I came to sports late in life. I didn’t lace up my first pair of cleats until the ripe old age of 19. Little league, soccer, even bike riding were never in my wheelhouse growing up. Instead, I was told repeatedly that my domain was school. That is what I was good at, and that is what I stuck to. Funny how hearing everyone around you say, with such confidence, that you do not like a thing makes you not like a thing. And so it was not until sophomore year of college that I tried out a sport for the first time. It just so happens to have been the most intense, brutal, full-contact option available: rugby.
Six years later, the thing that has struck me the most about playing this game was how thoroughly it has changed the way I understand my body in public space. There is no other sport that so reaffirms a woman’s strength and physicality as rugby; nowhere else that we are allowed to be the hardest, most aggressive versions of ourselves. The previous two decades of my life had been spent hearing how girls should be dainty, not take up too much space, be always, always presentable. Everything revolved around my body as something that someone else had to look at, an outer representation to be maintained. Once I learned my body could tackle someone else’s at full speed, I began to really understand what it meant to have total ownership of myself, for no one but myself. It became a thrill to watch muscle build and know strength didn’t have to be just some ethereal emotional component of stoic womanhood. This emphasis on physical strength felt like new territory.
Playing a contact sport as a 5’3” girl is what opened the doors to feminism for me, but probably not for the reasons you would think. Yes, it felt physically empowering in every way and I took great joy in the fact that rugby is one of the few sports where the rules of play for men and for women are exactly the same. Being part of a woman’s team though, that was a world apart from the male counterpart. Despite playing the same sport with the same rules in college, the critique I heard most often was that ‘watching women play rugby is like watching rugby being played underwater,’ insinuating of course that “rugby” with no preface always meant “men’s rugby.” Women were slower so it wasn’t as exciting to watch, or women were smaller so our hits weren’t as bone-crushingly loud, or my favorite “I’d still rather watch a real sport.”
I suppose it should come as no surprise that these critiques most often came from men, as though women athletes weren’t still doing things far, far beyond the physical scope of the average couch-watching fan. Most irritating to me, however, was the implication that it falls to men to grant women permission to engage, the underlying sense that “if it doesn’t entertain me it shouldn’t exist at all.”
I guess it can’t be too much of a surprise when we have a Congress that sees fit to debate women’s health without a single woman in the room, or a president who can write off golfing with a male prime minister as “business” but can’t make eye contact when a prime minister is a woman, let alone shake her hand. We forget perhaps that sports were created with men’s bodies in mind. They are set up to value speed and mass, but athleticism encompasses so much more than that. If you watched the women’s gymnastics teams at the 2016 Olympics and couldn’t see the superhuman strength for the glitter, if you can get swept up in March Madness but ignore the University of Connecticut’s women’s record-breaking 110 game streak because the players might wear sports bras instead of jock straps, then I hate to break it to you but you’re not a sports fan—you’re just a cheerleader for the performance of masculinity.