makes some kind of effort to create more girls’ baseball youth leagues and eventually pushes for colleges to create female baseball programs. I don’t see this at all now, but I think this would benefit the long-term health of MLB. Perhaps one day, it will be as unthinkable to have a league without women as we do now to think of a league without black or Hispanic players. While its debatable whether there have been any “great” female artists since Nochlin’s landmark essay, I am hopeful that in the not too distant future we will have some great women athletes.

Blurnsball makes less sense than Australian rules footballAs an addendum, I think it would be fun to hypothesize as to what position in what sport we are most likely to a see a female regular player. Football, I think, is out of the question – except maybe as a punter or kicker. Basketball is intriguing. I am curious as to how much the WNBA impedes a woman’s progress to the NBA. It is not unthinkable that without the WNBA we might have already seen our first female NBA player, probably as a guard. The top talent in female college basketball has to go somewhere, right? While the WNBA might impede a female player’s progress now, it is probably beneficial for the long term development of the sport, at least until full integration could be accomplished (I am hopeful of full integration decades down the line, but it may not be possible or practical for basketball and football or even hockey or baseball). I could imagine a female player in the NHL years from now, probably as a finesse player, at any position. Women’s baseball has the opposite probably of basketball in that it has zero structure currently in place to support a rising female baseball player. However, this might actually be beneficial for a single player. A female basketball player would have to adapt from the lesser talent of female divisions to the much faster and stronger play of her male counterparts, whereas a female baseball player would most likely develop in an all-male environment. Certainly a daunting task for her, but imagine the promotion and marketability of such a player. This wouldn’t be just some gimmick (unlike the first female blurnsball player – see photo right), though I’m sure there would be accusations of such. In any case, which team wouldn’t want this? What sensible marketing department wouldn’t kick their “good ole boy” owner in the balls until he let his GM sign her? Also, who wouldn’t want to see Keith Hernandez explode on national TV upon seeing a female player on the field? He can’t even handle them in the dugout. As for a long term solution for women in baseball, however, it is essential that high school and college softball are phased out.
In any case, because of these reasons, I forecast the first female athlete in one of the four major American team sports leagues to be a baseball player. My best guess would be as a middle infielder, as I think the power demands for a corner infielder or corner outfielder would be too great. A center fielder could be possible, too, but I have no idea about catcher. Even major league catchers don’t seem to be very good, but thats another post.

Arbitrary song of the day: Aphex Twin – “B+W Stripes”


2 thoughts on “Why Have There Been No Great Women Athletes?

  1. They ahve been many.

    You are confised as to WHY the Nike sponsor and media did not CREATE a: Tiger, Lance, Kobe, LeBron, Jordan, celebrity golf, or a Mike Vick.

    That is about TV ratings—NOT sport.

    TV sports are fake.

  2. It is somewhat about TV ratings, but TV ratings are a decent measurement of fan interest. The media does, of course, heavily affect the public interest and it is important to recognize that. As I say in the qualifying statement about the title of the post, it is not to be interpreted directly as the claim that there have been no “great” female athletes (notice the scare quotes). Greatness is defined in Nochlin’s case as in the collective mind of the art world; in this case, we are defining greatness as defined by the collective mind of the sports world. The effect the media has had is definitely important, but here I’m primarily interested in the end result (public interest) when determining the “important” American sports.

    Additionally, this post is interested in whether or not a woman has been a top member of her sport – not just among women, but among men as well. As long as women are confined to their own leagues, it seems to me that they will always be thought of as Division II until they begin to regularly compete against men. While the media did help with creating the megastardom of athletes like Kobe Bryant or Alex Rodriguez, you can’t deny that these players are among the elite of their sports. I don’t think you could definitively say this for any women athletes.

    I’m sure there are certainly excellent counterarguments against this entry, but I’m not so sure that dismissing “TV sports” as fake is a solid case.

    Also, can anyone name some female athletes that have a long term impact on the sports world? I would argue that most Olympic athletes are forgotten relatively quickly or, at best, are remembered every four years.

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