Friday, June 29, 2007

Full Contact: 35 years after Title IX, women are still fighting for the ability to fight

Women's sports may have become more mainstream, but violent, high-contact sports still carry a stigma

Christy Martin is proud of the career she made for herself. Just not so proud she wants to tell every person who asks.

“If we’re on a plane sitting next to someone who asks, ‘What do you do?’ I usually answer with ‘My degree is in education’ and leave it at that,” Martin says.

The fact is that Martin is one of the most decorated female boxers in history and was once the face of women’s boxing — having appeared on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” in 1996 after winning the most entertaining bout on the disappointing Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno card that March.

It’s not that Martin, who boasts a career record of 46-5-2, is reluctant to discuss her sport. It’s the inevitable reaction that spurs her silence.

“As soon as you say you’re a female boxer, the questions go crazy: ‘Why in the world would you want to do that? Why would any woman want to get hit?’” she says.

While Saturday’s 35th anniversary of the Title IX enactment shows how far the world of women’s sports has come, it also highlights an area of continued disparity — the difference between what sports are “OK” for women to play and what sports are “men’s sports.”

No men, no interest

Because of her success, it would be understandable if the differences between acceptable men’s sports and women’s sports never showed up on Martin’s radar. It’d be akin Alex Rodriguez pondering the minimum MLB salary, albeit on a smaller scale — though he has plenty of reasons he could care, he also has 252 million reasons not to.

Appearing on the “Sports Illustrated” cover gave Martin more attention and did more to help her boxing gain mainstream acceptance than perhaps any female combat athlete in the world. She has reportedly made as much as $150,000 for a single fight. Her bloodied face in the 1996 Deirdre Gogarty fight became the everlasting image for the sport and made her an icon.

Sounds like a pretty good life.

But if Martin ever gets too complacent about her lot in life as an athlete, she has a reminder when she gets home — her husband, Jim. As her manager and trainer, Jim is unfailing in his dedication to his wife’s career. Except for one thing.

He’s a male chauvinist.

“[He’s] a lot of a male chauvinist,” corrects Martin. “I was forced on him as far as training me.”

Jim was working for a Bristol, Tenn. businessman as a trainer when Martin was dropped into his lap. To prove how much distaste he had for working with a female boxer, Jim’s initial plan was simple — have Martin’s male sparring partner break her ribs so she would never come back.

The plan never went through — Martin’s mom showed up to the sparring session and Jim dropped his orders — and eventually he warmed up to the woman he would later call his wife.

“I think after he saw that I was willing to listen, I didn’t have thhe attitude that I could come in and kick all the guys’ butts, he lightened up on me,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean he has lightened up on the world of women’s sports.”

He’s not the only one. Even when it comes to sports like golf or basketball, many men have little use for following the women’s game.

“It just doesn’t do anything for me,” says WFAN sports talk host Chris Russo. “There’s so much basketball on, I don’t feel the need to watch the women’s basketball. I’m not going to run around to watch women play. Michelle Wie, I might turn it on for a minute, but, generally speaking, I’m just not that interested. I don’t think it’s the women per se´, I just get enough out of the men’s sports in golf and basketball that I don’t feel the need to go splurge and watch the women play.

“Is it a male thing? Well, I don’t see a lot of women watching it either.”

The question is, “Why?”

Creating an even playing field for women

“Women aren’t supposed to be violent,” Rutgers women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer says. “[But] somebody’s got to be [less aggressive], and it’s not going to be the guy. And yet, what about the guy who doesn’t like those manly sports, or doesn’t want to be violent? [He’s] less than a man.”

Stringer’s path has intersected with the struggle for equality incessantly throughout her career — after all, she debuted as a college basketball head coach 35 years ago, the same year that Title IX was enacted. She may turn out to be best remembered for her role in this spring’s national controversy with radio host Don Imus, but her experiences with the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (among others) conveys a history that dates back well before Imus even knew who Stringer was.

These days, Stringer’s battles in basketball are less about tolerance and acceptance than they are about exposure and interest. By and large, women who play basketball have gained the approval of mainstream society today, making the next step about sharing the media coverage and the revenue generated by the men’s game.

But that doesn’t mean Stringer doesn’t understand the uphill battle that other female athletes face in trying to gain popular acceptance.

“Sports in itself is the one last domain of male dominance,” she says. “We know that women are not going to be as strong as guys, and it just falls in line like everything else — ‘I got that and you don’t.’”

That’s not to say that Stringer — or most people who support women’s sports — are claiming women can compete on the same field as men. Stringer admits that a woman won’t be able to dunk like Shaquille O’Neal anytime in the near future; Martin says a woman should never get in the ring against a man.

In reality, it’s about taking women out of the men’s domain and creating a separate arena of competition — one that provides an even field and equal opportunities for women. It’s a step that sports such as soccer and basketball have begun to take, but the contact sports still lag far behind.

“Ha, that’s funny,” says Ann Marie Saccurato when asked if she can make a living by boxing. Saccurato, who lives in White Plains, is the WBC women’s lightweight world champion. “I pretty much pay to box: I’m currently ranked No. 1 in my weight class in the world, and I’m lucky if I see $5,000 on a fight paycheck — and that’s for two title fights. Out of that, I’ll probably walk out with $2,000 or $2,500 after paying for all the medicals, after paying off my coaches, my cut man, anybody who works my corner.

“Honestly, I’ve never been in this much debt in my life.”

That requires a full-time job as a strength and conditioning coach, where Saccurato works early mornings and late nights sandwiched around her afternoon training schedule. Most days, she wakes at 4:30 a.m. to head to the gym for work and doesn’t return until 10:30 at night. Most of the time, she’s doing it so she can fight bouts that will pay her closer to a couple hundred bucks.

Meanwhile, even some low-level professional men’s boxers can earn several thousand dollars per bout (though there are also thousands who fight for three-figure purses as well).

It’s a burden that most people can’t tolerate.

“Financially, it’s hard,” the 29-year-old Saccurato says. “I know what fights I want right now, before I take a step back, and hopefully I can get those fights in the next six months to a year, and [then] probably take a look at taking a step back and doing my job.”

No support for contact sports

Women’s boxing doesn’t even have the worst of it.

At least in boxing, there are trainers and promoters who are looking to make a buck — and in order for them to cash in, the boxers have to get their turn.

The women who play professional football have no such luck.

While more and more girls are popping up on high school football teams across the country — including the younger sister of Jets center Nick Mangold, who played on the offensive line for her Archbishop Alter (Kettering, Ohio) High team — there are few who pursue the tackle version of the sport beyond the youngest levels. And those who do receive little support in their efforts, both monetarily and assistance-wise.

“Football is my love, especially because it’s something that people said we couldn’t do, we shouldn’t do,” says Crystal Turpin, general manager of the New York Sharks. “I have to support [the women’s sports movement] even more because we can do anything and the idea that we can’t is just going to make me work harder. …We have to make liars out of them.”

The Sharks, part of the Independent Women’s Football League, have become one of the premier teams in women’s tackle football, and they are doing their part to let people know football is for women, too.

Along with Sharks owner Andra Douglas and the help of the Giants, Turpin helped organize the first NFL Junior Player Development clinic for girls in March at Giants Stadium. She believes this will help spread the word, as well as spur new playing time for girls in middle and high school.

“I don’t think we have a pool to grab from and that’s upsetting to me, because we should,” says Turpin. “It’s important because women want to do this. When you get a girl that calls you and says, ‘Can you come out and see me play? I’m playing on the boys’ team,’ that’s just wrong. She shouldn’t have to do that. She should have a league of her own. She should have a women’s league somewhere.”

For adult women, there is a choice — along with the IWFL, there are at least two other national women’s football leagues (the Women’s Professional Football League and the National Women’s Football Association) for players to choose from.

Like many women’s boxers, though, these athletes pay to play rather than get paid. And most girls aren’t even aware of the opportunities that are available.

Sharks defensive tackle Shayna Pinckney said she didn’t know about women’s professional football until she was almost 20.

“It’s just part of the fabric of our culture and something that pulls us together to root for a common goal,” she said. “And for that to be taught and given the chance to girls in high school is really important because you don’t want to feel left out of something that is a part of our American culture.”

Breaking down patriarchy

It’s not solely the fault of men that women are often left out of the discussion when it comes to contact sports. After centuries of patriarchy and reinforced stereotypes, many women still believe in the principles that women should not participate in anything involving violent contact.

“It’s been so long that we don’t know any other way,” Stringer says. “We’re happy to see our 2-year-old son try to throw a baseball and he throws it four feet and he’s the next big baseball player or the next great football player. You probably wouldn’t think that of a little girl who might throw that same ball.

“If you have a doctor’s outfit and a nurse’s outfit, you don’t expect your son to put on that little white hat.”

“Before, we didn’t think a woman could run a marathon — her body pressure would implode or something,” says Olympic bronze medalist wrestler Patricia Miranda. But now we know that they can. “So now, we can picture a woman running, that’s OK. But a woman fighting, a woman getting bruised up is a later-developing concept for people.”

Miranda — who wrestled against men while at Stanford and finished with a 3-11 career collegiate record, including one win by forfeit — had to convince her father that it was OK for her to wrestle by promising she would keep a 4.0 grade average. Her dad reluctantly agreed, lamenting that the school wouldn’t keep her from hitting the mats.

“I told him, ‘This is America, Dad, you can only sue them if they don’t let me wrestle,’” she says with a laugh.

Like many female athletes, Miranda has had to do plenty of work to remind people that being an athlete doesn’t make her any different than another person — or another woman. The questions she has to answer reaffirm that for her often.

“‘Do I do it in mud? Is there oil involved?’” says Miranda, who received her law degree from Yale this spring. “And, ‘Oh, I thought you’d be a lot bigger.’ People have the image of the WWF/WWE kind of thing.”

For other contact sports, the sexual element might be removed, but the stigma remains.

“I think that’s the biggest misconception is that there’s something wrong with a woman that would want to play [football],” says Pinckney. “My teammates and myself are well-adjusted members of society — lawyers and teachers and students and artists.”

“At first maybe people thought it was a sideshow or a freak show,” says Martin. “And now I feel like me, professionally, in boxing, that I’ve crossed over — I think boxing fans and boxing people accept me as a boxer, period. Not a female boxer or anything. Christy’s a boxer.”

Awareness starts with NCAA, ends with changing view of women's bodies

The real way to accomplish what Christy Martin has — being known simply as an athlete who happens to play a women’s contact sport — is to start from the top, according to Brown University assistant wrestling coach Michael Burch.

“We want to see fully funded women’s varsity wrestling teams at Division I, II and III levels all over the country,” he says. “We want that college opportunity.”

Burch isn’t your typical wrestling coach. Before he was hired at Brown, where he has been for six years, he was fired from his head coaching position at University of California-Davis in 2001. Earlier this year, he reached a $750,000 settlement with UC-Davis to close a six-year lawsuit that said he was fired for supporting the Title IX rights of four women wrestlers on his team.

In many ways, that puts him at odds with fellow wrestling coaches, who feel that the equal-opportunity legislation and its application have led to the unfair elimination of many college wrestling programs.

Under Title IX, schools have to provide equal opportunities in athletics for men and women — including scholarships and funding.

Because of Title IX, many colleges and universities have cut men’s programs to stay compliant, rather than take on the cost of adding extra women’s programs to match. Non-revenue sports such as wrestling are the first to go, and since wrestling programs don’t have women’s teams, they are often the easiest for schools to cut.

According to the wrestling Web site, there have been 445 college wrestling programs eliminated since 1972, a fact that causes many in the sport to blame Title IX interpretations for the reduction in opportunities.

“Yeah, it feels funny that a lot of my colleagues don’t agree with me,” Burch said. “I do feel marginalized to a degree because of advocating for women’s wrestling and Title IX when, basically, all the wrestling coaches are crying about Title IX destroying wrestling. But I just don’t buy it. What they mean is that it’s destroying men’s wrestling.”

Instead, Burch would like to see the NCAA add women’s wrestling programs — a costly move, but one with the potential to have a profound societal impact.

“If they’re fully funded, those programs are going to carry with them scholarships,” he says. “And scholarships will start the interest at the high school level. If girls are going to get their education paid for through wrestling, their parents are going to be at their high school’s door saying, ‘We need a women’s wrestling program.’”

With that, Burch adds, there must be a greater realization: that the entire way that women and men are perceived — through their different body types — has to be thrown away.

“This kind of change in athletics is so targeted at us changing our view of women’s bodies, the nature of women’s bodies,” Burch says, “that I think it’s not just the next step in equality for women’s sports, but one of the very next steps for people understanding true equality for women in society.”

“I see some small important steps that are taking place.”

Of course, that’s what has been said for the last 35 years.

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