In the 1980’s the doctrine of sexual equality is increasingly being misapplied. The current discussion of women’s sports provides a graphic illustration. The central premise of the sexual egalitarian is simple: It is unjust to reward or support a woman less than a man, when the woman performs on the same level.
Many would agree that this should be the minimal expectation of a just society. Reward based on performance satisfies the requirements of both fairness and the social good. The egalitarian who really believes in equal opportunity and rejects gender as a determinant of reward will let the chips fall where they may. He will accept the possibility that reward based on ability—a criterion that serves women well in all but athletics—will result in lesser rewards for women athletes. Such an inequality is the unavoidable result of rewarding ability, a policy that in all other areas of life is regarded as consistent with fairness.
Sometimes, however, egalitarianism is no more than a political device to be jettisoned whenever it fails to reward a group that has been targeted—justly or not—to receive special privileges. In this case, the egalitarian will not worry about consistency, for he wishes to have it both ways: equality of opportunity when it will bring about equal reward for the group he represents, and equality of result when equality of opportunity will be of no avail.
In the case of educationally disadvantaged groups, one might argue that a temporary suppression of equal opportunity (i.e., “compensatory socialization”) will permit the reintroduction of a merit system. Such an argument may or may not be correct but is not, on the face of it, absurd. On the other hand, it is absurd to suggest that by temporarily giving equal reward to the inferior athletic performance of women we shall eventually enable women to compete, on an equal footing, with male athletes.
The blunt truth is that women are terrible at sports. To say this is to make a statistical statement that is less than absolute, as is the case with virtually any statement to be made about men and women. When we say that men are taller than women, we do not deny that some women are taller than some men. We only mean that at any equivalent percentile of men and of women, the men will be taller. Likewise, Martina Navratilova is undoubtedly a better tennis player than 99 percent of males, but she would be easily defeated by the best 200 or 300 male players. No woman is ever going to run as fast as the ninth-grade male champion of her time or be as strong as a strong ninth-grade male. There are 100 high-school basketball teams that would defeat the best female team in the world by 50 points, and the same could be said for any other sport. The increasing use of male hormones to build up the strength of female athletes makes the point all too plain.
There is an astonishing regularity over a wide range of measurable sports, in the relationship of male and female world records. Nearly always the difference is approximately 10 percent. This doesn’t sound like much until we remember there are, depending on the popularity of the sport, hundreds or thousands of men whose performance is within 10 percent of the record. It is true that the male record from 50 years ago is, in a few sports, inferior to the female record of today. But this only demonstrates that records are reduced by far more than 10 percent per half-century and that all physiologically rooted differences are outcomes of varying responses to environmental cues. If females were forced to do endless hours of weightlifting, while males were prohibited from all physical activities, it is theoretically possible that females would be stronger. But this is no more relevant than an experimental program for forcefeeding women and starving men.
A consistent belief in the central premise justifying sexual egalitarianism would be disastrous for women’s athletics. Sex-blind sports are single-sex sports, and the sex is male. There are, at every college, hundreds of males who are unable to make the men’s team but who are still better than some of the women on the women’s team in any given sport. Also, there are many men better than any woman on a women’s team. The silliest argument for equal expenditure redefines superiority in women’s sports in terms of form and beauty, This will become a serious argument when the Women’s Wimbledon Championship is awarded to the most graceful or beautiful player.
For professional sports the issue of equality is fairly straightforward. Reward depends on the ability to attract spectators. While this is not identical to excellence of performance, the correlation is very high—far higher, for example, than in literature or music. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, for instance, are paid enormous salaries because they rank among the very best basketball players in the world, and because they attract spectators. Nancy Lieberman is one of the world’s best female players but insufficiently talented to make a male professional team. She has no female professional league to play in because few spectators are willing to pay to see women in a sport that is played so much better by men.
Tennis is the one sport that is something of an exception to all of this. Women unquestionably attract many more spectators than their ability would justify. Here the close talent-attraction relationship does not apply. If, as may have happened for a short period about 12 years ago, the women could attract as large a crowd as the men, an irresistible argument could be made for equal reward. Today, however, the female players do not attract as many spectators, but their contribution still exceeds their relative ability.
For school and college athletics, the situation is much more complicated. However, the complication does not stem from any problem directly related to equal reward. If equal reward were the only consideration, a school or college could merely field a single team equally open to both male and female students. In practice, of course, the team would typically be composed entirely of males, but this would be a result of nothing more than equal opportunity and superior male ability. The complication is produced by the ambiguous purposes of college athletics. The opposite, but just as fair, alternative to the “one-team” approach would be a denial of the educational value of a performance-reward criterion, by emphasizing the educational advantages of athletic involvement and by spending equal amounts on all students. This intramural approach better approximates other aspects of education (no one suggests that we allocate all educational resources for the best I percent of students). But this solution faces two problems: (1) the public overwhelmingly supports big-time competition between colleges and between schools; and (2) it is such competition that supports unprofitable varsity teams (including women’s varsity teams), junior varsities, freshman teams, and intramural sports, thereby protecting other educational resources from a parasitic drain of funds.
It is an American belief, as deeply held as it is unverified, that participating in athletics improves individuals and provides valuable role models for the less-athletically talented. It has always seemed to me that athletic participation is far more an arena for manifestation of character than for its improvement. Though sports do, to an extent, serve to improve character, so do a large number of other experiences and enterprises not compromised by the dangers so evident from a majority of reports on the sports pages.
Nonetheless, since those who pay the bills believe in the educational value of athletics, and since this belief may conceivably be correct, it does seem only fair that female teams be supported—even if that support comes from the profitable male teams. The 150-pound football teams fielded by some colleges provide us with a vaguely analogous precedent. But that is no argument whatever for the equal support of women’s teams.
What is the principle that justifies our supporting and rewarding intercollege and interschool teams and competitions for women but not for the large numbers of men who—while not sufficiently talented to make the men’s teams—are more talented than all or some of the women on the women’s teams? Precisely what is the justification for having a woman’s basketball team but not a basketball team of Japanese-American students? Both are made up of individuals who are—for physiological reasons—insufficiently talented to make the male varsity, and both are teams that usually lose, rather than make, money for the taxpayer.