This school year, very intentionally, I became a flag rugby coach. It was a favor for another teacher who was a little worn and tired. Though she loved the game and the girls, her workload and commute could no longer accommodate a pretty hefty coaching gig. So, she asked me to take the reigns of our middle school team. Because she’s my friend—and because I needed the sweet money that would come with it—I said yes.
I teach at a public school in East Harlem. An all-girls school with a predominantly Black and Hispanic population. A vast number of our girls are eligible for free lunch. Not exactly the demographic people usually associate with the Australian-English-New Zealander sport of rugby. But these girls are passionate about it. Eventually, everyone else in the neighborhood was, too. We’d run from our school to Central Park for practice, me and all these little brown girls, and people on the sidewalks would stare. After a few weeks, people started clapping for us. We didn’t win games, but we at least gave our competitors a run for their money…and the majority of our competitors were boys.
I couldn’t help but think yesterday, as our little team sat at the Mayor’s Cup Tournament, of the movie “A League of Their Own,” the guilty pleasure of every woman over age 25. Women playing baseball. Not such a bizarre concept in 2011, but in the years of World War II during which it was set, the idea came to everyday Americans as near anarchy. It was more than an homage to women breaking barriers; it was also about women making choices.
Something no one wants to talk about with women in sports is that playing a sport gives a woman power, not just physically but also emotionally, mentally, and intellectually. In “League,” Dotty (the brilliant Geena Davis) and her little sister Kit (the brilliant Lori Petty) both live lives that are forced upon them. Dotty plays the pin-up-esque wife of a serviceman; she holds down the fort while he’s away and plays baseball in her spare time. Even though she becomes the star of the women’s baseball league, she quickly throws it away to go back to her wifely duties when her hubby returns from the battlefront. In the tradition of a good Hollywood ending, she returns to the league because it’s something she and she alone wants. Kid sister Kit has lived her life in Dotty’s shadow. Kit’s supposed to be less attractive, more talkative, more annoying, and (though no one says this directly) we are lead to believe all of these reasons are why she’s still single. She chooses to stay exactly who she is, which leads to a lot of fights and terrific tension with other characters in the film. But it also showed me that you can be uncompromising in who you are and still end up happy and fulfilled in the end.
Remember the Nike commercial, which I call, “If You Let Me Play?” (See the commercial here) You know the one: all the little different-raced, beautiful girls on the playground recite statistics about what will happen to them if you let them play sports. “If you let me play sports, I will like myself more. If you let me play sports, I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to. If you let me play sports, I will be more likely to finish school. If you let me play sports, I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me.” It gave me goosebumps when I was 14. I watched it again this week on YouTube and cried my eyes out. Don’t we all deserve that? Don’t we as women deserve to know in our bones that we are creatures of value who have the fundamental right to be empowered?
To bring this all home—because I feel as though I’ve swerved you in a million different directions by this point—go do something crazy and physical this week. I commission you to do so. Rhythmic gymnastics. A moderate hike. Step aerobics (a bit dated, I know, but some people are into it). Jogging. Tai Chi. Krav Maga. Zumba. A women’s boot camp. Tag with your kids. A 5K somewhere. Yoga. Forget the boxes of expectation everyone else has constructed for you. Build your own box. And then move around in it. When you move and sweat and breathe hard and have your heart beat fast, you walk away feeling undefeatable. Like nothing can hurt you. Like you can fly. What we could do in the world if we always felt that…
To read more from the author, Courtney Fenner, visit her blog www.gorillamylove.wordpress.com