Importance of Play for Female Athletes

This semester, I attended two LSA Theme Semester events that focused on female athletics. Firstly, I attended “Persistence Pays Off: How Women Athletes Changed the Game at the University of Michigan.” This event illustrated the similarities and differences between the experiences of current University of Michigan female athletes and those of the 1980s. The event was structured in a way in which current athletes interviewed former athletes of their respective sports. The pairs of current and former athletes consisted of gymnasts, track and field runners, field hockey players, and basketball players.

University of Michigan female athletes have played a prominent role in our school’s history (PHOTO via Wikimedia Commons (Author: Basketball Travelers Inc. Staff)).

The following day, I attended a showing of the documentary film The Boxing Girls of Kabul (2012), directed by Afghan-Canadian Ariel Nasr. It showcases the journeys of three female Afghan boxers during the late 2000s. Shahla Sikandary and sisters Sadaf and Shabnam Rahimi compete in international boxing tournaments, with hopes of making it to the Olympics. As they train, they are faced with numerous barriers. They struggle gaining support from their close friends and families. They face threats from members of their community, such as Taliban and Afghan conservatives. They must train with shattered equipment and facilities.

One may believe that such obstacles only occur in countries with corrupt systems of government. However, female athletes right here in the United States have faced a long history of inequality. For example, at Michigan, women had to fight to be given varsity jackets with the same block “M” as males, which didn’t occur until 1992. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that female athletes were given their own facilities for practice. For the majority of our history, female athletes were not given full scholarships to compete for the University of Michigan.

In Afghanistan, female boxers must continue to fight against political pressures (PHOTO via Wikimedia Commons (Author: Denis Gustavo)).

All across the world at all levels of sports, female athletes have always had to overcome some type of adversity. Despite the problems that I mentioned, there was still something else that stood out to me the most during these events. It was the positive attitude that these women possess. Instead of displaying anger at the fact that they are not getting enough attention and respect, many of these women carry on with their athletic careers as if nothing is wrong.

Their positive attitude reminds me of Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938), in which the importance of play in society is discussed. Based on his description of play, we can discern why these women will not let any barriers stop them from participating in their respective sports. Some of Huizinga’s major characteristics of play include that it is free, it is separated from ordinary life, it creates order, and it is not connected to any material interest.

We see these characteristics displayed among today’s female athletes. For instance, all of the women who were being interviewed were very enthusiastic while describing their experiences as former athletes here at the University of Michigan. When asked about their most challenging experiences as athletes, each and every one of them answered with optimism. Former gymnast Sara Flom Goldstein (1977-1980) explained how they had to set up their own equipment for practice every single day. But this just made competing at the Chrysler Arena so much more rewarding. Former runner Melanie Weaver Barnett (1979-1983) explained how athletes and coaches were the ones who had to drive to cross country and track meets. But this just brought the team closer, and she was thankful for that experience. Former field hockey player Jane Nixon (1983-1986) explained how professors didn’t take the time to accommodate field hockey players’ schedules. But this just made her work harder in school. Former basketball player Leslie Spicer Williams (1987-90) directly stated that she didn’t even recognize the inequalities, simply because she was so focused on her sport and realized how blessed she was to be in her position.

Even though they have faced adversity, female athletes have continued to compete in their sports. Their motivation is characterized through Huizinga’s definition of play (PHOTO via Wikimedia Commons (Author: Heurtelions)).

With regards to the three young Afghan boxers, they realize that are enduring so many difficulties. They are continuously faced with pressure to stop boxing from conservatives. When the girls gain media attention while competing in Vietnam and Kazakhstan, they are threatened on the streets when they return home. Thus, they must always be on the lookout. Aside from experiencing political hardships, these girls are not given proper equipment. They train in the same exact stadium where women were executed during the days of Taliban rule. Furthermore, they do not even have a boxing ring. The effect of this is shown when the girls are completely dominated by their opponents in Vietnam and Kazakhstan. Even though all these problems exist, the girls never stop training on a daily basis. They rely on the support of their coach and trust him that everything will be okay. Sadaf Rahimi perfectly describes their attitude: “When we play sports, we forget our problems. When I box, I feel happy. I box because I want to advance myself, and advance Afghanistan.”

Hence, when these women compete, they don’t think about the outside world. They don’t think about the fact that many people have looked upon them as inferior to males. They don’t think about the inconveniences of not having enough monetary support for equipment. They don’t think about having to go home afterwards, only to experience disdain from critics.

Instead, they deal with it. They go out and play, simply because it separates them from “real life” and allows them to feel free. As long as they continue playing with this attitude, these women will perform at their best levels. When the outside world sees this, let’s hope that these women gradually gain the attention they deserve to have!