What We Talk About When We Talk About Gendered Sports

Here's a radical idea: baseball, softball, and volleyball don't need to be such gendered sports. Anyone can enjoy them.

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.

Softball is, in America, mostly played by girls. Baseball is mostly played by boys, and girls are generally discouraged from participating. Softball is a lot like baseball, but with a bigger ball, smaller field, and underhand pitching (hence, “throwing like a girl”). Those differences contribute to the perception that it’s easier and thus more appropriate for girls, who are — as we all know well — wrongly thought to be born bad at sports.

It seems, on its face, despicable. And to disdain softball and volleyball, or to ignore them not out of sexism, but because you don’t believe people should be encouraged to play specific sports based on something as arbitrary as gender, can seem like not just the correct choice, but the righteous one. 

athletes unlimited softball high fives

There are certainly more people who dismiss softball because it’s mostly played by girls and women than who have galaxy-brained themselves into dismissing the sport because its existence seems sexist.

But it’s an argument that speaks to the kind of kneejerk, vocal reaction to superficial unfairness in sports that can make a lot of progressive-minded people — including myself, over my last decade or so of learning about the sports world — look pretty dumb. I’m thinking, for example, of a brilliant friend who told me he would only watch college football because the NFL is so corrupt. Or seemingly well-intentioned people who try to prescribe the WNBA with a million solutions for profitability that are either obvious or have long since been tried. 

To be clear, plenty of the sports world is as unfair as it seems (see: all the previous editions of this column) — like the fact that in America, girls are funneled into sports like softball and volleyball and away from ones like football and baseball. There’s a long, mostly sexist history that’s led to that status quo. But deriding women-dominated sports doesn’t do anything to course-correct. It just means that functionally, you’re doing the same thing as the sexists who would call them less-than.

And they’re not! Volleyball is insanely fast-paced and fun to watch; compared to baseball, softball is too. The smaller field and bigger ball make it a great fit for TV, and the level of competition both at the college level and in nascent professional leagues like Athletes Unlimited makes it enormously compelling. As a totally biased observer, it’s my favorite sport to watch.

That’s what both the sexists and the people who ignore softball because of its perceived sexism miss. It wasn’t actually designed as an easier version of the sport for Ladies, it started as an indoor version of baseball to be played in the winter. Both genders played both softball and baseball when they were founded — it was only after a few decades that some powerful sexists started to hew a gendered divide between them. At its core, though, softball is just a different sport than baseball, no better and no worse on the merits of the game itself. 

The way sports get gendered is also a local phenomenon. Men play volleyball and softball, both in the U.S. and even more internationally. There’s a professional women’s baseball league in Japan. In countries where soccer is the most popular sport, it’s often women soccer players who face the most sexism rather than women basketball players or — as in the U.S. — women baseball players. The same combination of performative, athletic machismo and nationalism manifests differently in other places, a reflection about how it’s not actually about the sports themselves at all but about how sexism manifests in local culture. 

Fighting to make sure every child has access to any sport they would want to play no matter their gender, race, class or sexuality is a crucial battle that has only become more urgent in recent months. Understanding that battle means lauding women who play baseball and football in America in spite of the enormous barriers to entry for them is an easy win, if you’re a generally progressive-minded person (and, for all but the most red-pilled, if you’re not). 

athletes unlimited volleyball airtime

But paying enough attention to understand how girls and women have made the most of the athletic opportunities they’ve been given — while carrying the understanding that their source is sometimes shrouded in an unsavory, sexist history — requires a more nuanced approach. You can know that girls are very intentionally kept out of baseball and pushed into softball, and also know that many girls and women (and boys and men) love softball and have dedicated their lives to the sport — which has arguably a more uphill battle for respect than any other major college sport. 

There is, thankfully, an easy way out: Simply enjoying a good softball or volleyball game has no prerequisites at all.