While I was at dinner this evening, I watched, off and on, the scoreless first half of the women’s soccer game between the United States and the Czech Republic. While I was watching the game I puzzled over the quality of play and the fact that these women had previously lost a game to fifteen year old teenage boys, while simultaneously demanding that they be paid far more than men who play the game far more skillfully than they do. As is sometimes the case, I was led to think about women’s sports and about why they cause such high levels of controversy. When viewed in isolation, women can make a great deal of claims when it comes to their own excellence when competing against other women. That said, the vast majority of the time, women fare very badly when comparing themselves against men, and by and large men’s professional sports have a lot more fans largely due to the higher quality of play that is present in men’s sports when compared with women’s sports, something that is true whether we are comparing chess or basketball or soccer or tennis or any other number of sports.
I think women’s sports can best be understood as a protected domain in which competition within that domain is made fair by anticompetitive practices that shield that protected space from the harshness and rigors of competition in a cruel and unfair world. When those who are not by birth and nature women are able to compete against women, the results are as predictable as a win for Penn State’s swimming team. The outrage is predictable, but also somewhat self-defeating for those who want to glorify women in competition with men. Women can achieve athletic glory only when they are shielded from direct competition with men and are only competing against each other. This ought to lead to a sense of humility and understanding about the world, but those who are protected from the harshness of the outside world often have an undue confidence in their own strength and prowess because they have not seen the world as it is, but only the world as it has been made comfortable for them.
It is not necessarily a bad thing to protect some spaces from the harshness of the world. As much as we may ridicule safe spaces and the tendency for contemporary people to desire places where they do not have to try very hard or work very hard or face failure, we have a pretty weak population that cannot handle failure and would face a lot of it in any kind of remotely fair competition, so having some sort of protected space makes sense given the weakness of the people we are dealing with right now. The state of our population right now is similar to the fate of elephants when faced with poachers, or that of the infant industries of the United States in the early 19th centuries when protective tariffs were set up to protect these industries from better British ones. It is no shame to protect that which cannot fend for itself in the cruelties of the real world. It is a shame to pretend as if one’s prowess in protected spaces counts the same as success against the toughest competition. We accept that human beings cannot beat the best computers at go, chess, or other endeavors, but we do not pretend otherwise when we ban players from using engines when playing competitive chess against other people. Similarly, the success of the US Women’s National Team in soccer against other women ought not to blind them or anyone else to the fact that they are competing against other women and would not fare nearly so well if competing against men, or even teenagers.
If we choose to value women’s sports, it is not because of the excellence at which those sports is performed, by and large. If we want to see peak performance, we will mostly watch men play any competitive endeavor, whether it be performance over a chessboard, the most quads in a figure skating routine, punching power in boxing, speed of serves in tennis, dunks in basketball, and so on. If we choose to value women’s sports, and I think women’s sports should be valued, we must value it on grounds other than competitive excellence in an absolute sense. We may value competitive excellence in a relative sense and like to see as much representation as possible in sports and other activities so that all can compete against others at their same skill level and develop themselves and their capabilities. We may recognize that even those of us who lack a great deal of natural athletic talent may still value participation in such competition for other reasons, not least the chance to engage in physical activity to improve and preserve such health as we possess in activities we enjoy. But if we do so, we ought not to be under any illusions that we are the best in the world at what we do simply because we may be the best in our rec league, or the best in our cossetted and protected league. Self-knowledge and a sense of humility about the barriers that protect us from complete and total failure is of vital importance, and is all too frequently missing in contemporary discourse. These are qualities we would do well to recover.