I’ve often wondered whether the wood of the basketball court as much as that of the church pew became the springboard for my incipient feminist consciousness. Long before theology there were sports, especially basketball. As we know, a predilection for athletic pursuits leads to the unfortunate designation of “tomboy,” as if eight year olds need further reminder of those gender norms named and unnamed that apparently bend but don’t break under a child’s earnest exploration of the world and choice of activities. My sense of “style” probably had something to do with it as well: consistently short hair in various practical cuts and yes, Mom, I’ll wear that jean skirt to first grade but only if I can pair it with an oversized flannel shirt (in this trend I seem to have anticipated by several years the nation’s grunge fashion, now in its second incarnation – who knew!). [NB: this is a bit unfair because I don’t recall my parents regularly exercising much pressure with respect to my attire; memory’s a bit fuzzy.] The free-for-all elementary school playground gave way to teenage years of gender-divided team sports. In college, to supplement an intercollegiate women’s club league, and beyond, as team options have become limited or non-existent, I’ve gotten into the pick up scene (where players gather casually and self-organize for games). Now in grad school I play rarely, only in those free moments when I’m not partaking of any number of activities that hinder said playing (think: caffeine buffet, dark library, hunched over a computer, etc.).  But when I do it is frequently an occasion for some consideration of social expectations about women and men.

I want to provide a couple reflections on the phenomenon of pick up basketball and the gender dynamics of the culture in between its squeaks and swishes. After reading Elizabeth’s post last week about an interaction at her dentist’s office, it clicked that microaggression may be a helpful category for describing some observations that have been brewing in my mind over the years about this loosely organized sporting and social activity. By microaggression I mean that while far from attaining to the heinous violence of some acts of sexism, these examples nevertheless exhibit features reflective of sexist thinking and behavior, when bias is made to substitute for full personal recognition. I should add to my preface that this is not intended to be a universal commentary, but only what I’ve seen in my little slice of life in gyms at several local rec centers or YMCA’s and a handful of universities.

So. First lesson: be prepared to make an entrance. Although the character of a court varies somewhat from place to place, this much is always true: a woman is a noteworthy and maybe stare-worthy presence in what is a male space. Aside from the occasional spectator girlfriend a woman’s purposes in showing up seem to echo with impropriety and disorder. This one has come dressed to play? How odd. (Or worse.) She seems to know how this kind of thing works? – traversing the sideline to find out who has next game, staking her claim, warming up. How strange. (Or worse.) Some of the confusion in negotiating who arrived when and in what sequence is inherent to the loose and sometimes busy forum, yet I have more than a time or two gotten the run-around in the pecking order — not by coincidence or oversight but with a dismissive shrug. Usually persistence and/or patience get the job done. Once teams are selected then comes an amusing intermediate step, at least in those gyms that play shirts and skins. Quite often some astute soul will make the observation – in so many words or chortles – that my femaleness must be accommodated in the partial disrobing. Congratulations! you have accurately and oh-so-cleverly identified the proper social norm governing male and female bodies and their uncovering! (Should I be thankful the sometimes lewd overtones are not typically voiced, but only there for surmising?)

Well, the guys’ puzzlement (or worse) continues in the decision of defensive match ups. In deciding who guards whom it is typical to size up one’s opponents, but in my case it’s one size fits all: who’s gonna guard “the girl?” I’ve noticed a range of reactions: eschew the emasculating task with a surly stare; endure the ribbing of one’s friends with a string of muttered curse words; announce a hyperaggressive defensive campaign to prove a point; or, in a chivalrous façade, boldly disavow the project of covering the (delicate?) girl. He’s evidently in a no-win situation because the absolute assumption is that he is or ought to be a better player than me. Note that if two women are on the court they automatically guard each other, height and apparent skill level notwithstanding. The would-be male defenders who take their task lightly usually regret it after I display any signs of life, or worse, being a 70-80% three-point shooter. [The fine print: shooting percentages in this post may have been changed to inflate author’s ego.] On the offensive end a similar range of strategies usually obtains: either my opponent is surely going to have the game of his life or he makes clear that he deigns not to embarrass me with his athletic prowess.

Teammates are of all sorts and I’ll admit it can be difficult to analyze the unfolding of a game “objectively.” Still, I’m quite certain that here and there I’ve been shut out of the passing rotation or subject to a little extra headshaking if I miss a shot, throw an errant pass, or the like. Moreover, I’m confident that the male:female ratio is evident in the propensity of some men and even boys to coach me during a game. This has to be the microaggression I take least kindly to, which is to say, it makes me think a lot of, umm, non-theological words. Look, I’ve played for about 20 years and coached for more than five. If I make a mistake, it is not because I do no understand the logistics of a pick-and-roll. I promise. Again, the assumption of whose rightful sphere we occupy is operative (i.e., his not mine); why not chalk it up to a lapse in hand-eye coordination, creaky knees, or that foul that wasn’t called, that is, to any of the more or less honest assessments he makes of his own game?

Finally in this abbreviated list, I’ve had enough of my time wasted by posturing, shoving, and seemingly incessant arguments over out of bounds calls, fouls, the score – you name it – to know that the competition is as much about proving masculinity as anything else. In that light it becomes clearer why a female player’s presence might be [not only a complicating factor, but something of a threat]. She reveals the blurry line between the culture and the game itself, when it is built in that one plays to tally points and manhood. Is not competition men’s preferred form of social exchange? (A better question might be whether it can be a Christian’s – that’s something worth bringing up another day.) Isn’t it just the case that the gym is that perpetual place where boys will be boys? (As an aside, I think this may be one of the most insidious maxims ever concocted.) If these are our presuppositions it is not surprising that when a “girl” wants to get in the game she is liable to be seen as a nuisance, a wanna-be, a liability, or of dubious gender credentials — probably imagined in less kind words than these.


To my mind this prompts some comment on gendered spaces and gendered bodies. Before continuing I want to be really certain to state what should be obvious, that not all male players are like this. There are plenty of counter examples – I’ve been sought out to play, treated with respect, and so on, all of which I appreciate – and plenty of men who I’m sure would share my frustration with the behaviors I’ve described. I’m tracing a rough pattern and proposing a root cause; it may be generalized, it may be overwrought in places, but I’m not essentializing men or men who play pick up basketball and I’m not talking about you, unless this describes you. However, that it is not a universal phenomenon does not mean it is not a sexist phenomenon where and when it prevails.

Furthermore, the fact remains that basketball courts during open gym time are male spaces. Acknowledging this may serve to explain the surprise men might experience when a woman wants to play, yet it does not absolve us from questioning why the situation is this way. I would argue that there is something of a self-perpetuating narrative going on here, namely that because women don’t regularly join in these games the court is a male space and because it is a male space women don’t feel welcome or are treated with some level of disdain. I’m not making a claim one way or another on whether such gendered spaces are ever appropriate (I think they probably are) but I am questioning the value judgments in this case as well as their necessity or inevitability. It is also important to note that these gyms are public or semi-public so it strikes me as problematic that they are assumed to be the domain of men.

I anticipate that one common response hinges on my second point – gendered bodies – and their purported self-evidentiary nature. Now, it is definitely the case that I personally am shorter, slower, weaker and more earthbound (a true Olympian!) than many or perhaps most of my male opponents. But not all of them, and not, strictly speaking because I am a woman. The bald statement that men are more athletic than women and the illogical corollary that follows on its coattails – that any man is more athletic than any woman – are confronted by the reality that human bodies occur on a spectrum; a statistical distribution of traits does not translate to a pure bifurcation determinative of individual subjects. I’d be curious to hear the experiences of women whose physical stature bespeaks a more commanding presence than mine and also of, let’s be honest, those whose racial identity (as interpreted by the beholder) suggests greater athletic capability.

Even granting athletic advantage to males, this lurking essentialism neglects the more important factor of a complex and somewhat mysterious interaction between athleticism and skill, a category that is itself nearly impossible to define. Asking what makes for the ability to score points, to play defense, to tip the scales in favor of one’s team or even to contribute to the playing of good basketball, quickly moves us into the realm of repetition, practice, instinct, and a slew of intangibles. As much as I’d suspect just about any player would pay lip service to these claims, they regularly seem to be ignored from the outset, before the first dribble of a game, as though there were some feminine core that is sure to manifest as lesser ability.

When I become a regular (it can and does happen) my contribution to the game eventually is assessed on apparently similar terms as the rest; I have strengths, weaknesses, good days and bad, habitual moves and surprising plays. Maybe some guys who didn’t like it at first get used to it, maybe they just pretend out of resignation to believe that I am not an inept imposter in high-tops. Rest assured, too, that I know when I’m outmatched. I respect the game and I’m aware that when I play I prefer, within reason, something of an even playing field where players can helpfully challenge one another. Therefore I’m pretty hesitant to slow down the game or subject myself to extreme embarrassment and usually opt out voluntarily if I think that will be the case. So, I’m not necessarily advocating an “everybody plays, no questions asked” mentality (although maybe here we enter the territory of some more pointed questions about competition and its consequences?). I am seeking to identify the sexist framework that allows some men to monopolize a space and to arrogate superiority for themselves without warrant, to the detriment of some women who seek to participate in pick up basketball games and have the ability to do so. I realize this is all at some remove from theology, yet I think it is an interesting angle from which to consider gendered spaces and bodies, our conceptions of which surely both reflect and influence ideas about the way God’s created world works.

7 thoughts

  1. Beth-

    Thanks for this post. I think this offers an interesting example of what Butler was talking about with performativity and citations. It’s also curious to me how men and women can be taught to play the same sport differently. At least, in my experience of 12 years playing, 6 years refereeing soccer, I noticed a tangible difference between the type of game that the men played and that the women played. For women, coaches emphasized a passing game (less aggressive, lower scoring, more defensive) while the men were clearly emphasizing a dribbling game (more individual, more aggressive, focused on high scores and offense). I’m sure that, at some level, the coaches were trying to respond to the talents assembled, but these differences started young — I noticed them while reffing even in the “pee-wee” games for kids in first or second grade. These were by no means absolute observations, but I definitely saw a general trend.

    And I think there’s something to be said for how spectators react to women’s sports versus men’s sports, but mayhap I just had one run-in too many with an overly-enthusiastic parent on the sideline of his or her son’s game.

    1. Hi Lorraine,
      Thanks so much for bringing up this fascinating point about how the game is taught differently from the get go. I started to follow a similar train of thought after I wrote the post, wondering how, within a given set of rules, we evaluate good play or even what the game “is.” I’d speculate that there are gender-based values that factor in to that evaluation. These anecdotes from your reffing days really help concretize the point. On a related note, lacrosse is an interesting example where such differences have been codified in an altered set of rules and equipment between the men’s game and the women’s. On a less related note, I was a ref for one season of intramural basketball and it was the most difficult thing ever, so kudos to you for all those years!

  2. “…a complex and somewhat mysterious interaction between athleticism and skill.” Now you’ve entered the realm of “Airness.”

    Great post Beth!

  3. Thanks so much for the post! Another one of my favorite things about pick up is how I can throw my body around and elbow guys but few will ever do it back. I have definitely scored quite a few baskets before they decide maybe to guard me. Growing up, my dad brought us to the Y and we played with the men. In high school, the girls teams were more successful and therefore well respected. My sisters and I never even considered that there were places we could not enter or things we could not do. It was not until I went to a Christian college that I went whoa, you mean there are things because I am female people say I am not allowed to do or be a part of? Talk about culture shock.

    Also, I am forever annoyed when in the church bulletin there is “mens basketball” listed. Really? why can’t I come too?? Instead, I am forced to attend ladies teas and dessert nights…

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