Sports and gender interact at Dartmouth

by Gayne Kalustian | 5/19/16 8:45pm

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From the U.S. Women’s National Team suing U.S. Soccer this year for wage discrimination to the splitting of rifle shooting based on gender in the 1984 Olympics after Margaret Murdock tied for first place with a man in the then-mixed event during the 1976 games, sports and gender have always had a complicated relationship. Female coaches still make less than male coaches. In the 2014-2015 season at Dartmouth, head coaches of men’s teams averaged salaries of $125,311 while head coaches of women’s teams had an average salary of $86,595. Assistant coaches of men’s teams made on average per full time employee $64,090 while their counterparts on women’s teams averaged $56,414. Of the 13 full-time head coaching positions of men’s teams, all 13 are filled by men. Of the 15 full-time head coaching positions of women’s teams, six are filled by men and nine are filled by women. Of the 35 assistant coaching positions of men’s teams, 30 are filled by men and five are filled by women. Yet, of the 29 assistant coach positions of women’s teams, 13 are filled by men and 16 are filled by women. So, in general, men can coach women, but women can’t coach men, and the gender of the athletes you coach determines how much you can make.

But the intersection of gender and sports doesn’t stop at pay and hiring discrimination. In college sports, your gender partially shapes your experience of playing a sport. The experience of seven Dartmouth athletes and the relationship between their sports and gender identities follow.

CHARLOTTE GROSS ‘16

“It was not a performance enhancer,” Nordic skier Charlotte Gross ’16 said of her tampon falling out 20 kilometers into her 2013 30k Tour de Trapp race. But there’s no pausing, no stopping, no waiting for periods to go away in athletics. It can start during training, right before the game, at halftime — in the middle of a race. Even when you know it’s coming, dealing with it and still performing is a totally different battle. Out in the woods, pushing through the snowy trails of Stowe, Vermont, Gross just kept skiing — 10 kilometers with her tampon loose, trapped on her leg by two layers of spandex.

“I didn’t know that could happen,” Gross said.

According to a 2015 study by University College London and St. Mary’s University, more than half of female athletes responding to the online survey said their periods impact their performance. Many struggle with managing their periods on game day with tampons and diva cups. Others, like Gross, go on birth control to deal with their periods and the side effects.

“I had such terrible cramps that I couldn’t train for the first couple of days I would get my period,” Gross said. “I could jog around, but if I tried to go to an elevated heart rate, it was excruciating.”

Recently, 2015 London Marathoner Kiran Gandhi unashamedly welcomed the gift and the curse of being female on the eve of the marathon. Gandhi ran without a tampon, very publicly bleeding through her clothes, receiving both support and harsh criticism for her choice. For Gross, the tampon mishap didn’t stop her from crossing the finish line. When asked about her time, she said it was “not her best race.”

AMBER ZIMMERMAN ‘19

The Upper Main Line YMCA’s website says it “has what your entire family needs to live better and have fun! Home to [a] nationally ranked swim team…the Y is the place for you!”

Amber Zimmerman ’19’s experience differed greatly from the advertisement when swimming for the YMCA in Berwyn, Pennsylvania for four years in high school. Day in and day out, Zimmerman and the other female swimmers — training on a mixed team not unlike Dartmouth’s — were subjected to multiple forms of sexual harassment. Zimmerman acknowledged that training with men sometimes cut down on her own team’s drama, but that almost never outweighed the costs.

One day when Zimmerman had a sore throat, a male teammate asked her if her “knees hurt, too.” Zimmerman also recalled an incident when a female teammate commented that she didn’t think it was cold outside during one morning workout. A male teammate said to the group that her “chest said otherwise.”

“If we were in lacrosse gear, that wouldn’t happen,” Zimmerman said. “Or it would be a lot harder. It’s partially the nature of the sport [wearing swimsuits] that we are so exposed. Partially,…[it’s] the fact that no one has told them it’s not okay.”

After the comment about her teammate’s chest was made, Zimmerman walked right off the deck and into the director’s office.

“I said I can’t train with this,” Zimmerman said. “I can’t listen to this and still practice and so I told my coach please tell them to stop, and he made a comment [to the male teammates], and it didn’t really do anything, so I left.”

As her senior year dragged on, she became less and less active with the team, walking off the deck when someone said something disrespectful, until she cut herself off completely after graduation.

“There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior,” Zimmerman said. “You should never treat anyone like that. Especially your teammates. Especially someone young and impressionable. If that behavior were ever in a workplace, you would be fired immediately.”

On mixed teams where young athletes train and compete next to each other inappropriate behavior can proliferates and the narrative that “boys will be boys” excuses this behavior. But as Zimmerman pointed out, the viewpoint undermines male athletes’ ability to have self-control and excuses behavior against women in the process.

AMELIA ALI ‘19

“I was never conscious of what I ate or how I looked,” thrower Amelia Ali ’19 said of her early years in high school. The self-proclaimed cultivator of some serious biceps and triceps changed her behavior, dropping her consumption to two bananas a day while still training full-time as a thrower. After passing out in practice, her coach made her take a break from the sport.

The change started for Ali during her junior year. With the buzz of college recruitment surrounding her, Ali felt invincible. She even asked a male friend to go with her to her junior prom, an invitation he accepted — at first. Rumors about the match began to circulate and a mutual friend ended up telling Ali that her date didn’t really want to go with her.

“You emasculate him,” the mutual friend told her. Ali confronted her date who confessed that he didn’t feel comfortable going with her. He had heard from other guys that, “They would hook up with her, but they would never date her because she’s strong and not as feminine as [they] would like her to be.” Ali went to prom with another date, but the words hung in the back of her mind, plaguing her as she tried to train to be the best. After taking extreme measures with her diet and being forced to take a break from the sport, Ali came back to throwing and came to Dartmouth to continue her passion. But despite being back in the game physically, her mental game remains conflicted. She struggles to add pounds to the rack when she squats because she knows it will add mass to her body — even if that comes at the expense of her sport.

“I know there are girls who squat 400,” Ali said. “I have a friend at Cornell [University] who squats 400 so it’s just kind of daunting going up against other girls in the league and in the Eastern region. I’m not going to do as well. I’m doing fine, but come my junior or sophomore year I’ll just be stagnant…It’s hard enough being a tall girl. To have someone say they felt emasculated by her. It was the biggest wake up call for me. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t be struggling to figure out how much food I’m eating. I wouldn’t have this mental struggle constantly.”

ARMIN MAHBAN ‘17

Figure skaters lift weights. Figure skaters train. They sweat. Some figure skaters are women. Others are men. So why is it generally considered a “girls’ sport?”

Armin Mahban ’17 — an internationally acclaimed figure skater who has trained at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and won multiple medals during his four gap years between high school and college — is pretty much as good as it gets in terms of Ivy League figure skaters. The 24-year-old came to Dartmouth with thick skin, he said — skin he earned having figure skated since he was five-years-old.

“The hockey players would call me faggot,” Mahban said. “That was tough, and it kind of continued. It was never horrible. It was mostly just words. I learned to brush it off.”

After winning medals and gaining more respect, the bullying subsided — maybe, Mahban said, because he was successful or maybe because people started to grow up. Looking back, though, he said he can see why the sport has those stereotypes.

“Yes, the guys are out there in rhinestoned outfits competing, but for every one of those days there are 300 days where we are sweating our asses off, falling on the ice, getting bruised,” Mahban said. “Lots of blood sweat and tears. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what we present to people, that it’s a very little part of the story.”

As Mahban was growing up, even the U.S. Skating Federation pushed figure skaters who were masculine, trying to change the image of the sport to align more with the typical masculine ideals. But Mahban takes a different approach, emphasizing that while there are masculine elements to the sport which are not often publicized, there is also nothing wrong with the skater that has been used to typify men’s figure skating — feminine and slender. He makes no public comment about his sexuality one way or the other on purpose, because regardless of what is “supposed to be” true of male figure skaters, Mahban has learned to focus on himself and tune out the noise.

“At the end of the day I didn’t skate for other people,” Mahban said. “I skated for myself, and whatever fans I had. It made me happy. And that’s all I really cared about. I learned early on that you can’t pay attention [to people who think the sport is feminine].”

LINDA MURI

At Dartmouth, three rowing teams fill the boathouse for workouts — the lightweight men’s team, the heavyweight men’s team and the women’s team. Women’s rowing, in places where schools make the distinction, separates into two teams — lightweight and open weight. Heavyweight women’s rowing used to exist — head women’s coach Linda Muri was a heavyweight rower back at her alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But that designation has fallen out of style and for athletic teams that are sub-professional like Dartmouth’s, weights of female athletes have disappeared from public rosters.

“On most men’s teams, if someone needs to lose or gain weight you can have that conversation,” Muri said. “But women’s bodies — you have to protect them.”

The problem, Muri acknowledged, is rooted in the body image issues and eating disorders that can take over athletes’ lives — particularly, she added, at a place like Dartmouth where students are under an enormous amount of pressure. But the protectionism of one gender over another speaks to a larger issue of gender inequity. Women have a perceived weakness — in need of protection from a mental health issue that plagues them. Men are strong and don’t need that protection suggesting these problems do not exist for men. In separating the standard, both genders are hurt. Allowing men’s weights to be a consistent part of the conversation while women’s have become taboo ignores that there are men — including men in athletics — who struggle with eating disorders. And there are women in athletics who don’t. Top tier women’s teams of wide array of sports monitor weight because it is a critical element of overall health.

The football team weighs in twice — once before a workout and once after a workout — to monitor proper hydration. The ability to track their athlete’s physical health, however, remains a dream for Muri and her staff. But the way the issue is framed, Muri said, is part of what drives the problem.

“If you have good, responsible coaching it’s not going to be a problem,” Muri said. “An irresponsible coach says, ‘Carrying a few extra pounds there?’ as opposed to, ‘I want someone who is fit and can get a full range of motion and do the right mechanics’…or ‘Are they strong enough to carry all that weight?’ There’s ways to talk about it. You look at strength to weight ratios. But belittling somebody, mocking somebody, that’s where the problems come.”

MATT STURM ‘13

On the other end of the phone, calling in to Hanover from Washington D.C., Matt Sturm ’13 carefully chooses his words. Spaces in the conversation linger between us as he mulls questions over in his head, starting and stopping sentences, weighing his words so carefully a misplaced comma, an accidental plural could tip the scales and cause him to recede into silence again. He felt the pauses were necessary to explain.

“I guess the reason that I’m so careful with my words is, you know, trans narratives are often misconstrued.” His story, he says, represents more than him.

Matt came to Dartmouth identifying as Maddy, joining the women’s rugby team his first week in Hanover. He later transitioned to Matty and finally to Matt. Not until his junior fall did he consider himself publicly gender nonconforming. By his senior fall, he consistently used the name Matt and masculine pronouns [he/him]. But remembering the exact dates and the exact terms that marked the motion in his transition was difficult—transitioning privately, socially, publically and possibly medically are all part of a huge and long process. Outsiders to the process like me belabor pinpointing the particulars. Insiders know better.

“It’s not a clean transition,” Sturm said. “I think that is part of what is confusing for everyone who observes this….It’s messy, and it’s not discrete and clear. There’s things where someone might be trans and say that presenting the way that they do means they’ve transitioned their gender and someone might not be trans and do the same thing. They might not say it’s a transition thing at all. It’s just how they are and say it’s how they are the gender they have always been….Everybody has the right to do it at the pace that works for them. I think that definitely made the rugby thing complicated.”

Matt’s experience in athletics exposes the dark underbelly of the feminist oriented, female empowerment side of sports. Sports are clearly divided — boys to the left, girls to the right. Gender nonconforming and trans athletes fall into line where the NCAA and other governing bodies command them to stand. Trans athletes face unprecedented struggles with competing, forced into a system that recognizes an antiquated view on gender, touting a binary that ignores identity. Concerned people raise questions about fairness and hormones. Trans athletes find few teams that have ever scrutinized their gender policies or would even know how to begin to make their team inclusive.

“I think being the first openly transgender person on the women’s rugby team, it was a process for the coach and some members of the team to transition to a more inclusive understanding of what the women’s rugby team meant and could be,” Sturm said.

With inequality in gendered sports rampant among pay, spectatorship and support, women’s rugby — writ large — makes a point to champion female empowerment. The only full-contact NCAA sport for women, rugby players on both men’s and women’s sides play with the exact same rules, take the exact same hits — athletic trainers mend the exact same broken bones. Well-documented songs often rooted in misogyny that reverberate through pubs across the world are sung postmatch and warped to reflect a woman’s perspective — a woman who is unafraid of her sexuality and will drink in the rugby tradition. But navigating the presence of man in a culture that is so engrained in seeking equality for women exposed growing pains for the club at Dartmouth.

“Gender was a strong component of the Dartmouth Women’s Rugby Club’s culture, and figuring out how to maintain that culture in a way that was not exclusive to trans people was new,” Sturm said. “The coach at the time…it took some time for the coach to get used to my name and the idea that there could be a transgender player on the women’s rugby team. And women’s rugby culture, for me, was always something dynamic and encompassed a lot of identities.”

At the time of Matt’s transition, he had just been elected team president.

“The head coach at the time expressed that she was concerned that my status as a trans person playing on a women’s rugby team and how public I should be about that,” Sturm added. “Ultimately, I was public and the team used my name, and it was fine.”

Sturm continued to play at Dartmouth until concussions sidelined him from the game, though he maintained his position as president and remained active with the club until graduation. The NCAA terminates eligibility for trans athletes who have begun taking hormones, which Matt didn’t take while playing for the Dartmouth Women’s Rugby Club.

In Sturm’s senior season, a young player — new to the game at the time — came to the Dartmouth Women’s Rugby Club. Four years later, co-captain Yejadai Dunn ’16, two-time All-American and USA Eagles hopeful, enjoys some of the fruits of Sturm’s labors. Dunn, who identifies in a “neutral territory” and uses feminine pronouns, has wreaked havoc on the women’s rugby world in her four years at Dartmouth. But those who don’t know her, she said, question her presence on the team.

“[People at rugby games wonder], ‘What’s this dude doing on a women’s sports team?’ ” Dunn said. “This is a space where I belong but there’s not a space built in where it feels like I belong. Inherently when you’re on a women’s sports team, you are gendered into this group of people as a woman and there hasn’t been much room to move within that. Knowing Matt, rugby kind of made space for Matt and used open language to be more inclusive of male pronouns within a women’s team. We haven’t moved to neutral pronouns at all. That hasn’t been a part of our team or even a part of Dartmouth athletics.”

Keeping her hair short, sometimes cut close to her head and other times in a Mohawk — bleached blonde when she feels like it — Dunn finds she is misgendered often by strangers in sports, particularly in the bathrooms. One woman in a bathroom put her hand on Dunn’s chest and said, “You don’t belong here.” People stare at her, make an uncomfortable face—struggle very visibly with her place in the bathroom. Sometimes they remind her it is a women’s bathroom.

“I know,” Dunn replies.

Correction appended May 20, 2016:

This article originally paraphrased some of Strum's quotes incorrectly. The article has been updated to properly reflect his comments.