Women’s hockey isn’t just an exercise in futility

So many thing have been said about women’s hockey in the past few days. After all, we wouldn’t be hockey fans if we didn’t overthink our sport. Nonetheless, there’s a fact of life in women’s hockey: in international competition, there’s the US and Canada and then there’s everyone else. There’s simply no such thing as parity as these things go.

There are any number of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that girls face discrimination in sports. The very idea of putting resources into girls’ sports is anathema to many, even in the United States, where we’ve supposedly made more progress than the rest of the world.

Gender equity in sports has to be mandated by law here. Anyone who thinks that if Title IX didn’t exist there would still be robust girls’ sports programs in public schools needs a reality check. Anywhere someone can stand up and say “this money would be better spent on football, so a boy can get a scholarship to college someday” is going to have problems funding girls’ sports. So you can imagine how things stand in places where commitments like Title IX haven’t been operating for forty years.

There’s not really a question that Title IX has had an impact for girls or that sports are good for girls, both in school and outside of it. Yet even here, girls are told often that their desire to participate in the same sports as boys do is both futile and wasteful. Girls are told to play girls’ games and leave the rest (including the funding, the equipment, the coaching, and the facilities time) to the boys. No one goes to see you. No one cares about what you’re doing. You are a waste of money.

It’s a devastating message and I wish for one moment that the men who make this argument would just put themselves in the place of a girl told she should go play tennis because her desires are both unimportant and inappropriate.

And then there’s the futility argument. This is where The Score’s Ryan Lambert placed himself. If nascent women’s hockey programs across the world can’t catch up (faster, it should be noted, than the nascent men’s hockey programs of the world did)…well…

why devote resources to improving something like this if even taking a huge step forward still means you lose by six and don’t score? Is winning bronze — at the very best — every four years really worth the investment?

One could give Lambert the benefit of the doubt and say he was talking only about the Olympic tournament and not women’s hockey programs in general. Or that as an inveterate shit-stirrer, he was hoping to get some kind of “discussion” started. But in doing so, he basically made the same argument that people have made for decades against funding girls’ sports at all, virtually word for word, in every school board meeting and PTO council. And that’s a real problem.

In essence, Lambert finds it okay that for Olympic men’s basketball “games are, occasionally, somewhat competitive.” In men’s basketball, Lambert measures success by the increase in players and fans across the world. But not for women’s hockey. And it’s very hard to see a difference between the two other than who’s playing.

The folks at the Watch This blog have responded to Lambert, far better than I could have.:

But there is simply no historic context in the argument that after 16 years, it’s time to pull the plug because a mere 2 – maybe 3 – countries are reasonably competitive. That’s the case with many sports. To widen the lens a little, leagues being started and folding, people playing while also holding down jobs and thus not being hyper-skilled, money problems, visibility problems, and lopsided competition have been an issue in pretty much every major sport ever – but for major North American men’s sports, that was long enough ago that people tend to forget when criticizing the women’s game.

It’s also worth noting that this gap doesn’t only exist in women’s hockey. Women’s basketball has a league with fairly high visibility (the WNBA!) but nearly all its players are American, and college basketball on the women’s side is still pretty lopsided. Women’s soccer is usually a competition of just a few countries, though that gap is closing, after having considerably more time and visibility to do so. But still: the gap exists, and will continue to exist. Because the sport is in its infancy.

So how do you address the gap? Not by pulling the plug on the biggest competition in the sport, and the competition that gets the sport the vast majority of its publicity.

—“Should Women’s Hockey Be An Olympic Sport,” Watch This

The Olympic tournament matters. It matters to women and girls in many parts of the world. It matters to young girls in Nashville, Tennessee, as much as to girls in Espoo, Finland.

At least someone on the IOC understands that women’s hockey in the Olympics isn’t at the point where real parity is the measuring stick. Rather the tournament is meaningful for its ripple effect.

Many countries, particularly in Europe, didn’t believe women could play hockey until the game became part of the Olympics in 1998, [Gilbert Felli, an IOC executive director] said.

“Since we introduced it into the Games we can see that in many countries [women now play hockey],” he said. “In my country, Switzerland, we didn’t even think that women could play hockey. Since we introduced it into the Olympic Games women hockey teams have started. So that’s what the IOC is doing to help the balance of gender [in sports].”

It’s important to understand that the goal at this point is to get more players involved and more teams–to build an infrastructure rather than to become the NHL within 16 years. These are programs that are starting from scratch, in most cases, and it takes time to build them. And the fewer resources they have to build with, the longer it’s going to take. We should have at least as much patience with women’s hockey as we did with men’s.