Thursday, July 11, 2019

Playing with the boys - and the girls

This essay is not about girl power. Or boy power. Or equality or differences or politics, although it could be about any of those. Rather, it is about a shifting landscape in the sporting world, one that has evolved over decades and generations. One that was on full display last weekend during the final game of the World Cup.

When my mother was in high school, she played basketball. Her uniform included a skirt, and only certain players were allowed to cross half court. Mom is pretty sporty and later became an adept skier and tennis player – and, in her retirement years, a golfer – but that skirted basketball team was her only option for any sort of organized sport during her growing-up years. Boys and girls did not play together.

I grew up during the Title IX era, when the doors of opportunity in sports had been thrown open to girls across the country. I played lots of different sports – sometimes with co-ed teams, sometimes with girls-only teams – and harbored Olympic dreams, like sports-playing kids everywhere. Those dreams, however, did not include playing soccer – my favorite – beyond school. Because there was no such thing as women’s soccer in the Olympics until 1996, the year I graduated college. The first Women’s World Cup was played in 1991. The U.S., led by legend Michelle Akers, won. But I didn’t watch, because the game wasn’t televised.

Last Sunday my children and I joined some 16 million television viewers across the country (and many millions more tuned in via live streaming) to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team win a record-breaking fourth World Cup title. Several million more fans watched around the world, not just this game, but every game of the four-week tournament. (Nearly 90 percent of all homes with televisions in the Netherlands – the U.S. opponent in the final – were tuned to the game.)

My kids will watch soccer whenever they come across a game on TV – women’s soccer, men’s soccer, college, professional, MLS, WNSL, Bundesliga – if there’s a soccer game on, they’ll find it.

They have played soccer since before they were in school, starting with kicking the ball around the yard, then moving into the organized rec program as kindergarteners. While larger towns and programs with more children sometimes separate boys and girls right from the start, my kids have played on co-ed teams most years.

My girls think nothing of stepping onto a field that includes boys. My boy thinks nothing of stepping onto a field that includes girls. That is how it’s always been for them, and for the boys and girls they’ve grown up playing with. Sometimes the fastest, most skillful, toughest players on the field are boys. Sometimes they’re girls.

As far as I can tell, the kids I have coached over the last seven years don’t treat me any differently than they would a male coach. This generation – at least the kids around here – is simply used to both boys and girls playing, and to both moms and dads stepping in to coach.

Now that my kids are middle school aged, their teams are often split by gender. But when my daughters occasionally helped out my son’s travel team this spring, nobody treated them any differently than they would treat male players. This weekend, my younger daughter will play in a tournament on a co-ed team.

Are there differences, in general, between boys and girls? Of course, and these are more noticeable as the kids get older. Still, those differences vary as much by team and age as they do by gender and individual personalities. I know that some girls don’t like to play sports with boys. And I guess there are some boys who don’t like to play sports with girls.

I think the important thing is that they all get to play – the boys and the girls. I remember, as a soccer-loving kid, learning about Pele and Maradona, watching their moves, aspiring to be even a little bit like them. Eventually I learned about Michelle, then about Mia and Julie and Christine and the rest of the group that came to be known as “the ’99-ers” – the women who won another World Cup and inspired a whole generation to take to the soccer field.

Some members of that inspired next generation just won another World Cup. There were little girls – and little boys – watching all over the country, all over the world.

Now, girls don’t have to stay on their half of the court and wear a skirt to play sports (although skirts are fine). Now, girls everywhere can dream of playing soccer on a world stage. My daughters have dozens of soccer players who could be their idols. They study Tobin’s killer moves on the field, watch to see how Becky controls the back line, aspire to be like Alex and Megan and Rose – and Christen and Carli and Julie.

Then they go out to the yard or the field and play with whoever else is there – boys or girls, it doesn’t matter, as long as they get to play.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 12, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

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