Ontario athletics body does the right thing, reluctantly

Earlier this week the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) changed its gender equity policy, allowing girls to play on boys’ teams. The decision follows a Human Rights challenge by 17-year-old soccer player (and fellow defender) Courtney Greer.

Regular readers know how I feel about this issue (Yay for co-ed sports!) so I’ll not wax poetic about inclusivity today. That said, the coverage and public response to the story would indicate that this is a divisive issue. Go figure.

From the “totally unscientific” pile we have the CBC.ca poll that ran under the story “Gender equity: Girls on boys’ sports teams?” and asked “Should female athletes be allowed to play on boys’ sports teams? Does allowing girls to compete on boys’ teams take girls away from girls’ teams?” At the time of my vote 50% had responded ‘Yes’,  45% chose ‘No’, and 5% were undecided.

Some of this is in how it’s all framed. “Girls on boys teams” says it all. Think about how differently this would read under the headline, “Human Rights Tribunal supports inclusivity in athletics”. Or “Ontarian athletics bigwigs sheepishly admit oversight and celebrate dawn of a better policy for all”. Or something.

Remember, though, that this is 2010, and we’re Canadian. We would never come right out and say girls don’t play as well as boys (it would be discriminatory, not to mention impolite). Instead we get this admittedly creative and off-puttingly paternalistic spin on why all the hubbub:

Even though the OFSAA has changed its policy, it is still not completely on side. Doug Gellatly, the federation’s executive director, said lawyers advised him that Ms. Greer would probably win her case. He said the new policy diminishes the value of girls’ sports in schools. “We were basically forced into this by the Human Rights Tribunal,” he said. “We don’t think it’s a good thing, no, because what does it say about girls’ sport?”
– “Female soccer player gets to play with the boys,” The Globe and Mail

Girls’ sport is underfunded and undervalued. But that sorry state of affairs predates this human rights challenge. Segregation wasn’t magically creating opportunity for girls’ sport, so girls who wanted to play at a higher level (of skill, of funding, of support, of glory) would have to kick at the turf ceiling.

And now that Courtney Greer has broken through, all the papers seem to be able to talk about is what it means for girls’ teams, or boys’ teams. They’re really missing the point here – that point being that teams maybe shouldn’t be gendered*. That teams maybe should be built around skill.

I play in a co-ed league and serve on that league’s executive. Gender equity is a constant issue, and requires thoughtfulness, fairness, and attention. In among the discussions of women’s recruitment and retention, of differential needs, of comfort and accessibility, there lies this truth: gender does not indicate skill. Indeed, year after year our membership watches as some of our female players routinely kick the asses of some of our male players. And even at this level (we are an adult league) I hear the bewildered refrain of a dying sentiment: Wow, she’s good.

There’s an international obsession with the way athleticism and gender fit together, and generally speaking, the discourse on the topic is immature. We’re like primary school children: wide-eyed at the very existence of anyone built not exactly like we are. The bullying treatment of Caster Semenya (by the press and the ruling bodies of her sport) is a sad testament to that. But that is another post for another day.

Today I leave you with this question: when you look at this image do you see something threatening or degraded or substandard? Or do you see a step in the right direction?

A soccer team

A soccer team. Image lifted from the CBC story and in all likelihood a stock photo.

* For simplicity’s sake, gender is used interchangeably with sex in this context. The difference between sex and gender – and how this relates to sport – is a broader (and thornier) discussion. The events surrounding Caster Semenya’s win last year and the consequences for her and her sport really highlight just how ill-equipped and ignorant we are when it comes to thinking about the intersection of gender and sport.



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5 responses to “Ontario athletics body does the right thing, reluctantly

  1. Jack

    You nailed it once again. The way general media presents the story, the team remains a “boy’s” team even with the (reluctant) allowance of a female player. It is presented as though this is a temporary crease in the natural order of things that will be ironed out when she grows up and joins a bridge club.

    It’s all about language. People consume these stories without questioning the words. “Boy’s team” just slides right down the mental gullet like pudding after dinner. The same applies to the word “tolerate” when applied to cultures, skin colours, or sexualities not one’s own.

    Folks, “tolerance” is not “acceptance” and “acceptance” is not “inclusion”.

    I’ve enjoyed spectating at many of your league’s games and I’ve witnessed many a butt-kicking, both administered and received by people of various gender configurations. Out on the field you are all simply, and gloriously, soccer players.

  2. Noelle

    I reacted to this article on a purely practical level.

    Having played OFSAA sports for five years in high school, I immediately thought: “If many of the best female players went to play on the male teams, the female programs would suffer tremendously.”

    Granted, not all girls will want to play on boys’ teams, even if they’re allowed. But I’m 100% positive that if any girl (especially in high school) was even considering trying for an athletic scholarship, they would have to/want to play on the boy’s teams.

    And then instead of having Girls teams and Boys teams you would have 2 divisions: Open (i.e. competitive) and Women’s (i.e. recreational).

    Practically speaking, isn’t that exactly how this thing would shake down?

    • ksenett

      Yes, probably that is exactly what will happen. But that’s not a reason to refrain from making the challenge.

      I’m suggesting that there’s a deeper problem to be addressed (the way we define athletes by gender).

      This ruling is not the sole, complete answer. I guess I see it as a baby step in the right direction.

      What if you asked your question differently? “If many of the best players went to play on skilled teams (made up of female and male players)…” what would happen? Would there be no male players on the recreational teams? Would there be no funding or support for recreational sport?

      It would/will(?) take time for us to stop equating female athleticism with substandard game play, to stop seeing men’s sports as competitive and women’s as recreational, but I think that removing the barrier of automatic segregation by gender is a move towards that.

      These things take time. Of course there will be consequences – both negative and positive – of this ruling for girls and boys in sport. But ultimately I think it is the right thing to do.

      By the way, thanks for posting – your perspective, as always, is welcome.

  3. Pingback: Update on Iranian girls football team – and it’s great news! « Personal S.A.

  4. Pingback: Personal best: the politics of sex and sport « Personal S.A.

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