Mo’ne Davis Is Just The Beginning

If the sports world is truly going to house gender equality, we need to give girls the freedom to choose their sports.

No matter what happens in Mo’Ne Davis’s second Little League World Series start, scheduled for Wednesday night against Las Vegas, her performance in Williamsport can be considered nothing less than a rousing success.

Davis’s complete game shutout win in Saturday’s opener marked a plethora of firsts for girls in the Little League World Series. And in Monday’s game, the 13-year-old showed that her skills go well beyond the mound, as she notched an RBI single and played three different positions— third base, shortstop and first base — in an 8–7 victory.

And yet, during Monday’s game, ESPN announcer Karl Ravech still felt it necessary to explain to audiences that “Davis is not a gimmick.” As one of my colleagues in the Wisconsin sports writing world, Nicole Haase, reminded me, this is a constant for women in sports. The few women who do cross the gender barriers and earn spots on men’s teams must not only prove their ability to their teammates, coaches and opponents, but they must also prove to fans they are something more than publicity stunt.

This, of course, is the big reason why Davis’s story is so inspirational. It’s one thing for a 13-year-old girl to waltz into Williamsport and throw 70 MPH fastballs right by the best baseball playing boys in the country — tossing in some clutch hitting and utility woman versatility for good measure — but she’s doing so while navigating a morass of institutionalized sexism from coaches, parents, fellow players, and fans parroting what they’ve heard from their older role models. She’s doing this in a world where, as Emma Span wrote for the New York Times, most girls who show baseball talent are heavily pressured to move to softball. And she’s doing despite the fact that many males don’t view her as a legitimate athlete at all.

In case you hadn’t heard, Mo’ne Davis isn’t the only girl to appear in this year’s Little League World Series, either. Emma March hit cleanup and pitched in relief for the Canadian representatives from South Vancouver. Although March experienced struggles in LLWS play, she did throw a no-hitter in the British Columbia provincial tournament and was one of the team’s best hitters throughout its journey to Williamsport.

Canada’s Emma March pitches during the fifth inning of an International baseball game against Venezuela at the Little League World Series, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, in South Williamsport, Pa. Venezuela won 10–0. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

It is hardly a coincidence that the two girls who appeared in the Little League World Series this year are among the best players on their teams. The societal assumption that girls in sports are a gimmick or a stunt leads people to believe these athletes are only on the team because of their gender — that a man with comparable or greater skill was likely passed over to make room for the woman.

Essentialist assumptions of this sort are dealt with by marginalized athletes across the sports world. Consider black athletes, who typically face an opposite by similarly toxic assumption. Many think the black athlete is better suited to sports and thus makes the team not through “hard work” (as is assumed for the white athlete) but rather from “raw ability.” Thus, some white athletes — like former Notre Dame basketball player Kyle McAlarney — become convinced standards are unfairly low for black players and unfairly high for white players.

But in reality, marginalized groups almost universally face higher standards for entrance, regardless of the assumptions made about their ability. Former MLB All-Star Gary Sheffield described the situation in Major League Baseball in Dean Chadwin’s 2000 book, Those Damn Yankees: The Secret Life of America’s Greatest Franchise:

“You want to know why there aren’t any black players? Because you’ve got to be twice as good as anyone else. If you’re not, you just won’t make it. Why do you think you hardly ever see any black bench players? You better be a star, or you’re not making this team. They don’t want a black player sitting on the bench making money. You got to be white.”

As I detailed at The Score earlier this year, Sheffield’s statements are supported by the data. More than half of black position players to appear for Major League Baseball teams in 2014 have been regular players (qualified for the batting title), compared to just 28 percent of whites. That’s why the All-Star game can continue to feature black stars like Andrew McCutchen, David Price, Michael Brantley, and Dee Gordon even as Bud Selig convenes committees to figure out why the percentage of black players in baseball keeps declining.

Apply that same logic to Mo’Ne Davis and Emma March. Not only did they have to prove they could play with the boys, they had to prove they could play better than the boys.

The narrative of the gimmick girl in sports is doubly damaging. Not only does it foster a lower expectation of women’s abilities — in both genders — it also creates an assumption that women aren’t earning their spots when in reality they are almost certainly facing even higher standards than the men they compete against.If the sports world is truly going to house gender equality, we need to give girls the freedom to choose their sports. We need to stop pressuring them to take the path of least gender resistance. And we need to stop holding them to a higher standard when everything else is already working against them.

The stories of Mo’Ne Davis and Emma March are extraordinary and inspirational. They are stories everybody can be proud of. But they are not proof the system works. Rather, they are proof that the system is letting us down and has let down thousands of girls across the country, girls who might have had the chance to do what Davis and March are doing this year.

If the sports world is truly going to move towards true gender equality, they are only at the beginning.