Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
Asking athletes about things besides their play has historically been challenging. Frankly, asking them about their play can also be challenging, but at least in those situations they’re usually obliged to respond. But talking about anything else, especially anything that might fall under the broad category of “negativity,” is often shrugged off with insistence of focus on the game and happiness to be there.
It’s particularly true for women athletes, who not only are rarely allowed — by media or by the wider culture — to focus solely on their performance, but are perpetually confronted by both sexism and questions about fighting sexism, or what it means to play sports and be a woman, or just how inspiring it is that they exist. To try to quickly move past such questions and concerns is understandable; to carry latent frustration about having to listen to them over and over even moreso.
Women’s sports https://t.co/5dbjou4s1q
— sam fischer (@samfischer52) July 22, 2020
Social media has heightened the intensity and frequency of such unwelcome intrusions, but it’s also increasingly given women athletes a broader, more sympathetic platform through which to express their grievances. No longer do complaints about inequality have to be mediated via a generally white, male sports reporter; instead, players can express themselves on their own terms.
WNBA and NWSL players have arguably led this movement, with mostly positive results — drawing attention to inequalities that they otherwise might have accepted with a sigh. NCAA women’s basketball players, too, flexed their social media skill and willingness to exploit it to draw attention to unfairness during the tournament this year, making TikTok videos about their barren workout facilities that went viral around the globe. Increasingly, women athletes of all stripes use platforms like Twitter and Instagram to express completely righteous indignation that still has a seemingly endless well of inspiration.
Yesterday, for instance, Sam Fischer, a professional softball player and veteran of Team USA, got a solid (online) dunk in on baseball analyst Rob Friedman, who goes by the handle “@PitchingNinja” — so called because he aggregates and analyzes pitching footage, mostly from MLB players. Friedman made a video of Giants pitcher Tyler Rogers that spliced several of rogers’ pitches back-to-back, all featuring his unorthodox slider (thanks to Fangraphs’ Meg Rowley for the terminology and clarification) that appears to rise as it approaches the zone. He captioned it, “Tyler Rogers, Rising Sliders 😲.”
It was likely the emoji that frustrated Fischer and countless others, and its implication that a pitcher throwing a ball so that it appeared to rise was jaw-dropping. Such pitches, called rise balls, are elemental to fastpitch softball, which is why Fischer quote-tweeted his video with the phrase, “Welcome to the softball club.” Friedman probably knows what rise balls are, considering his level of expertise and the fact that he has (occasionally) posted about softball in the past. And it’s probably fair for him not to make the connection while analyzing Rogers’ slider, which requires a somewhat different technique given that it’s thrown overhand.
But it’s just as fair for Fischer and her peers to yell into the void about how they feel ignored, and how profoundly irritating it is that the challenge posed to batters by the rise ball — which has long been a cornerstone of the highest tiers of softball pitching mastery — is somehow still surprising, or impressive, to a self-anointed “pitching ninja.”
It is another reminder that no matter how much work they put in, their sport and the totally unique skill set it requires will likely always be deemed second-class to baseball — in spite of the fact that skill set is no easier to acquire. Men being deemed exceptional for doing things that women do regularly and without a mote of fanfare is not new, but that doesn’t mean it stings any less. When Jennie Finch toured the country striking out baseball players with her rise ball in the mid-aughts, people were surprised. If she did it today, they would still be surprised. That is the thing that makes women athletes and the people who root for them want to tear their hair out, every single time.
When you’re not paying attention, it’s easier to be surprised. North Texas’ Hope Trautwein made national news when she struck out 21 batters in order on Sunday — the first time any Division I softball player has thrown not just a perfect game, but as one clever commenter put it, an impeccable game. “Seeing it on ESPN, I think I could have cried,” Trautwein said afterwards. The sheer glee of spending your life on something and being recognized for it, albeit briefly, is something most women athletes don’t expect, after all. Friedman, for his part, didn’t tweet about Trautwein’s feat — someone replied to my RT of her highlights requesting his analysis, for whatever that’s worth.
Long overdue catharsis is way better than nothing.