On International Women’s Day, Drexel University’s School of Sports Management hosted a sneak preview of “TOMBOY,” a documentary tackling the gender bias within the world of sports, which had its TV debut last night on CSN Philly, with re-airs tonight at 5 p.m. on CSN and 9 p.m. on TCN.
The hour-long movie opens on sports superstars like Philadelphia’s Little League pitching prodigy Mo’ne Davis, former UFC champion Miesha Tate and three-time Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn reminiscing about how they fell in love with athleticism, as well as the setbacks they’ve faced as women in a male-dominated sphere. Quotes from the athletes in the documentary echo one another:
“I was born with sports in my blood, because the first word I ever learned after ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ was ‘ball.’”
“Growing up as a girl in New York playing at the park, I learned not to let anyone punk you, to come and take your own and to not be afraid.”
“I just wanted to be a great player, and I wanted to play the game because I fell in love with it.”
TOMBOY is the name of both the film and the entire multimedia documentary series, spearheaded this year by Ted Griggs, president of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and Comcast SportsNet California. In addition to the movie, the TOMBOY program features original blog posts and podcasts, highlighting stories of female sports broadcasters, industry leaders and athletes.
The project as a whole tackles themes beyond girls getting to play school sports. Michelle Murray, CSN Philadelphia’s Vice President of Content, explained that the conversation this project aims to elevate is universal.
“It’s really just different women talking about their experiences,” Murray told Billy Penn. “That’s why I think it’s important for anybody to watch, because especially in this day and age, conversation is key.”
Even for the non-athletically inclined, the documentary contains broad messages, one being that sharing personal experiences contributes to better understanding between people.
The name of the project itself carries different perspectives. Women in the film go back and forth on their reactions to being labeled a “tomboy” growing up. Some athletes, like American Olympic hockey player Jocelyne Lamoureux, saw the nickname as a mark of strength. Being compared to a boy was good, because everyone knew boys were good at sports. But others, like tennis legend and founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation Billie Jean King, found it insulting.
“I didn’t like to be called a tomboy,” she says in the film. “I hated it. Then what do you call a boy, you know?
“He’s a great athlete, he’s well coordinated. So am I.”
Murray, who grew up playing a handful of different sports and played tennis competitively in college, never let the term bother her.
“It’s taken on different meaning to different people,” she said, emphasizing, “Sometimes it’s just about giving people a different perspective.”
That conversation goes both ways. Murray said one of the best parts of talking to people who’ve seen the movie is the range of reactions they have. She’s eager to hear what different viewers learn or take away from TOMBOY, from hearing the experiences of different athletes to realizing the effects of Title IX on girls’ participation in sports.
Though not specific to sports, Title IX has had a huge impact on school athletics programs, ensuring girls and women have the same right to play as their male peers. Enacted in 1972, it states:
No person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
At Wednesday’s premier, Drexel President John Fry noted that before the enactment of Title IX, fewer than 300,000 girls competed in high school sports across the country. Now, that number is more than three million. But there’s still room for improvement.
During the Drexel symposium, Comcast SVP David Cohen brought up a recent conflict between a seventh grade basketball player and her school. In early 2017, St. Theresa’s School in Kenilworth, N.J., expelled Sydney Phillips and her sister after their family sued the school over Sydney’s right to play on the boys basketball team. The girls team Sydney played on had been cut from the athletic department.
Cohen noted that the stigma attached to female athletes unfortunately goes deeper than sports.
“It discourages [girls] from participating in life to the fullest and makes them question whether they have the same opportunities that young men have in our society,” he said.
Sydney has since been readmitted to her school and granted a spot on the boys team. But the fact that the issue arose indicates the need to keep having the conversation of girls’ right to play.
In September, 2016, the Women’s Sports Foundation — founded by Billie Jean King — reported that by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys, with one of the biggest factors being simply a lack of access:
Girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys have. Lack of physical education in schools and limited opportunities to play sports in both high school and college mean girls have to look elsewhere for sports –which may not exist or may cost more money. Often there is an additional lack of access to adequate playing facilities near their homes that makes it more difficult for girls to engage in sports.
There is some encouragement for girls sports at the high school level, though — an indication that an increasing number of female athletes are participating beyond the age of 14. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of participants in high school sports in America has increased to nearly 7.9 million kids, with girls’ participation set at an all-time high of more than 3.3 million last year, the 27th-consecutive year girls’ participation at the high school level has increased.
Track and Field is far and away the most popular girls program — nearly half a million high school girls participate in organized track and field — while volleyball ranks second, just ahead of basketball. More schools play basketball than any other sport in the country, but given the small roster sizes, there are fewer players on each team.
Girls soccer — the most popular girls sport at the youth level — ranks fourth in high school participation, just ahead of softball. Those numbers do not account for the growing number of players who participate in high-level club sports in programs like AAU girls basketball and U.S. Soccer’s development academy, a somewhat controversial program that reportedly does not allow participants to play at the high school level.
Programs like these didn’t exist a generation ago, giving girls the access they lacked in the past, but they thrive on resources and funding not all girls have access to, especially in major urban areas like Philadelphia, even as programs expand and interest increases across the country.
TOMBOY aims to be a catalyst for more discussion on the topic. The documentary will air tonight at 5 p.m. in a special slot on CSN, then again at 9 p.m. on TCN, and on select dates throughout the month on both channels. And the conversation doesn’t end with Women’s History Month. TOMBOY is available online along with new multimedia content on women in sports throughout the year.