Thursday, April 12, 2012

Beyond Models: Questions about Female Role Models in Sports.

Name the top three male models in the world. My students struggled to name one. When they said “David Beckham” I said we would put an asterisk by his name; he became popular because of his talent on the soccer field first. His public image as a model came second. 
On the other hand, having male and female students identify their favorite female model was a cinch. An informal debate broke out about who is the most popular and who is the most beautiful.

Why was I asking these questions in my Sports and Spirituality class? The HBO Documentary “Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team” makes the claim that “Women have always carved out their own place in sports. One by one they’ve made their mark as champions—from Babe to Billie and the countless in between. But women striving for a career in team sports have had little opportunity and few heroes.“ 
Ask sports fans who their favorite female athlete is and most will name a woman who has succeeded in an individual sport: Chris Evert, Billie Jean King or Maria Sharapova in tennis, or Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin or Janet Evans in swimming. We know and love female gymnasts, ice skaters, runners, etc. Such success is not to be taken for granted. But, can you name a team of women that have captured our hearts, our imaginations or our disdain in the way the 1980 US Men’s Hockey team did? Or the 1985 Chicago Bears? or the Broad Street Bullies? Men’s team sports even have popular teams within teams, like "Run TMC" (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin) from the Golden State Warriors. Fortunately, the 1991 Women’s World Cup championship team changed the conversation. 

 The documentary states, “They transformed a sport. They found opportunity where there was none and created a new nation of fans. Their legacy lives on in the generation of young girls who take the soccer field as though it were their birthright. Everyone forgot that they were 'chicks'. Nobody knew the impact that game would have, the idea that these were athletes as opposed to female athletes.”
The revolution they caused it not even two decades old, but to some, it feels as though it happened a lifetime ago. And to my students, seniors in high school, their story is largely unknown. They have benefited from the fruits of those women’s labor, but the question about female athletic heroes still looms large. Prior to viewing “Dare to Dream,” I asked my students “Who are your female athletic heroes?” I expected to hear names like Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain. Four of the 28 students named someone. I was surprised. I then turned the question on myself. Who are my female athletic heroes? One of my students wrote
The question “Who are your female athletic heroes” stood out to me. Being a female myself, surprisingly, I had none. I could think of a few professional female athletes: Lindsey Vonn, those two WNBA players from Disney Channel’s “Double Teamed" (2001) and Danica Patrick. But I would not consider those females as my heroes. On my third grade “trading card,” I noted that Michael Jordan was my hero—a male. It is completely normal for a female to look up to a male and vice versa, but it’s unfortunate that females do not have many options. We can argue that males and females are equal, but it is not fully valid until we can name as many female athletic celebrities as female models.
And my student is no different than the women profiled in “Dare to Dream.” Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and each admit that growing up their favorite athletes were men. Foudy said, “My idols and my role models were 350 pound football players and eight foot tall basketball players. I don’t ever remember having a woman who I pointed to and said ‘that’s who I’m going to be one day.” Chastain added, “I wanted to be a football player to be honest with you because my father liked to watch football. It was around so I thought I’ll be a Pittsburgh Steeler.” 

I love the Incarnation. To know that God became flesh and was one of us changes everything. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He’s also my role model and my hero. I might add His mother is too. I strive to be more like them every day. I fail, but with their love, grace and mercy and a supportive community, I hope I make small steps in becoming a little more like them. 

We all need role models and heroes. It shouldn’t matter if they are male or female, but it does. The women profiled in “Dare to Dream” illuminated questions about the need for female role models, not just models. I hope there will be more young women and men who train, compete and excel in the way they did over a span of 15 years. Their story is worth passing on…. 

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