Today we’re sharing a personal blog post from our Camps and Clinics Coordinator Meagan Murphy, aka “Coach Murph” about her experiences fighting for gender equality as an athlete. Meagan’s story is but one experience that motivates us to do what we do at Girls in the Game.
Though I’ve heard some stories similar to my own from fellow athletes, this is a reflection of my personal experiences. I do not speak for all athletes, nor do I take for granted the access I’ve had to play basketball and compete as an athlete throughout my life.
I’ve played basketball my whole life. The first time I realized I was “the other” on the basketball court was when I was 6 years old, 1st grade. Let me explain: the first time I played basketball it was in a co-ed recreational league. Even at a very young age, I walked away drawing two conclusions that would ultimately follow me into the next 15+ years of my life: I love basketball, and the boys do not include me. “They don’t pass me the ball!” I cried as my dad drove me home. He sympathized with me, telling me they were ball hogs. I also remember him acknowledging the fact that I was a girl, and that unfortunately, that probably influenced their decision. I was frustrated and hollered at my dad something to the effect of “What’s the point of even playing?!” I showed up at the next practice all the same, laced up and ready to go.
The sports world is divided into a very distinct binary understanding of gender—women and men. From the moment I started playing sports, I was introduced to this binary, as well as the “othering” that takes place alongside it. “The other” is an opposite, when one category is prioritized over the other, making one the default or the norm, and “the other” the less preferable or less accepted by society. When I say the phrase, “basketball star,” which gender do you think of? Some might immediately picture a man—Lebron James, Steph Curry, Michael Jordan, etc. Or at least I know I do, because that’s the way I’ve been socialized to understand athleticism.
When it comes down to it, if you are not a man in the sports world, it comes with disadvantages. Athletic opportunities are more readily available for boys compared to girls. Sports competitions are attended more when it’s men compared to women. And men make significantly more money playing professional sports, and the list goes on. Not to mention that when looking at athletic associations, in most cases there is a modifier to establish that the program is for women, when no adjectives are used for men’s programs. Here are several examples, because why not prove my point: NBA/WNBA, PGA/LPGA, ATP/WTA, and again, the list goes on. Why provide a modifier for women’s athletic programs? Because it’s not the norm, the anticipated, the accepted; it’s “the other.”
I remember when I decided I wanted to play in the WNBA, “HA! That league is a joke!” is what I used to hear all the time. Eventually I started believing it myself. There were so many microaggressions I heard growing up that they encouraged me to believe that girls could never be as good as boys in basketball (or any sport really)—comments about the WNBA, how I was smaller and weaker, that women’s basketball would only ever be worthy of ESPN2, that girls were not meant to play sports. All of these stayed with me, all of these bothered me, but I kept playing. In fact, these comments that I totaled up in my mind as the opposition became motivation for me to be “as good as the guys” when it came to sports.
I established myself as a “tom-boy” early on, or at least that’s how I thought of myself back then, and managed to find as many opportunities as I could to play with boys. But by the time I made it to the high school level, I started to realize the way society had made me think of my own gender as the weaker, less impressive gender when it came to athletics. But how wrong I was! I started meeting some of the best athletes I had ever met. I started to realize women’s athletics were made up of basketball stars, soccer stars, track stars, and the like. I started taking pride in the fact that I was a girl, and I was proud of how both my fellow athletes and I competed. But even as I started to love the athlete I was becoming—a strong, successful athlete, I still felt the pull to prove myself and to others that I could be as good as a man. I just wanted to be accepted and respected as the athlete I always felt I was.
Let’s flash forward, because sadly, things haven’t changed. I recently moved and was on the hunt to find a place to play basketball, as I had just finished my collegiate basketball career and was missing the rush of going up and down the court. I noticed a group that would play at the same time every day, but I continued to make excuses for myself as to why I shouldn’t play with them. The biggest one was that I would be the only woman. Eventually I mustered up the courage to step out onto the court and start shooting around; a man came up to me and invited me to play with them. I was ecstatic! I was being welcomed onto the playing field I’ve called home practically my whole life. Or at least I thought I was being welcomed. I soon realized that being the only woman among 15 other men came with a lot of frustrations and undeniable truths about the way women athletes are still viewed today, as “the other.”
I’m the last person to be chosen for a team. No one wants to guard me because they do not want to risk getting beat by a girl (or “hurting” me). And even 15 years later, it is still a struggle to convince them to pass me the ball. But the worst part has definitely been hearing comments about my appearance such as, “Don’t lift too much, you’ll bulk up and look like a man.” I specifically remember a time when I was playing really well. “You’re playing better than some of these guys,” is what they usually say, reminding me that my talent is but an exception for women. But this time, I heard something else, “You’re cute when you call for the ball,” he said. I stared at him wondering how I could be playing so well and instead of commenting on my talent, he decides to ignore the three 3s I just drained and comments on my appearance. I told myself that was the last straw. I was not only failing to prove my ability to these men, but I was also being objectified.
At first I decided to stop going, stop playing. I took some time off. I took this time to reflect on my career, and I recalled the first time I laced up my shoes. I was reminded why I’ve kept playing this whole time. I remembered who I’m playing for. I’m playing for the little girl who wants the boys to pass her the ball. I’m playing for the girl who is afraid to step out on the court because she’s been told it’s a “boy” thing, or that she isn’t good enough to play with boys. I’m playing for the girls who are better than the boys, but have to fight the media to notice anything but her outer beauty. I’m playing for the girl who doubts her own talent simply because of her gender identity. I’m playing for the games aired on ESPN2 (or not at all) instead of ESPN.
I’m proud to be an athlete who identifies as a woman, but when my gender is used to downgrade or minimize my performance as an athlete, that’s when I see it as problematic. When gender becomes a determining factor of my place on the court, when it requires me to be “the other,” the less desired, the less talented athlete, that’s when I’m reminded that I play for the girls, the women, and those whose gender is used as a tool to limit their ability to reach their full athletic potential. So until we are recognized as something other than a sub-genre of the athletic world, I’ll continue to play in those uncomfortable places, the places that try to convince me that I’m weaker, or just eye candy, and better off somewhere else. I’ll play to remind those who wish to excel at a sport have the ability to be a star, no matter what people have to say about it. So until we can change the stigma behind what it means to be an athlete—a woman athlete—I will continue to be the “other” on the basketball court. And quite honestly, I was better and more determined than any of the boys I played with when I first picked up the ball, and somehow, I knew that I just had to keep trying. So I’ll continue to play. I’ll continue to stand in solidarity. And I’ll continue to use my voice to speak up until no athlete is discounted based on their gender.
Thanks for sharing, Meagan! You can find Meagan’s original post on her blog.