Softball is Sexist

Gender-biased safety rules make it worse.

Softball is insulting to girls and bad for their self esteem. Right off the bat (pardon the pun) it’s not fair. We put young girls at a disadvantage by making them throw a larger, heavier ball the same distance the boys throw a small, light ball. Forcing girls to wear a protective face mask in the infield when the risk of injury is virtually identical to that of baseball only adds insult to insult.

As my fraternal twins take the field each week to play baseball (the boy) and softball (the girl), I am struck by the inequality of the way we treat the two sexes when it comes to balls and bats and gloves and diamonds. There is an over-protectiveness afforded the young women that does not exist in other youth sports.

First let me be clear: I like softball as a game. It’s great as a co-ed game for adults, and it’s great as a fast-pitch game for all ages. It can be every bit as challenging as baseball, often even more so. But it should be considered a sport unto itself. Come to think of it, why don’t we offer boys softball? When every other sport is offered girls and boys on the same field with the same rules, we are sending a message of equality. For some reason, when it comes to hitting and fielding a batted ball, we treat girls differently.

We don’t lower the rim by a foot for the women’s basketball teams. We don’t force the girl’s soccer goalies to wear extra pads, and we don’t allow women to run a twenty-five mile marathon . So why do we assume that young girls and women can’t play baseball, or can’t play softball as safely as the boys play their game? When it comes to the face mask, we make these determinations based, not on evidence, but on anecdotes, isolated incidents, and most importantly, gender bias.

Let the Math do the Talking
Now before you think I’m speaking out against the safety of our children, consider the physics and the data, and consider the message we are sending to young girls and boys about a woman’s ability to compete. I’m not anti-safety. I’m pro-equality.

In the world of Little League, where fields are the same size, the reaction time required of a fielder for a ball hit very hard (60 mph softball /80 mph baseball) is roughly half a second for both sports. Do the math with sixty-foot bases, and you’ll see the difference between the two times is only a bit over one-tenth of a second. While a softball may be slower off the bat, it is heavier and thus will impart nearly an identical force to the player upon impact. The math also shows that by high school, when their bodies have matured, boys have moved back by 30 feet and the girls are still on the same field, and the reaction times are still similar for the two sports.

So we see that girls face the same risk as the boys, but for some reason we don’t trust them to defend themselves the way the boys do. Perhaps we also tell them that a boy with a busted lip wears a badge of honor, and a girl with a busted lip has ruined her pretty face.

Life Lessons from the Field
In 1972, Title IX mandated that educational institutions offer women the same sports offered to men. Well-intentioned, and mostly successful, it presented a chance to give girls an overt and obvious demonstration of equality. However, there was an exception made for baseball, allowing a “similar” sport to be played by girls, where no “similar sport” was an option was allowed for any other activity. As a result, because they play a “similar” sport, the girls on our local little league fields feel the need to “talk up” their sport and defend it against the insults of the boys. Every time they take the field, they are reminded of the inequality and gender bias faced by grown up women.

Don’t think the subtle message isn’t being taken to heart by young boys. The boys in my town who incessantly tease the girls for having to wear masks are the very same ones who will pay a woman less and hire a man when a woman is more qualified. These are the same boys who will shame women for working instead of doing traditional female jobs, yet still expect them to put in more hours to “prove” their worth, while forcing them to wear high heels. If you think you can tell children that boys and girls are equals, yet demonstrate something different on the field, you’ve never had the “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” conversation with one of your kids.

Risk vs. Reward
I used to work for an old veterinarian, and sometimes before a surgery a client would ask about the odds of survival. The old timer used to say, ‘I could tell you the odds are good and the chances of your dog not making it home are less than one percent, but if your dog is the one that doesn’t make it, you don’t care a lick for the ninety-nine that did go home.’ The same is true as a parent. You won’t care about the billions of balls hit on baseball and softball fields all across the nation on a glorious summer evening if one ball happens to hit your child.

However, when the physics and the data tell us that playing softball is equal to, or less risky than baseball, there is no reason to arbitrarily force girls to wear extra safety gear simply because they are girls, or based on isolated incidents, parent complaints, and anecdotal evidence. Really, there is no reason to even offer them a different game. That’s not meant as a slight. It’s meant as a call to girls and women everywhere to strive for equality, and not accept anything less. Softball itself is a fine game, and chances are it’s not going anywhere, but we need to be conscious of the message we send to both sexes when we send girls out to the field and treat them differently,

Nationwide, over six million boys and girls under age 18 play organized baseball and softball. Less than one percent of these children have head and face injuries. A higher percentage of those injuries are associated with baseball, and that’s pre-mask era data. There is risk when we allow our children to play sports and we have to accept it. When we try to eliminate all risk, we teach our children to always take the safest route in life. In doing so, we risk having them grow up afraid to explore the world, start businesses, meet new people, and challenge themselves academically.
Ninety-nine percent or more of all kids playing youth sports will go on to do absolutely nothing in professional sports. So why are they there? They are there to learn something about life. They learn about team work and dedication, and the value of practice. They learn how to fail and succeed; to win with grace and lose with dignity. Instead of teaching new generations of women that they can’t do what the men do, let’s treat them with the respect they deserve, give them credit for being able to perform as equals, and let them know that a diamonds really are a girl’s best friend.

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