Exploring girls’ experiences in athletics at UAHS.
By Josie Stewart, ’21.
In the starting week of this year’s track and field season, some members of the girl’s team were greeted with a brief meeting on the appropriate attire for practice. While the starting weeks of spring sports this year were cool, students weren’t at first encouraged to layer up for the cold temperatures.
“[The team] ended practice, and after we stretched [one of the coaches] told the boys they could go and told the girls to come to the corner of the field,” senior sprinter Adiah Bonham said. “When we got there, she [said] she had been noticing [our] clothing, and she talked about how she wants us to be classy and professional while still being confident.”
This followed a teammate being “dress coded” by a coach earlier in the same week.
“I came to practice in leggings and a jacket and a tank top—that’s what I would wear last year, too. During practice she would stop me while I was running and say you can’t wear that, and I [just said] ‘I’m sorry. I’ll wear something else tomorrow,’” said the student, who requested anonymity. “The next day, I wore the same jacket with a t-shirt and sweatpants and she stopped me again while I was running and said, ‘That shirt is too short—when you lift your arms up you can see your stomach.’”
At the same meeting after practice, the athlete recalls the coach mentioning that they shouldn’t be showing “bra straps and stomachs” along with the implication that the boy’s track team is watching the girl’s team during practice.
According to athletic director Tony Pusateri, track and field is the most policed sport in terms of clothing.
“The only thing I know about dress code is that it always, always, always pertains to track and cross country. At all the high schools I’ve seen—Reynoldsburg, Dublin Coffman, Upper Arlington—we ask the guys to wear t-shirts when they’re out in the neighborhoods. Obviously, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t,” Pusateri said.
While this rule is in place, he said the girl’s side is usually more controversial.
“For the girls’ side, obviously they’re going to cover themselves. Whenever there’s a female coach, the female coach asks them to be presentable and to keep their dignity. If I were coaching [women], I probably wouldn’t say anything about what you wore because I don’t think it’s appropriate,” he said. “If we have a female coach, they really try to tell the girls to keep their dignity. You know high school guys can be ornery sometimes. We don’t want to put girls in that situation at practice.”
After this encounter, Bonham said that the emails addressing the team were targeted at appropriate clothes for the weather rather than appropriateness in general. On the boy’s side, junior and distance runner Nathan Mark said that their team also must be prepared for the weather, but practices like taking off shirts have not been brought up.
“If we don’t wear long pants and a sweatshirt if it’s below 60 degrees, then we get yelled at,” Mark said. “When we go on our long runs, we can wear shorts and it’s not a big deal. If we’re off campus, then [we might take off our shirts to run], but if we’re on the track then probably not.”
Mark had also heard about the meeting on the girl’s teams and believed that some of the implications were wrong.
“[It’s] pretty unfair. That’s assuming a lot about both sides. Telling them that they have to wear something so they’re not distracting, that’s objectifying I guess in a lot of ways,” he said. “I don’t really understand where they’re getting their reasoning and I don’t think that distracting the boys is a good reason for a dress code change. Other than the girls winning more than us, I don’t really pay attention. For distance, we just practice by ourselves a lot.”
Pusateri said that there is no dress code given by the athletic department, although some athletes have seen problems with dress in general.
In the past, women’s crew team members were not allowed to remove their tank tops at practice whether on land or on the water.
“Until this year, we have had coaches in the past who haven’t let us take our tank tops off when it was really hot,” senior and varsity rower Lindsay Holman said. “Whereas [with] the boys: if it’s above 70 degrees, you know what that means—shirts off.”
In other sports, such as field hockey, the rules may vary or depend on others near the team.
“It doesn’t really matter what clothes you wear [to practice], but sometimes with conditioning, we’ll run in our sports bras,” senior and field hockey player Elizabeth Cramer said. “Our coaches don’t care if nobody is around, but if another school sport is close or something, they won’t let us. I don’t know what that means, but it’s a little annoying.”
Cramer also believed that this is viewed differently when put in perspective of boy’s sports, too.
“The guys cross country team, the football team, literally all the other teams will walk around without shirts on after practice or during conditioning or something. I don’t see why we can’t do it if everything is covered that needs to be covered, then it’s not a big deal,” Cramer said. “You see women in the Olympics wearing sports bras and spandex because it helps them perform better.”
This lack of explicit rules still had some athletes feeling uncomfortable with the general culture in women’s sports.
UAHS 2020 graduate and former member of the swim team Alicia Howe found the general culture with swim uniforms to be a common topic of discussion.
“The water fountain that’s in the natatorium is so bad, so we’d have to go out into the hallway to get water. You just go out in your swimsuit because that’s what you’re wearing, and there were times when there were adults or other students who would make comments like ‘You should cover yourself up,’” Howe said. “I don’t find that weird but apparently it is seen as something that’s very controversial.
Aside from practices, this extended into swim meets with staff attending to support students.
“A lot of [the team] felt the need when our teachers would come to our meets—which I very much appreciated—we always felt like we should cover up more and that we shouldn’t [greet] them in just our swimsuit,” she said. “We were meant to feel like our teachers shouldn’t see us in our swimsuits at a swim meet.”
Howe also is part of an advisory board with the UA Equity Project where she pushed for focusing on activism for dress code reform and giving attention to problems with gender and sex in the high school. With this, she felt that a 1998 study about self-objectification related to the performance of athletes at the high school.
In the study, proctors had men and women try on a sweater and a swimsuit and rate themselves in the apparel. During this, they gave the subjects a math test and found that the women scored significantly lower on the test while wearing a swimsuit.
Howe mentioned that this study concluded that “perhaps wearing a swimsuit reminded [participants] that they are women” and therefore “might have induced the effects of stereotype threat for women in the swimsuit condition.”
In terms of high school athletics, Howe has always found this state of sexualization to be odd.
“I think that swimming is a sport that most people do since you’re a child and we all grew up in our swimsuits,” she said. “That’s not something that’s seen as sexual in any way to us and it always felt very odd to me that other people would sexualize that.”
Holman would address this idea similarly.
“The way that you dress for sports and athletics should be whatever makes you comfortable and what will help you perform at your best. Usually with sports, it’s all the focus on what you’re doing personally,” Holman said.
Howe described the dynamic between the girl’s and boy’s swim teams similarly to that of the crew team and found gender discrimination in more subtle ways.
“Swimming is unique in that the boys and the girls practice together and I don’t think that’s something that happens with any other sport as far as I’m aware. We view ourselves as the same team in a lot of contexts,” she said.
Since the team practices and attends meets with one another, Howe found that problems extended from former differences by gender before Title IX.
“Boys would bring [‘Saturdays are for the boys’] flags to meets,” Howe said. “Out of context, I am not offended by the flag as a woman, but in that context where women are historically excluded from competing on Saturday and you bring a flag that says Saturdays are for the boys, I found it very odd that that wasn’t a talking point and it was allowed.”
MEN’S AND WOMEN’S
Aside from dress code, the differences between women’s and men’s athletics have been on display this year after women in the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament posted videos of the disparities between their equipment and other amenities compared to the men’s teams.
After the posts went viral, the NCAA replaced the women’s weight facilities after saying that the problem was not due to problems with funding.
As with problems with dress and similarly to the scale of the NCAA, student athletes in Upper Arlington don’t find that they
originate in funding or problems with money.
“Girls volleyball and boys volleyball get the same exact [funding]. Boys golf and girls golf get the same thing. Boys soccer and girls soccer—same thing,” Pusateri said. “You can’t compare field hockey and football—there are no [counterpart] teams. If there’s two sports—one boys and one girls—they get the same thing.”
Pusateri does note that there were previously slight differences in the amount of funding between the two swim teams since the boy’s team used to attend the state tournaments more often than the girls and required more funding for hotel rooms. He now says that the amount, though, has evened out.
Instead, Cramer has more concerns focused on her team being less prioritized over other teams when it comes to practice.
“One thing that we’ve struggled with is finding field time. The guys’ teams always get priority on the field which is really unfair because we’re all sports teams at the school. Sometimes we’ll have practice until 9:30 at night because that’s the only time we can get on the field,” Cramer said. “At the Marv it doesn’t matter because there’s lights, but at Tremont we’ve had practice so late that it’s gotten dark and a couple of our teammates got hurt because it was dark.”
Cramer also explained that there have been problems in the past with getting necessary equipment.
“We had [goals] at Tremont and obviously we’d just leave them there overnight because that’s what every other team does. It kind of happened over a period of time, but slowly the goals were getting torn apart and it wasn’t because they were old or we were doing it,” she said. “People were tearing off wood on the backboard and the nets had holes in them and at one point, the whole thing collapsed and we couldn’t even put it up. After that, it probably took a month or more for the school to get us new goals. We did not have goals for a pretty long period of time.”
Beyond this, some problems don’t stem from equipment but rather expressions from counterpart teams or even just stereotypes or beliefs about girl’s sports.
Holman has experienced this repeatedly from other members of her team rather than with coaching staff during her four years on the crew team.
“One of the things I love with crew is that it’s a similar sport for either side.There aren’t any differences with rules and the equipment is essentially the same. In some of the ways it’s run, I think there are some differences,” Holman said. “I feel like usually we do a good job of the team supporting each other, but it’s not like I’ve never heard things from the guys where they’re discrediting accomplishments because ‘it’s easier since we’re girls’ or ‘there’s less competition’ or in the past, some people have said that [girls] can’t reach the same level of pain and we’ll never know what it’s like to push yourself to that limit.”
Cramer has heard similar criticisms of field hockey throughout her time on the team.
“I’ve had many people—mostly guys, but some girls even—though it’s an Olympic sport,” she said. “We have a national team. It’s arguably harder than other sports. It’s a lot of running and it takes a lot of physical strength. On average we run as much in a game as in soccer.”
Cramer also believes that this notion leads to boy’s sports being supported more.
Aside from the NCAA reports in the news, allowing transgender athletes to join high school sports teams has also made national headlines.
Mississippi and Arkansas have both banned transgender student athletes from joining school sports. According to the governor of Arkansas, it is to “maintain fairness” in women’s sporting events.
While this has not been a major concern in Upper Arlington this year, the Ohio High School Athletic Association does have a mandate for transgender athletes.
It states that trans women are able to compete on men’s teams at any time, but “before a transgender female can participate in a girl’s sport or on a girls’ team she must either have completed a minimum of one year of hormone treatment related to gender transition or demonstrate to the Executive Director’s Office by way of sound medical evidence that she does not possess physical or physiological advantages over genetic females of the same age group.”
Similarly, a “transgender male who has not yet begun medically prescribed testosterone treatment for purposes of gender transition may participate on a boys’ team,” but if the athlete is taking medically prescribed testosterone treatment “before he can participate on a boys’ team, medical evidence must be submitted to the Executive Director’s Office that certifies that the muscle mass developed as a result of this testosterone treatment does not exceed the muscle mass that is typical of an adolescent genetic boy; that he has not started any hormone treatment and his hormone levels are monitored by a licensed physician every three to six months.”
While a bill to ban trans athletes from joining the team that aligns with their gender identity was proposed earlier this year, it has not been passed.
Aside from following the guidelines and mandates of the OHSAA, Upper Arlington’s athletic department is ahead of many other schools with a wide variety of sports and multiple girls participating in traditionally male-dominated sports like ice hockey and wrestling.
“Nobody [else] has 33 sports. The only one that has more than us in Ohio is Ohio State. They have 36,” Pusateri said. “There is one high school in the state of Ohio that has crew. It’s Upper Arlington. Sometimes something will come up with crew, and we have no one to call. If something came up with tennis, I would call Hilliard or Dublin and say, ‘How do you guys do this?’ We have no one to call since we’re the only ones.”
While the school does offer many more sports, counterparts for girl’s of some sports have not been created since there are only a small number of female athletes.
“[OHSAA] looks to see if there is an interest [in a new sport]. If they were going to start surfing, they would [say], ‘How is anyone surfing here? There’s no ocean.’ Obviously, that’s extreme. If enough girls in the state of Ohio go, ‘Ohio State has a good women’s ice hockey team—let us start it,’ Ohio high school would say that if they see it catching on like girls wrestling, then they’ll propose it,” he said. “Then Arlington would propose it, too, but we’ve only had one or two girls since I’ve been here.”
Pusateri also wants to reiterate to athletes that their voices and opinions are important to the school and athletic department.
“Student athletes in the athletic program come first. If they want something—obviously if it’s not against the law or the rules or anything like that—we are supposed to do our best to give that to them,” he said.
Similarly, he has instructions for students who have had problems on their teams or with peers.
“If you’re a student athlete, we ask that if you have a problem, then we ask the coach and the athlete to work all of their problems out. If the coach and the athlete can’t work it out, then we ask the coach, the athlete and the parents to try to work out an issue,” Pusateri said. “If that doesn’t happen, then the athletic director comes in and if that doesn’t happen, then the principal gets involved. We would like our young student athletes to advocate for themselves. We don’t want something [like] you feeling threatened [to follow this command], then you come right to us or the police or the principal.”
Although this chain of command is important for issues like uniforms and playing time, it may not adequately address issues like dress code or gender differences since some athletes believe this behavior is often continued in the school building.
Holman attributes this factor to the smaller microaggressions or sentiments that are sometimes expressed.
“[People use] weird euphemisms or something where kids will lose a game or sport and be like ‘We got raped.’ Obviously the intent is just to say ‘We lost brutally’ or whatever, but that’s an awful thing to say: step back, that’s a serious thing,” she said. “I don’t think we should be tossing that around lightly. Small things like that add up and make things seem okay or less serious than they are.”
Cramer agrees, especially in the sense that the differences or harassment aren’t often discussed in terms of what’s going on in the high school. She attributes this in part to past responses to sexual harassment that has possibly discouraged women from speaking out now.
Drawing this back to the field, the dynamics are possibly about the respect for one another as athletes.
“There have been times when we have practice and we have the field—it’s our designated time and nobody else is supposed to be on it—and groups of guys will come onto the field and start playing football in the middle of our practice,” Cramer said. “Nobody would ever do that if the football team was practicing or the lacrosse team was practicing. I think it’s just a level of respect that people have where they have more toward men than women especially in sports.”