Sports world: The invisible woman

Girls have many options to play sports at the amateur level, but once they leave high school, they're largely ignored.
Ask tennis legend Billie Jean King about the future of women's sports, and even the queen gets tangled in the net.

It has been 32 years since the feisty feminist King took on an aging Bobby Riggs, won the tennis match and made Neil Armstrong-moonwalk-historic strides for women in sports.

What followed were generations of female athletes who gained Title IX rights to have their own high school and college teams, earn scholarships, garner million-dollar marketing deals, attain Olympic gold-medal fame and have pro careers in women's leagues.

But while many pro leagues have folded, floundered and faded from their novelty appeal since the 1996 "Summer of Women" Olympic Games, today's biggest motion and commotion in women's sports surround the same battles between the sexes that sparked the revolution more than three decades ago.

Female athletes -- from golf's Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam and auto racing's Danica Patrick to bowling's Liz Johnson and minor-league hockey's Angela Ruggiero -- are taking on the men and receiving their greatest, albeit not warmest, receptions.

Cameras detail their Lone Ranger-ette rides through No (wo)Man's Lands. Sponsors flock to endorse them. Curious spectators watch them perform against stronger, often more seasoned men. And Americans take seats and sides in the gender war.

"Women get the attention when we get into the men's arena, and that's sad," King said.

Wie and Sorenstam aren't going away. They might again test their game in the PGA like a boxer fighting up in a weight class. Patrick won't be leaving soon. Auto racing, like equestrian, is a sport where female physiology doesn't hinder performance.

The promoters who have found battle-of-the-sexes events to be sports marketing bonanzas are staying. Could this trend be a harbinger of U.S. co-ed sports?

"Seeing women and men playing together and competing together begs the question: What do we value as a culture?" asked Michael Messner, a USC professor who studies gender and sports. "We'll have to see how the women compete, whether they hold their own as athletes. It would be sad if Americans weren't ready to see co-ed team sports, but we're a country that doesn't seem ready to have a female vice president."

Climbing the fence

On July 8, Wie -- a 6-foot, Honolulu high school 15-year-old in chandelier earrings -- almost became the first woman since Babe Didrikson Zaharias, in the 1945 Tucson Open, to make the cut in a PGA event. She missed by two strokes at the John Deere Classic.

But Wie already had become the first female to qualify for a men's USGA championship. She later lost the July quarterfinal match to the eventual champion, Clay Ogden, at the U.S. Amateur Public Links in Ohio. Wie attempted to qualify for the 2003 PGA Sony Open, playing from men's tees and tying for 47th in field of 97. Tom Lehman, who played with Wie, dubbed her the "Big Wiesy" for her effortless Ernie Els-style swing.

The amateur phenom has thoughts of playing the Masters -- even though she hasn't won an LPGA event. (She was runner-up in three.)

Other female golfers have gone Wie's way. In 2003, Sorenstam captivated the country when she used a sponsor's exemption to play the Colonial, and Suzy Whaley qualified for the PGA Greater Hartford Open. Neither made the cut.

"They're great athletes saying 'I want to test my mettle at the highest level and see if my short game can compete against the big hitters,'" said Women's Sports Foundation executive director Donna Lopiano. "They're getting the attention because they're the underdogs, hitting the 4-iron when the guys are hitting the 8."

Some women have turned to battling men because it is their only pro option.

Liz Johnson, 31, joined the Professional Bowlers Association after the women's league folded. She was runner-up in three events and became the first woman to win a title, rolling a 244 to beat Michael Fagan for the $40,000 check in last weekend's PBA East Region Kingpin Lanes Open.

"What we're seeing is that in certain sports, under certain conditions, women and men can compete equally," Johnson said. "Obviously, this wouldn't work in power sports like football or basketball, or even with golf with 600-yard, par-5s, but it works in bowling where the pins aren't male or female and the bowlers throw 15 pounds."

Women have long paired with men in mixed doubles tennis, a co-ed mingling that King uses in her sports/societal ideal of World Team Tennis. Men and women square off in singles, doubles and mixed sets that count equally toward a team score.

"Any time you can do a co-ed product, it's better because it includes everybody, and it shows that in the right conditions, a woman can be a great competitor," WTT Chief Executive Officer Ilana Kloss said.

The concern King and Kloss share about female athletes gaining notoriety by competing in arenas historically reserved for men is that these women will be perceived less as "groundbreakers" and more as "invaders."

Auto racing
A beautiful brunette in a fire suit, Patrick has piloted her Honda-powered Panoz at speeds topping 200 mph, battled poor handling, overcome crew errors and still managed, as she did in July's Argent Mortgage Indy 300 with a ninth place, to post six top-10 finishes in 13 starts in the Indy Racing League. But the toughest ride Patrick faces as a female rookie might be on the high-banked turns of sexism.

"There's no legitimate reason the sexes should be separated in racing," Lopiano said. "All Patrick is doing is showing that she belongs."

Despite her Sports Illustrated and TV Guide cover girl celebrity and her face on promotional billboards bringing new attention and sponsors to the league, Patrick and her "Danica Mania" have sparked the envy of fellow drivers.

Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, lost in the media frenzy surrounding Patrick's historic fourth-place Indy start and finish, wore a T-shirt at Texas Motor Speedway: "Really, I won the Indianapolis 500."

Patrick's Rahal Letterman Racing teammates, Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira, have worn T-shirts: "Danica's teammate" and "Danica's other teammate." IRL drivers Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta boycotted an autograph session at Milwaukee because Patrick was given "special treatment" with her own line limited to wristband-wearers for crowd control. The IRL fined the drivers.

"She's a target. This is what happens when you're different and you're good," said Milka Duno, the lone woman racing in the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series.

Duno, an attractive Latina, is a naval engineer with four master's degrees, and understands racing's physics better than most drivers.

"Being on the track is like being in any workplace. You have to have the right personality, have confidence, show that you know what you're doing but not come on too strong -- and then you will earn respect," Duno said. "It's a delicate situation in racing because men aren't used to seeing a woman, and of course, we get the attention because we're doing something new. But don't hate us. Our time has come."

Becoming invisible

A forward on the otherwise all-boys Anaheim Junior Ducks, Annie Pankowski can hold her own on the ice, skating hard, wielding her stick and scoring goals against boys. She is 10 and plays Squirt-A division hockey. She's too young to think about gender roles -- or that soon, some of the boys will grow stronger, start beating her to the puck, checking her into the boards and perhaps force her into playing full time with the other girls in the Pee Wee's Lady Ducks.

Fortunately, sociology professor Messner said, today's girls have many options to continue playing sports at the amateur level. The problem lies "when they leave high school, that they become invisible," said Messner, who co-authored a study with Margaret Carlisle Duncan of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989-2004," which concluded that "women's sports is still largely ignored."

The study states that men's sports received 91.4 percent of the airtime in six weeks of early evening and late night TV sports news on three network affiliates. Women's sports got 6.3 percent and gender-neutral topics, 2.4 percent. In Los Angeles sports news shows, men's reports outnumbered women's reports, 9-to-1.

"There is a continuing marginalization, or downright ignoring, of women's sports by the media," Messner said. "And a lot of that has to do with the choices that TV producers and newspapers editors keep making, preferring to play it safe rather than lead a gender revolution."

The findings don't bode well for struggling women's pro leagues in a crowded market. The WNBA, even without the rival American Basketball League (1996-1998), subsists with a small, but loyal following and NBA financial aid. Its best-known highlight was a men's move: Sparks center Lisa Leslie's historic 2002 dunk.

Beyond basketball, the golf (LPGA) and tennis (WTA) live quiet existences with revolving sponsors. Women's football has practically joined the witness protection program, despite four leagues, including Women's Professional Football League and the American Football Women's League with four Los Angeles-area teams.

In 2003, the Women's United Soccer Association and the Women's Professional Bowling Association ceased operation. The 5-year-old Women's Pro Softball League shut down in 2002 and restarted in 2004 as National Pro Fastpitch -- only to have the International Olympic Committee vote last month to drop the sport in 2012.

"It took many, many years for the NBA to catch on the way that it did, and I'm not sure that promoters and marketers are that patient anymore," Messner said. "What gets the mass media's attention are the novelty moments, when women are pitted against men, and that becomes news."

Up next

Promoters last week announced that IBA women's light-heavyweight champion Ann Wolfe will fight journeyman Bo Skipper in an Oct. 15 bout at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.

America's most popular sports prize all things big: NFL's explosive tackles, baseball's towering home runs, NBA's thundering dunks, NHL's tough hits, golf's long drives.

"But there's still room for women, and what we see are emerging female athletes and female fans," said Peter Ueberroth, the former Major League Baseball commissioner and organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics who is helping reinstate softball as an Olympic sport. "This is all changing the modern American sports."

Today a few women golf, bowl, race cars and horses; play soccer, hockey, billiards, football and tennis with men. Women might one day play mixed doubles in beach volleyball, an idea "I believe a lot of people would be totally into," said top-ranked AVP player Kerri Walsh.

"On the beach, the attitudes are more progressive, so it would be cool to do that as a subset of what we already do -- as long as we play on a guy's net, so guys don't spike in our faces," Walsh said.

Perhaps women will one day tend goal in the NHL or in Major League Soccer or kick in the NFL -- positions where strength won't impair them.

"It might be a long time before we see co-ed anything, but this is a start," Messner said. "What's important is that girls -- and especially boys -- see women are great competitors."

Just like when King became king.

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