Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Throwing like a girl

The past two Saturdays I've exhausted myself playing in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.  Completely sapped, I came home, scarfed down the easiest food possible (cereal) and crashed on the couch because getting all the way upstairs to the bed took too much energy. My body has been wasted but my heart has been full. 

I get irrationally happy after playing Frisbee. I love the endorphins after a run or a swim, but with Frisbee, the team aspect makes all the difference.  When we get into a flow it's especially a blast.  I feel a bit embarrassed and immature at how much I enjoy it.  At some stage, don't real grown-ups stop enjoying  sports so much?  I guess not.

Theologians would probably talk about this joy I've found in terms of embodiment.  Embodiment is just as it sounds: the human exists in and with a body.  Bodies are sources of our deepest pleasures and our most searing pain.  In our bodies we experience freedom and limitation.  Our bodies shape how we encounter the world. 

When I inhabit my body fully, I feel peace and joy and a sense of rightness.  A phrase I've grown to like is "healthy animal."  I don't think it's going too far to say that Frisbee puts me in touch with God because it puts me in touch with myself as a creature, a body.

You may be skeptical, thinking Frisbee?  Really? Yes, the name makes it hard to take it seriously as a sport much less an inspiration for theological reflection.  But yes. Many activities help us inhabit our bodies: dancing, walking, singing, the list is endless.  For me, it includes Frisbee.  And an important aspect of my sense of embodiment comes from being a body among other bodies: being on a team.

A few words about ultimate Frisbee. First, it's not Frisbee golf.  Athletically, it is about the same workout as soccer.  Teams of seven try to advance a Frisbee down a field by throwing and catching it.  You can't run with the disc.  You score when your team catches it in the end zone.

I learned to throw a Frisbee after college while in the Peace Corps and joined a recreational league in my early 20s in Minneapolis.  I felt, for the first time in my life, the unique thrill of playing a team sport.

I grew up post-Title 9.  Still, mine was in an era and micro-culture where team sports weren't exactly mainstream for girls.  I played soccer all through elementary school but by 5th grade, I was the only girl on my team.  Big suburban leagues for girls did not yet exist. I recall being extremely uncomfortable when the boys made stupid jokes about picking up the balls.

My junior high didn't have sports so when I got to high school and tried to join the girls' soccer team, I didn't have a clue.  I lacked the self-confidence it took to stick it out.  I went to exactly one practice, felt inadequate, and found physical refuge in dance instead.

My relationship with team sports didn't flourish until I discovered Ultimate Frisbee.  I loved it immediately. As I learned to play, a wonderful thing dawned on me:

When I played, I was happy.

I've played in low-key leagues on and off for the past fifteen years.  Until a brief time this spring, where I struggled to keep up with some amazing players in an all-women's league,  I had never played with all women.

My ultimate Frisbee teams have always been co-ed.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this blog: Paige Sultzbach. 

Paige Sultzbach is a 15 year old who plays 2nd base for her catholic school's baseball team. Her school didn't have a girl's softball team and she wanted to play.  So she joined the baseball team, becoming the only girl on the roster. She was a starter as a 9th grader and her team made it to the championships.

An opposing team forfeited the championship game rather than play against a team that had a girl on it. I find it so preposterous that I'm going to say that again:

An opposing team forfeited the championship game rather than play against a team that had a girl on it.


They cited pseudo-ethical reasons for the forfeit:
Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we choose not to place them in an athletic competition where proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty. Our school aims to instill in our boys a profound respect for women and girls.
What irony that a statement about respecting women and girls is used to justify exclusion, one of the basic forms of disrespect.

Most alarming to me about this story is that Paige sat out two previous games because that team had refused to play against a girl.  That's a tough position for a 15 year old to be in.

This happened just a month after Virginia Rometty, the CEO of IBM was not given a membership to Augusta Golf Club - home of the Masters for which IBM is a sponsor - because it is an all male-club.  Augusta's initial refusal to invite her threw into high relief the landscape of gender exclusivity in sports.

In an article about Paige in the Washington Post, the director of the Women's Sports Foundation, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, said:
In real life, these boys are going to be competing against the girls for jobs, for positions in graduate programs or in trade schools...In every other area of their life, they are going to be competing side by side.
Business deals happen on the golf course; the company softball team can be an important means of creating professional relationships.  When these are exclusively male, there is more than participation in sports at stake. 

Still, when I heard Paige's story, I didn't immediately think about the broad social implications of a sports team that wouldn't play against a girl.

Instead,  I thought of how happy it makes me to play Frisbee.  I hoped that baseball makes Paige that happy too.  I smiled at the joy of being a healthy animal and thought what a shame it is when anyone - male or female - doesn't have the chance to join the team.