Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sex Segregation in Sport

Richard over at Philosophy, etc. has an interesting post questioning sex segregation in sports.

Is there a principled reason why men and women compete separately in sports? Presumably it allows women to compete who wouldn't stand a chance otherwise. But there are many groups of people who don't stand a chance against the world's top athletes. We don't have a separate Olympic division to accommodate non-African sprinters, for example, in addition to non-male ones. So why is sex the relevant way to categorize people here?
You do see some competitive activities where both sexes compete as equals, car racing, horse racing, and poker, for example.

Now, we do categorize according to other properties sometimes. In boxing and wrestling, there are weight classes, for example. The heavyweight champion would be a likely favorite over the welterweight champ, but the weight classes are necessarily viewed hierarchically in the same way that division I athletics is a stronger league than division III. The difference is more one of style, with the different weight classes, there are different aspects of the sport that get stressed.

I could see the argument being made that in some cases it is the same with sex. In figure skating or gymnastics, for example, body type gives rise to different sorts of athletes who do different sorts of routines. Comparing across types would generate an odd sort of incongruity, so it makes sense to keep them separate. In some cases, the separate communities have turned into different sports, like geographically isolated biological communities evolving into separate species. Men's and women's lacrosse, and baseball and softball are example.

This argument has been rejected in dog judging competitions where beagles compete against beagles, but somehow, they then determine whether the champion beagle is a better beagle than the champion Schnauzer is a better Schnauzer in order to be best in show. I've always thought such decisions bizarre in an apples and oranges sort of way, however.

You might also be able to make this sort of argument for sports like golf and basketball where the women's game uses a different tee box or a different sized ball. There, the games are similar, although the play does tend to focus more on finesse than strength where strength can be a significant advantage.

But then there are cases where the games are not different even though strength can be an advantage. In 1934, a woman named Jackie Mitchell pitched for a minor league team in Chattanooga, Tennessee and in an exhibition game with the Yankees, she struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The following year, a rule was put in place to keep women out of professional baseball. This is the sort of instance that seems problematic. Are women at a disadvantage in a game created by men that stresses advantages that come with a man's body? Yes. But why would that explicitly rule out their participation? It may be a hurdle to success, but why should that become legislated discrimination?

And then there are those cases, like billiards, where the difference seem to make little difference. In these cases, the separation seems utterly unsupportable. Why not allow cross-gender competition where it seems that the two are on a level playing field?

So, is there a good reason to keep the sexes separate in sport?