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Recognizing Female Athletes

The other night in the writing course I teach, a young scholar read his paper about Barry Bonds, contending at one point that because Mr. Bonds was exceptionally healthy, he might well play four or five more years and hit eight hundred homeruns.

Leaving aside the merit of his argument, I focused on his use of the word "healthy." What, I wondered, constituted "healthy," in the minds of my sixteen students, as the adjective applied to athletes?

I asked each of them to write down the names of two pro athletes they regarded as exceptionally healthy.

Nomar Garciapara led the balloting. His name appeared on five lists. This was unsurprising, since the college is near Boston, and Nomar is on TV. All the time. Tiger Woods appeared on four lists. Cal Ripken, Jr. Appeared on three. The latter seemed a little odd, since Ripken retired several years ago, but before doing so, of course, he established the Major League record for consecutive games played...no doubt a fair index of health.

But the greater surprise was that nobody in the class included on his or her list a female athlete. Were any of the students aware that the Women's World Cup is in progress, and that the woman who'd scored the U.S. National Team's first goal in its first game, Kristine Lilly, extends the record for most appearances in an international match each time she steps on the field? Had any of them ever noticed the conditioning of Nomar's friend, Mia Hamm? Had none of them watched the recently completed WNBA championships?

The answer wasn't quite "no." My students were aware of those people and their events. But when asked to list healthy athletes, they — all of them — had thought exclusively of men.

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. At midweek, one headline on the ESPN website sneered "anybody heard anything about the World cup?" A column mentioning that former UConn basketball star and Olympic champion Rebecca Lobo was retiring asked sarcastically, "did she ever play?" It might have been a reference to Lobo's many knee injuries...and it might have been a not-so-unconscious swipe at female athletes in general.

It would seem reasonable to suppose trash talking like that would really irritate a very large number of extraordinarily accomplished and competitive girls and women, but maybe they're all too busy — and too healthy — to let it bother them.

This program aired on September 27, 2003. The audio for this program is not available.

Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.

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