The Women In Sports Microcosm

My week started with two connected and yet contradicting stories.

On the one hand, I listened to an incredible podcast with Billie Jean King, not only a tennis legend but an activist that has and continues to change the face of women’s sports.

On the other, I read an article that reminded me of the state of women’s soccer in Israel. Ninth grade girls in Binyamina had to fight for their right to an elective course in soccer, where the boys had been given this option for years. Which electives were the girls given? Music, dance, art, and to appease the athletes – volleyball.

I’m not against any of these options. In fact, I’d be glad to choose more than one. But it can’t be that in today’s day and age, soccer is still only being offered to boys.

When they brought up their desire for a soccer elective, the school’s response was that they weren’t physical enough and wouldn’t be able to run. If we’re in the beginning of the 21st century, why does it feel like the beginning of the 20th?

It’s true that some schools do offer a soccer elective for girls as well, and that not every response would be of that variety. Still, there are more schools like the one mentioned in Binyamina.

I had a similar situation at the Technion during my graduate studies. We were able to sign up for one graduate sports course and because it was not a requirement, the selection was limited. There were co-ed courses such as tennis and swimming, and classes separated by sex – some offered to both sexes and some only offered to one.

Can you guess what the breakdown was like?

Yep, basketball and soccer for men only and Zumba for women only.

I, unlike these wonderful ninth graders, did not fight it. Firstly, I thought I’d only be there for two years so I could hold off. (This was the wrong approach for two reasons – 1. it took me more than two years and 2. what about future students?) Secondly, I found an alternative by joining the school’s official women’s soccer team which was open to students of all degrees.

It’s important to note that I have nothing against Zumba and that I know plenty of women who would love to sign up for it. And some men, too.

But the fact that the option to sign up for soccer is reserved for one sex doesn’t seem right. And the response is usually more PC than the one given to the ninth graders. It’s usually along the lines of, “Well, how many women would actually sign up? You wouldn’t want a two-person class.”

The ninth graders prove the PC and non-PC response wrong. First, they have 23 girls who have signed up and enjoy the course. Second, they seem to have no problem running around and “even the boys” notice their skills.

So, back to Billie Jean King.

She is a shining master in the field of women’s sports and fighting for equal rights. She mentors athletes of every field seeking equal treatment and pay and her latest project is US women’s hockey. She has helped women make great strides and knows there is still work to be done.

But it seems like our strides in Israel haven’t been quite so big.

In the past few months, women’s soccer in Israel has and is still going through its own equal pay battle. Having not received the funds for 2019 and being notified that the 2020 budget for the league will be cut by 40% left Israel’s top league with no choice but to cancel the league if the funds weren’t received. Women already don’t get enough money to make a living as an athlete and the Department of Sports suggested reducing that amount.

So, they took the case to the supreme court and won! Well, sort of…. The media enjoyed portraying the decision as an equal pay victory where men and women will be treated equally. What the Department of Sports actually agreed to was to give over the funds for 2019. No mention of 2020 AND the 2019 funds have yet to be received despite the decision being made a couple of weeks ago. The league will scramble to open in a week and a half and the fight will continue for a brighter future for Israel’s women soccer players.

But what bright future are we planning? If these ninth graders had to fight in order to be granted the opportunity to play, which ninth graders fought and didn’t win or didn’t even have the courage to fight? If this is a story of success, there must be so many stories of failure.

And maybe there were some who fought and fought but gave up. Not everyone has the courage and audacity to keep going like Billie Jean King.

Still, there are some things we just shouldn’t be fighting for anymore. There are some things that should be taken for granted. If not equal pay (or any pay), then at least the opportunity to play.

I take part in both these worlds. I’m a coach to young girls who often have nowhere else to play but in our practices and league games. And I’m a soccer player myself, who sees the impact of lack of funds on mine and others’ ability to play and improve.

I want to empower these girls and want to keep fighting for them despite the future looking bleak. But it can’t just be me and other coaches of young girls making the effort. And it can’t be just Israel’s top female players doing the work. The future for our youth starts with what happens in their youth. I expect, specifically, educational institutions to join the movement and not stand by stereotypes. I want to see a joint effort to provide students with what is actually best for them, not what centuries of stigmas have suggested is best for them.

Billie Jean King says that the world of women in sports is a microcosm of our society at large. She means this for any country, as there are several suffering from similar problems. But I’d like us to look inward. If the status of women’s soccer in Israel is a microcosm of society in Israel… well, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

About the Author
Dalya works with the American Sephardi Federation Institute of Jewish Experience and is an active soccer player and soccer coach in Israel. Although she is a Technion graduate with an M.Sc. in Urban Planning, rather than build physical bridges, she's working on building social bridges - between different Jewish communities and connecting people through sports.
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