The Faith and Women’s Sports

Megan Rapinoe
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A few days ago, as everyone on social media knows, the American gymnast Simone Biles, a truly spectacular athlete, removed herself from her team at the Olympics because she could no longer trust her sense of her body as it must spin and somersault in the air and plunge to the floor. Divers have been known to break their necks or bruise their brains lethally, hitting their heads against the diving board, so Miss Biles’ yips are not to be taken lightly. 

I watched with my own eyes, back in 2000, when the rising star pitcher for the Cardinals, Rick Ankiel, suddenly, in a playoff game against the Braves, began to hurl the ball to the backstop, having lost control of his arm. I said to my wife as soon as I saw it, “His career may be over.” His career as a pitcher indeed was over, just like that. Years later, Ankiel came back as an outfielder whose arm you had better not challenge. But he was not the star he might have been.

So, I no more would demand that Simone Biles spin through the air with the yips than I would demand that a running back continue to play with a concussion.

Yet something else was going on in the commentary. People said that if Biles were a man, the criticism would be universal. The courage of a Mr. Biles would be cast into doubt. Roberto Duran was a champion several times over, but the one thing he cannot live down, unfortunately, is that he walked out of the ring in a fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, saying, “No mas”—“No more.” Duran denies that he said so, but that is what was reported, and the words have stuck.

On the other side, Lou Gehrig was a whole year into the terrible neurological disease that would take his life before he asked the manager of the Yankees to keep him off the starting lineup for the good of the team. I am speaking of things instinctual, but no less potent for all that. These moments mean something to men as a sex; they have an anthropological force that they do not have for women.

So, my reply to those who compared Miss Biles to a Mr. Biles is twofold. First, “We don’t ask people to risk life or limb for our entertainment.” Second, “But she is not a man, and it’s wrong to treat her that way.”

In a healthy and just society, every custom that distinguishes between the sexes is to help to preserve the people and to protect and promote marriage and family life. Wellington is supposed to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. The meaning is clear. The boy’s sport is a preparation for the man’s war. The football team is the hunting party, the ship’s crew, the infantry platoon. It has been so in all human cultures.

I have read of the enthralling and gruesome sun dance of the Plains Indians, described by a rare outsider permitted to witness it. It was an initiation ceremony for boys on the brink of manhood. Leather thongs were attached to a tree on one end and then hooked into the boys’ flesh just above the breast on the other. To the sound of drums and the encouraging whoops of the men, the boys strained with all their might against the thong and the hook until they freed themselves. 

Usually, it would take quite a long time, and sometimes a boy would faint from the intense pain, the heat of the sun, and the loss of blood. The witness said that he saw the flesh of a couple of the boys stretched out an arm’s length from the torso, and still the hooks held. Call it barbaric if you dare, in these politically correct times. Yet as I describe it, I know that it must put a gleam in the eye of many a man or boy. He says, “I wish I had done something like that too.”

When the girl looks at the boy carrying the football, his uniform covered with mud from the shoulder pads to the knees, something deep in her soul finds it attractive because such a man will be strong, will give up his body for the common good, will be able to unite with other men to defeat the enemy, and will protect his own. Of course I am not speaking about individuals. I am speaking about the anthropological universal. Western Europeans are, if anything, rather tame in this regard. If you really want to see the human male in a team or as the lone warrior, on display for his fellow fighters and for the woman who will love him and bear his children, go behold the fire-knife dancers of Samoa, or the Zulu war dancers of Southern Africa. Learn about the samurai.

What the woman seeks from the man is not what the man seeks from the woman, though these desired things complete one another, like a lock and a key. They are inscribed upon our bodies. The woman has the chin and the voice of the child. They say, “This person must be protected.” Her wide hips and her prominent breasts say, “This person is the garden of fertility, and you are utterly barren without her.” 

The man’s voice bespeaks authority: it booms, and can put fear into those who want to hurt you. His narrow hips are made for speed. His broad shoulders are made for force. His heavier bones are evident even in the face, and they make for that masculine look that both men and women say is not beautiful, but that many a woman seeks.

Now, far be it from me to say, in a free country, that women shouldn’t compete in sports. Far be it from me to deny them the sheer fun of it, or the healthy bodies they can build by it. It is good that there should be women gymnasts. Miss Biles is an artist in the air.

It is, however, not the same kind of thing as the male sport. I am not talking about mere quality. When it comes to that, even in a sport such as running, which puts little premium on strength and penalizes the heavier male body, women at the highest level are outmatched by high school boys at the highest level. When it comes to sports that do put a premium on strength, such as football, there is no competition at all. But I am talking about what the sport means.

The male team sport is readily congruent in form with the good of marriage and family-making and the establishment of prolific communities. The female team sport is not so. Here we need not turn to such people as the aggressively lesbian and self-uglified Megan Rapinoe, the soccer player who resents that male players earn more money than she does, though the only reason why she can play at all is that her league is permitted to exclude males, even teenage boys. 

We need only consider what women must do to keep fit to compete for their teams. Their bodies must look more male than female. They must not put themselves in danger of becoming pregnant, and that means either that they do not take up with men, or that they use contraception regularly; otherwise, the team could not rely on them. How many abortions does a women’s soccer team represent? If the women are runners, they commonly lose so much body fat that the body thinks it is starving and does not ovulate. And males are not sexually attracted to females whose bodies look male, or barren.

Women’s sports have long been a political counter for feminists, and that puts a few dozen bottoms in the stands. Mostly they are entertainment for people, more men than women, who enjoy a good game regardless of who is playing it or what the skills are. What women’s sports are not is culturally necessary. We could do without them. In the real world in which men in teams must sometimes fight against other men in teams, or against the brute forces of nature either in building or in protecting what has been built, we cannot do without the cultural practices that train boys to be such men.

What connection, if any, does this matter have with the Catholic faith? Only this, I believe: the social teaching of the Church places what Pope Leo XIII called the societas domestica, the society of family life, as the foundation of all social good, and as its principal, though by no means sole, beneficiary. Right now, in the United States, virtually all cultural practices and expectations that once were aimed, directly or indirectly, at the good of marriage and family life have been obliterated.

Some of the obliteration has been by design: and many a feminist has supported women’s sports for just that reason. Some has been the sad but predictable effect of the Lonely Revolution, that collapse of sexual mores that has left the Western world a ruin of families destroyed, or battered, or poorly or incoherently formed and thus exposed to every wind, or never formed to begin with. We form soccer players and gymnasts of both sexes by design. Marriages we leave to accident.

We should concern ourselves less with what a gymnast does or does not do half a world away and more with the young men and young women in our midst who never do cartwheels, because they never feel the joy for it, because they are alone. Yes, sure, the same thing many of us always talk about. Keep hounding that bad judge, said Jesus, and eventually he may do something useful if only to get you to shut up.

[Photo Credit: TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images]

By

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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