Local Softball Teams Still Narrowing Gap on Gender Equality
All around the Rogue Valley, pint-sized pitchers are winding up for their annual parade of adorableness: the Little League Playoffs, which involve players from Ashland to Gold Hill and all points in-between.
But there’s one caveat: all those players are boys. The girls don’t have a playoff.
It’s the kind of thing that lifelong sports fan and little league coach Will Shapiro says he wouldn’t have noticed if he didn’t have two daughters, both of whom play Ashland Little League softball.
“It’s easy to see the problems with girl’s sports when you’re intimately involved,” he says. “If I was coaching boys, I never would have known there was a problem because the boys don’t have a problem.”
Shapiro pushed the board to adopt a playoff for the girls softball leagues, but the effort didn’t get much traction. “If we’re establishing a playoff, it’s going to be more of a challenge,” says Shapiro. “But it’s a challenge no one has been interested in taking up.
And the lack of a playoff isn’t the only place the girl’s teams haven’t had equal treatment. A years-long conflict over access to the pool of trained umpires was only resolved this season.
“This is the first season the girls haven’t had to find their own umpires,” says Shapiro. “Boys minors games were getting umpires before the girls majors games.”
And though in the end the problem proved to be one organizer that went off-script, it took no shortage of butting heads to resolve what never should have been an issue in the first place. “It just speaks to that mindset that boys sports are more important than girls,” says Shapiro. “And the truth of the matter is that they sort of are, because the boys are playing for something; they have a playoff.”
But to be fair, with the exception of the umpire incident, there isn’t a villain. According to Associate Athletic Director for SOU and the Vice President of Softball for Ashland Little League Bobby Heiken, the biggest blockade is the numbers.
“When I started, six years ago, I coached a coed T-ball team,” says Heiken. “Back then you had 15 people on your team, 13 of them were boys and a few of them were girls.”
Heiken says that back then the minors softball team only had ten players, barely enough to take the field for a game, certainly not enough for there to be playoffs. Heiken attributes some of that to poor organization and a lack of consistency. With both of those things in place, there has been a steady increase in the number of girls signing up to play. There are now four coed T-ball teams, a girls rookie team with 15 players and two majors team with 12 players each.
“We’re to the point now, where if a girl signs up and she’s 9 or 10, there’s a place to go play,” says Heiken. “In the past, if a girl was 12 signed up, she didn’t have anywhere to go.” It’s a serious upward trend, but arguably still short of the amount of involvement that would be required to fill a playoff.
Asked if he thinks that speaks to a lack of encouragement, Heiken says he doesn’t know.
“In the future, as we continue to grow—I mean the valley—hopefully, minors and majors little league softball will continue to grow,” he says. “Can minors and majors softball go have a weekend tournament? Maybe. Hopefully.”
Heiken says that in addition to the number of players required, playoffs are also a logistical nightmare, requiring the coordination of teams across the valley for games in multiple locations and leaving transportation up to parents. The boys playoffs are a fairly recent convention, and putting them together proved a big job for an all-volunteer organization like Little League.
“[A girl’s playoff] is probably the next step we need to take,” says Heiken. “But I don’t know if right now anybody is ready to tackle that.”
Shapiro doesn’t disagree.
“Little League is volunteers who are exhausted who don’t necessarily have the time or energy or knowledge to push harder,” says Shapiro. “It’s hard to get volunteers to push themselves. But it shouldn’t have to be that way.”
Of course, there is also another position to consider: that a separate playoff wouldn’t be needed if the girls actually had equal access.
A 2014 op-ed in The New York Times posed the not unprovacative question of whether or not the very notion of girls’ softball is itself sexist.
“Yes, Division I softball is demanding, far from the beery fun of middle-aged weekend leagues,” wrote Emma Span, the article’s author. “But the women’s version of baseball is not softball. It’s baseball.”
Span, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, argued that while Title IX demanded matching funding and access, the fact that girls are culturally still channeled into softball made it an example of the sort of separate but equal policies that often mask more serious discrimination.
“What if we just admitted that softball and baseball are not, in fact, “separate but equal” but entirely different sports?” wrote Span. “There is no rational basis to claim that girls can’t throw overhand, run 90 feet between bases or handle a hardball. And there is no reason but sexism to prevent them from doing so.”
Technically, Rogue Valley girls can play baseball instead of softball if they choose.
“There’s a couple girls that fell in the cracks age-wise,” says Heiken. “And one of them, her father was a coach on a minors team, so he had her play there.”
But a big part of Span’s argument was we culturally channel boys and girls into the two different sports. She offered examples of girls across the nation who were chased off their teams through hazing and pressure from coaches. It may have been 1972 when Maria Pepe, the first girl to play Little League was kicked off her team, and 1973 when she won a court case filed in appeal, but it was only last year when Mo’Ne Davis became the first girl to pitch a shutout at the Little League World Series and the first Little Leaguer on the cover of Sports Illustrated and got this message on Twitter as a reward: “Disney is making a movie about Mo’ne Davis? WHAT A JOKE. That slut got rocked by Nevada.”
The man responsible for that tweet was Joey Casselberry, a baseball player at Bloomsburg University. Casselberry was suspended, over Davis’s objections, but it still speaks volumes that the situation ever arose in the first place.
Heiken sees a better future, even if it isn’t arriving as quickly as some would like.
“In the past we haven’t had umpires, and now the league is supplying us umpires,” says Heiken. “There’s so much positive gain. There’s still stuff to work on, but you’ll find that in anything.”
Shapiro doesn’t disagree that it’s getting better, but he finds the incrementalism of doing a little bit this year and little bit the next frustrating.
“What I keep hearing from people is that we’re making progress, it’s better than what it was,” he says. “But my response continues to be, ‘is it equal?’ Girls deserve the same opportunities. That’s like saying 200 years ago, ‘now you women can own land, but you still can’t vote.’ It’s better. But is it equity?”
Shapiro’s daughters will be aging out of Little League soon, and he hasn’t decided yet whether he will continue to volunteer in their absence. And he knows full well, that the push for a girl’s playoff might leave with him. But he’s still hopeful that it can become a reality.
“The logistics are complicated,” says Shapiro. “And I can understand why people wouldn’t want to go through it. But for me, that’s not an excuse. It just takes someone picking up the torch and making it happen.”