Saturday, January 24, 2015

I'm an Athlete too.

Shannon Miller, the women’s long-time head hockey coach at University of MinnesotaDuluth, was recently told she would not be returning to coach next year.  Not because she had done anything wrong.  Or because she was a bad coach.  She was fired because UMD needed to cut expenses from their athletic program, and, apparently, Miller is paid too much.  Miller has won five NCAA championships with UMD, coached the Canadian women’s hockey team at the 1998 Olympics, and has a near .700 overall record. 

Miller’s termination sends the message UMD does not care and does not respect women’s athletics. Can you imagine a successful men’s athletic team coach being cut for being paid too much?  Unthinkable, whether the men’s team is like almost all NCAA teams and costs the school money or maybe breaks even, or if it is one of the 22 NCAA football teams that actually turns a profit in the 2009-2010 season (NCAA report).

While feminists have generally won the understanding women are capable of being athletic, women’s sports are still highly contested.  Battles continue over the capabilities of women.  For example, the women’s marathon was only added to the Olympics in 1984 and the women’s steeplechase wasn’t added until 2004. Arguments and lawsuits continue over how many resources should be allocated to women’s sports.  Even though Title IX has promised to give women’s athletics the same amount of resources in federally funded educational institutions as men, in college sports women receive 43% of participation opportunities, 45% of scholarship dollars, 38% of operating dollars, and 33% of recruitment spending (Women's Sports Foundation).  Almost nothing is done to force schools to do more.  Female athletics are also contested on how much respect and dignity we give to female athletes.  Many people refuse to watch girls and women play sports, stereotype female athletes, and hold them in much less regard than their male counterparts. 

In many ways, female athletes are treated well in cross country and track at the high school, collegiate, and professional level.  Women and men often practice at the same time, and competitions are held together.  Many of the usual complaints about supporting women’s athletics would sound especially hallow when directed at cross country or track. Whether you’re watching Ajee Wilson win the 800m at the USATF Outdoor National Track Championships last summer in 1:58.70 or Duane Solomon win in 1:44.30, they are both running extremely fast.  Also, track is very qualitative.  Fans of many other sports may be under the illusion they would be so much better than the women participating, especially with a little practice.  With running, people generally have a sense of their abilities.  Are you capable of running a 4:20 mile?  No?  Then it’s a bit harder to downplay the efforts and abilities of the women competing.

Yet, female runners still have to struggle for equal resources, recognition, and respect.  While I was an athlete at the University of Minnesota, the women’s cross country and track teams had a lot of success.  We won six Big-Ten championships and produced a national champion and many All-Americans.  Our accomplishments didn’t stop the men’s team coaches from mocking us or from head wrestling coach J. Robinson filing a suit claiming Title IX was discriminatory towards men.  Sid Hartman, a legendary Twin Cities sports columnist for the Star Tribune most ignored “non-revenue” sports, but when he did occasionally talk about running at Minnesota, it was only about the men’s side. 

I have worked part-time at running stores throughout college and my professional career.  While some people are very supportive and respectful of my aspirations, if they find out I’m a professional runner, all too often I get the message my dreams are unimportant.  Yesterday, I was helping a young man while his father watched.  When Matt Tebo, assistant manager of the store sat down with us, I thought the dad was going to combust with his excitement over asking Matt about his PR’s, training under Wetmore at the University of Colorado, and the book, “Running with the Buffalos.”  After awhile, Matt tried to usher me into this conversation by telling the dad I was also a very talented runner.  The dad asked where I had ran, then turned back to Matt and continued asking him questions.  As the father and son left the store, the dad told us how much he appreciated getting to talk to role models for his son.  Now, Matt Tebo is a very cool dude, and he is full of good advice for running, but what about the professional runner sitting next to him?  If the dad wanted good role models for his son, what about talking to me, or asking about Matt’s wife Jessica, who is a local superstar in the running community for winning the most titles in NCAA running history while at Seattle Pacific University and posted a top 40 in the world 5k time last year? 

Some people may think, so what?  Who cares if a dad didn’t care about you, or a different team’s coach thought you were a joke?  But it is a big deal, especially over time.  Disrespectful and sexist attitudes make it okay for female athletes to be mocked, for their accomplishments to be ignored, and their athletic events to be unattended.  These attitudes permit women’s athletic programs to be woefully under-funded, celebrated women’s coaches to be fired for no good reason, and for your son to miss out on an excellent role model.

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