My mother, the bowling league champ and Sierra Club hiker, still looks bemused when I talk about sports. She doesn’t think she’s ever participated in sports, and she no more associates me with sports than with diamond mining. As a child I stayed inside to read. In junior high I used a broken leg as an excuse to sit out PE class for two months after the cast came off. By high school, competition was part of the suburban ethos I left behind when I set off for a commune in Oregon.
I made my first foray into sports when I arrived at UCSB as a transfer student in 1979. [Note: I wrote this for the UCSB alumni magazine in 1999, when I was working on the International Encyclopedia of Women and Sports.] Rowing, I thought, okay. At least I wouldn’t have to stand up in front of people. I wouldn’t be able to make a mistake about which goal we were aiming for. And there were no balls.
The 5 a.m. crew practices didn’t worry me, but I had never participated in any sport by choice and the whole idea worried everyone who knew me. Friends thought I was kidding. My brothers didn’t believe me. But I was healthy, energetic, determined – I would, I could, learn to row.
Crew was a new sport at UCSB and there’s nothing like a need for numbers to lend a sense of welcome and camaraderie to a team sport. Most of the women at practice were real athletes, strong and confident. While there were a few other strays, who’d come out of curiosity or because crew would look good on a grad school application, I was the only sports virgin.
I not only had to learn a sport but how to train for a sport, with running and weights. I ran at dusk, hoping to attract as little attention as possible, and on my first time out someone yelled from a passing car, in a exasperated tone, “Pick up your knees!!” That was one of the best pieces of advice I ever had. It doesn’t just apply to knees, or running. Once you decide to do something, move. Don’t hold back. Never, never shuffle.
I made it through the quarter. We learned to row in the swimming pool, and then on the lagoon. We ran (I was last, but I lifted my knees), we went to the weights room (where the men tried to stare us down), and the coach made us run three miles uphill on one of the roads outside town. To my joy – and the astonishment of my teammates – I did not come in last. Almost, but not quite. I had stamina, if not strength. We went out in an eight on Lake Cahuma and made it back to shore. I didn’t capsize the boat or lose the stroke. Survival without humiliation was enough. My teammates and the coach were tolerant, and even encouraging.
I tried new sports after college. In London, forays into sport meant leading a double life. Giving dinner parties on the evenings I wasn’t practicing aikido and karate. Working in publishing by day and helping organize a softball league at weekends. But I made friends and loved the sweaty camaraderie that developed during two hours on the mat or on the field, as well as the obligatory sessions in the pub afterwards. Both martial arts and softball were immigrant sports and attracted people from around the world. The Artful Dodgers, the softball team I managed (my teammates quickly realized that my greatest strengths were not evident at first base), came from Australia, Colombia, and Canada as well as the United States.
Today, much of my publishing life is spent in the world of sports, and I’ve learned that the role of sport in society goes far beyond my modest endeavors. Sport elicits strong feelings. Many people see sport as hopelessly stupid, crass, or corrupt. Others see sport as an unquestioned good, a moral pillar.
I knew from my own experience that recreational sport helps to build community, but the importance of sports extends into many other areas of our lives. Throughout human history, sports have create shared languages, and shared passions. Sports show what a culture values: competition or cooperation, achievement or adventure, physical prowess or self-discipline, speed or endurance. Sport also reflects how we resolve conflicts, and how we think about our identities as male or female. Because people pay so much attention to sports, they have become an arena where important contemporary issues – such as cheating, drug use, violence, celebrity, sexual harassment, and the use of technology – are played out, and sometimes worked out.
And sports is global. I’ve learned about camogie (an Irish women’s game), buzkashi (Afghan goatdragging), Finnish baseball, bicycle polo, and every form of football, from association football (known in the US as soccer), to Australian, Canadian, and of course US football. Sport at its best serves another social purpose, building a global consensus around issues such as women’s participation, preserving traditional cultures, and improving access to recreation facilities for all members of society.
While American sports like basketball (and softball) are spreading, just as British sports did in the last century, the reverse is also occurring. Sports that few Americans have heard of—sepaktakraw, for example, an important Southeast Asian footbag sport, and of course martial arts of many kinds—are spreading to the US and Europe.
My recent work on women’s sports has opened yet another world: medieval smockracing, Victorian endurance walking, turn of the century women bullfighters, women athletes in Islamic countries, gender equity, and sexual harassment. But my enthusiasm for sports hasn’t turned me into a television spectator, an audience for Olympics sponsors. I still want to participate, not just watch, and my primary media is still bound within hard covers. My mother wouldn’t have been surprised to see me on Saturday afternoon, reading a Trollope novel while my husband and son watched the Connecticut Huskies and the Lady Vols. But even in Trollope, I found myself looking for sports, and finding them, too: tilting at the quintain, co-ed archery on the lawn, and ladies’ riding to hounds.
29 March 1999