The Same Field: Should Women Play on Men's Professional Leagues?

by Kaki Flynn
Out in the City

Olympic Gold Medalists, Softball Player Lisa Fernandez Weigh In

The debate about women playing in men's leagues, and the equality of men and women in sports, has been kick-started again this summer, most recently with Michelle Wie missing her fifth cut out of five tries to be able to play in a PGA Tour event.  

The debate was also brought up at Wimbledon . Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King brought up the issue of salary gaps between women and men tennis players, even though the ratings for the women's tennis has been higher for the past five years. At issue as well is the amount of time played on the court - women play three sets, men play five.

Michelle Wie was following in the footsteps of Annika Sorenstam. Neither succeeded, with Annika missing the cut by four strokes a few years ago. The boys vs. girls debate is actually nothing new in the world of women's sports. It was, after all, lesbian Babe Zaharis Dedrickson that set the stage for Annika and Michelle. It was Zaharis that first played in a PGA event 58 years ago.

What’s the deal? Is it good or bad that women are trying to play on the men’s tours, or compete with men head to head? Is there really a huge difference between men and women athletically, to the degree that women can't catch up? Before, women had no choice – there were no women’s professional teams to play on lucratively until very recently, and even with the few leagues that exist, only the top twenty to fifty players in a league are making enough money at the end of the tour to have anything left over more than pocket change.

There is a women’s professional football league, even a team here in Jacksonville, but of all the players you see at the gay bars, none are pulling up in Cadillac Escalades or hosting after parties at their huge houses in Ponte Vedra. You don't see any trying out for the Jaguars, either.

The debate has many angles: Do women have as much stamina as the men? Is there the depth of women interested in sports to build a strong base of female athletes? Even if women can build a league, is there a fan base that can support them? What about differences in individual sports - golf, as opposed to contact sports? Do we need women leagues so that we never, ever, ever have to witness anything as heinous as The Silver Bullets, the all-women's baseball team/swimsuit model debacle?

The debate is worthy of a novel, so this column focuses more on the debate of the physical difference between men and women, and whether or not they can compete at the same level.

Ask almost any female Olympian and National Team member today, and she will have an athletic history that is filled with running, jumping, and playing with the men. 
Golf is not the only sport that has women breaking barriers. Most of the top women athletes you see today played with boys growing up, because there were no competitive women’s teams for them to play on. A lot of them still play with men’s teams during the off-season, when the teams disband until the next national or world team is picked.

I talked to some pioneers in women's sports, and asked them what they thought about Michelle and Annika competing with the men on the PGA Tour. These women have all played with men at some level, whether formally or informally. A lot of these women train with men. What do they think?

Nancy Lieberman, Olympic Medalist, ESPN Commentator
In 1986, Lieberman became the first women ever to play in a men's professional league. She played for the United States Basketball League's Springfield Fame in 1986 then switched to the USBL's Long Island Knights in 1987. In 1988 she played on the Washington Generals team. This is what she had to say:

I think the difference is, between Annika and I when she competed in the PGA event, is that she is already a star. She didn’t  give up her day job. She makes millions of dollars. All she has stated is that she was trying to up the level of the game.

Be better in sports. Be better in school. These are the characteristics that we try to embody in our children. The fact that she was taking on social issues is separate.

For example, when I was playing basketball, I had also played for the summer league. I had played for the women’s league.

I’m sure everybody thought it was a publicity stunt when I played for the men. I didn’t want the publicity. My choices were, play there, or play in Europe. I wanted to play in America, so I played with the men.

We are dealing with the same mindset now.

When I’m playing basketball, I’m playing against six to nine guys that are stronger, while Annika and Michelle are playing with course management.

When Michelle teed off, no one was trying to elbow her, or jumping to block her drive.

When I was playing against the men, my fundamental skills and my technique were better –I had to do that, I couldn’t get by on strength alone.

The PGA guys who are playing against Michelle now should be saying, maybe I can learn something from this woman, something about course management. We having something we can share as well. This is America; we love to debate – who was better – Ali or Frazer, Chris or Martina, that is just part of our growing up.

Let’s face it- men are bigger and stronger. They may hit it 200 yards farther, but they may hit it 200 yards father to the left. The guys aren’t coming on the girl’s tour to get better. Big deal. If it was so easy, why did someone wait 58 years if it was so easy?

That should emphasize that it is difficult to play. You have to be gifted. You have to have the right mentality. You have to be tough as nails.  When I played, I had to shower in their locker room. I didn’t have a separate locker room. I knew if I played, poorly, I they would say, “See? Women can’t play.”

Annika and Michelle will be judged on a score, when in reality, no matter how they play, they are getting better, but we are so in tune with the score.

I think the difference for me, when I played in the USBL with the men for 2 years, is that I had to go to practice every single day with the men, so I had the chance every single day, to show what my skill level was.  It wasn’t just a once and done, so even thought they realized I had some physical challenges, they realized my skills.

I know what I did for my guys – I would stay after practice, and help them with their skills, because they relied more on natural ability.

I used to help a basketball player train. He and I were in the gym everyday after practice, and we would run, run, run, and do everything. I was just messing with him, but he signed a four million dollar contract, and he called me the other night, crying, and thanking me for helping him. 

There are some things – when you are dealing with poundage, and muscle mass, that is just insurmountable when comparing men to women.  In basketball, I was a point guard – making those passes, turning those balls over- I didn’t have to rebound with those guys, I was more of a manager. That would help me a lot.

I played Michael Jordan one-one-one. I knew I couldn’t beat him, but it was a great challenge. It improved my game. It improved my perception. When I trained Martina, we trained everyday with men. We wanted to separate from the women, we wanted to keep the gap big, and we didn’t want them to catch up.

For Annika and Michelle: Shame on people for telling you what you can’t do. People should be encouraging you. There is nothing wrong with risk and reward.Embrace challenges.

Lisa Fernandez, U.S. Women’s Softball Team, Olympic Gold Medalist:

The thing that is neat about golf is that anybody can play anybody. The women play from the men’s tees. The only difference is that power, and that’s difficult, because women just don’t have the same strength.  Men can have more strength in the very top athlete, so the strongest man in the world will be beat the strongest women.

It’s good to be opening up the eyes of the male athletes so that women can be taken seriously, instead of being treated second tier to men. Women can do just as well as men, if not better, in a lot of sports. For example, in softball, we can’t get away with throwing off the wrong foot. In softball, we have to set up, we have to throw.

When it comes to a sport like baseball, guys can sling it to first base.  We can’t do that in softball; we have to be more mechanically and technically correct to make the play.

You see that in all sports, even in basketball, where you see the guys get away with more stuff, but the women have better passing and dribbling skills, as a whole, not player to player – men get away with more.

The thing about golf is it is the women up against the course. If it was me pitching against a men’s fast pitch player, or hitting against a baseball player, I have to get the ball.

Patricia Miranda, U.S. Olympic Team Wrestler, Wrestled on Stanford Men’s College Team

There was a little bit of tension, especially with the seniors, when I started on a men’s team.  They tried to make me quit, in the beginning. How that worked with my personality, though, is it made me not want to quit, and it made me want to be the team captain.

Wrestling is not glamour; it is not a finesse sport. So if you look at someone, and they are sweating buckets, well, you can’t go very long next to somebody like that without realizing that their heart is in it. 

No wrestler gets respect for just walking in the room, but gives respect to those who put themselves out there on the matt when they practice – that is how I ended up fitting in and making it work.

Golf works for competing against the men, because you are competing against yourself, versus other sports like wrestling, where your competitor plays a bigger factor in the competition. You don’t think of yourself as female when you are competing, though -  the adversity is recognizing it as a challenge, not a handicap.

Tara Nott, U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist, Weightlifting
If you compare world-level male weightlifter with a world-level female weight lifter, there is really no comparison. You do have men's and women’s weight classes at the same level, but men can clean and snatch triple body weight, where women can lift three times their body weight.

We work out together -we do the same thing as the men. There are no rules that are different between men and women's weight lifting, but there is no way for women to compete at the international level as a male.  You have steroid use in weight lifting - what do they take? Testosterone. That's more of a male’s genetic make-up.

In sports that are more technical, like billiards or diving, women can be as good. 

I shouldn't be competing against a super-heavy female, because physically we aren't the same. That is why we have weight classes. Does that say anything about athletic ability? I don't think so. In boxing, you wouldn't put a man against the women. Women win some of those matches, but they don't win a lot. It's physical strength.

I definitely think the men are very supportive, though. I think they see us train every single day, they see our work ethic, they see us train as hard as they are.

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