Monday, February 20, 2012

Women's sports...the journey for equality

When I launched this blog and made a list of topics to write about, one that was at the top was women’s sports. At the time, I did not know what my focus would be, but I knew a few things for sure. One was that I needed to write about it.

This year marks the 40 anniversary of Title IX, the law that states very simply that no person, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
BAWSI girls learning basketball
skills from Stanford athletes
And, if it wasn’t for this landmark piece of legislation, we wouldn’t have seen the likes of Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, Jennie Finch, Brandi Chastain, Tamika Catchings, Julie Foudy, Candace Parker, Rebecca Lobo, Abby Wambach, Cammi Granato, Jessica Mendoza, and Hope Solo, among others.

This makes it a good time to reflect on what this has meant to women and what the future holds.

And, it just so happens that this past weekend was the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) Women and Sports Conference in LA. To kick off the weekend, the IOC showed a video that highlighted all MALE Olympic stars. Yes, you read that correctly. The IOC sponsored a women’s conference and showed a video with all men. It really makes you wonder.

Jennie Finch, gold medal winning softball player, accepted an award and pushed for the reinstatement of her sport in the Olympics. “We are supposed to leave the game better than we found it. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for me and my sport.”
Softball was eliminated as the IOC thought the United States was too dominating. The IOC didn’t take that into consideration in 1992 when the United States fielded the original Dream Team in men’s basketball. The quality of the competition did rise in that sport…chances are it would rise for softball, as well. Again, it just makes you wonder.

There are definitely some promising things happening in women’s sports. Just look to London for this summer’s Olympics. Sebastian Coe, four-time Olympic medal winner (a middle distance runner who dominated in the 1980s) and chair of the London Olympics, has put together a fully diverse staff and his legal staff is 54% women.
And, pressure is building for the IOC to force Saudi Arabia to put a woman on their Olympic team.

We are making some progress, yet as our gal Hill (that’s Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton), said, “We cannot achieve global progress if we leave half the population behind.”
The other thing I knew for sure was that I would talk to Marlene Bjornsrud, co-founder and chief executive director of Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative (BAWSI), who is considered a pioneer and a voice for women in sports.

Marlene has more than 30 years of experience including general manager of the San Jose CyberRays women’s professional soccer team; assistant director of athletics at Santa Clara University; and assistant athletic director, senior women’s administrator, and women’s tennis coach at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona.
BAWSI girls cheering at the
Cure for Cancer game at Santa Clara
BAWSI is nonprofit that mobilizes women athletes to serve as role models of health, hope, and wholeness to girls and women in underserved communities and to children with disabilities. It was founded in 2005 by Olympic and World Cup soccer stars Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy and Marlene to provide a meaningful path for women athletes to become a more visible and valued part of the Bay Area sports culture.

Recently, I sat down with Marlene, and she shared her insights on women’s sports.
PJ: So, tell me about the work you are doing at BAWSI.

Marlene: We are trying to have the women’s athletes depart from their cocoon and see what else is around us. We take the athletes to the neighborhoods where poverty is…we all have responsibilities for the next generation. We try to open their eyes that poverty is everyone’s issue. It does seem like we could do better.

Our biggest challenge at BAWSI is serving the athletes who serve the girls. We talk about this as a staff…it is our privilege to engage the next generation of leaders. One of these athletes could be a doctor, on the city council, or in the legislature. They have the capability to improve the world and do better than we are. We think about who is in our midst.

PJ: The women’s professional soccer league just suspended the rest of the season. Given that you were involved with the other professional women’s soccer league, please share your thoughts on why these leagues aren’t sustainable.
Marlene: Although I haven’t studied this, but I think the NFL went through a couple of interactions…it took a while to gain traction. It is disturbing and disheartening to see this happen in women’s professional soccer. When the WUSA folded it was after 9/11 and it was due to the economy and external things. It was devastating.

The issues in this league [WPS] were internal--the owners were not in agreement. There were issues from Day One. From all appearances this was an internal battlefield.
The WUSA was a single entity, the investments/contributions were the same, and salaries were standardized. It was less flexible.

It’s a shame. I’d love to see them stop chasing the men’s model and figure out what really fits for women, instead of needing to be like the MLS or NBA. It’s not like this is the only business model out there.
I am optimistic that a middle way will be found. They haven’t found the right business model. What is the middle ground? I hope the conversation can be bigger. I hope they can do possibility thinking rather than critical thinking.

I say middle way as it is a great way to look at all the possibilities…ones with risks and those that are sure bets. Then, come up with enough safeguards and enough flexibility. We need to create a league of our own.
PJ: And, what about the athletes who aren’t able to play right now?

Marlene: How is this good for soccer around the world? There was continual training and conditioning in place. The beauty of the league is it gave players another look, experience, and environment to play in. It gave them a different look at their capabilities and an opportunity to be a more fully developed player. This gave the athletes different voices from other coaches…when Pia Sundhage [the US National Team coach] could have conversations with a WPS coach about a player it was like she had tons of assistant coaches. The coaches want to get their players in as many experiences as they can to sharpen competition skills and thinking skills. And, even the intangibles—having relationships with a diverse group. Now, the pool is smaller for playing. They can only play through their National teams.

PJ: Where do you think we are at this moment in the journey of women’s sports?
Marlene: The cliché is three steps forward, two steps back. We’ve taken two steps forward, three steps back. I think we are further behind. Although, without Title IX 40 years ago…we would not be anywhere near where we are today. It is the foundation, the building block we all stand on. I sense we have so much further to go. It’s amazing.

Although, any civil rights issue might be the same. This law falls under civil rights. And, the journeys for women voting, African Americans, labor unions, LGBT…in so many aspects, fighting for rights are the same. It’s as if we never fully get there…who has gotten there?
The Prop. 8 battle in California…to see what it has taken to move this through the courts…sometimes I think it’s a very exciting time to have your eyes wide open about all of these things. We need to remember not to just get mired in women’s sports, which is my calling. It is important to be fully aware of every group considered “lesser than”—the immigrants in Arizona. It’s hard to be there. They are human beings and no different than anyone else. But, the attitude towards them…

I just saw [the documentary] Miss Representation. One thing that stood out was [Lieutenant Governor and former Mayor of San Francisco] Gavin Newsom’s interview. He talked about how we choose to “dehumanize” people with words and policies. And, this happens to everyone except white middle class and above men.
It is important to see who we are in the big context. It’s dangerous to fall into a niche, the Tea Party mentality—where we are only with people who think like us and look like us.

PJ: We aren’t as far along as we’d expected. However, there have been moments, big moments…like the 1999 World Cup Soccer win.
Marlene: There was a big vision with that group [Brandi, Julie, Mia Hamm, Christine Lilly, etc.]—a sense that they felt called to something bigger than themselves. It is big for any athlete to look outside of themselves. Knowing Julie, as I know her now, she was the one always calling them back to the greater good, the bigger purpose—what this meant to little girls. This was their mindset…their calling…their purpose.

We can’t go back, but someone needs to be calling women to something bigger. We need to be mindful that this is the stepping stone. In some ways, BAWSI is taking that voice. However, I have to catch myself…speaking of the golden age. We don’t want to go back, we want to go forward. We want it to be better than the way it was back then.

For more information on BAWSI and their programs, check out their website