Mo’ne Davis is out of the Little League World Series, leaving behind a perishing impression of a pitching arm like a lariat, and those alert tourmaline eyes. Now she will go back to taking penciled tests, as opposed to being recruited into social-science conversations about gender and whether biology is destiny. Everyone wants to say something important about Davis, but what really needs to be said is this: As she returns to the dim, dull regular school day, may her experience as a Little Leaguer not be the pinnacle of her athletic life. Because something dimmer and duller is what Davis can expect when the men at ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Deadspin lose interest in her.
Which will happen as soon as Monday. For all of the American male self-congratulation for treating Davis as an “athlete” instead of a girl, the fact is that Davis’s ability to command sports media attention post-puberty, and thus ever make a living on her talent, is highly in doubt and subject to their apathy.
Only every once in a while does the rare female athlete come along who sustains male interest, who makes some inner tuning fork go off — an Annika Sorenstam, a Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a Michelle Wie. In examining why a 13-year-old girl became such a media phenomenon, the following is self-evident but it needs to be stated anyway: Davis commanded record ESPN ratings for Little League because a male exec deemed her worthy of prime time. She made the cover of Sports Illustrated because a man deemed her unrepulsive enough to put her there. But had she been playing ball against other girls, instead of boys, they never would have wasted a thought on her.
“It’s about them,” Billie Jean King said. “You’re in a male arena. Sorenstam played in a men’s tournament. Babe Zaharias played against men. I played Bobby Riggs. Those are the things that get attention, because we’re in the all-male arena, and the males are now interested, because it’s about them. That’s the essence of it.”
So while it’s great that a 13-year-old girl was treated as an accomplished athlete, I’d be more grateful if Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi, two of the greatest basketball players on earth, didn’t have to spend the winter in Russia just to make a decent living. “If only we had a Davis every single day in the media for girls,” King says.
Davis’s real future, once the androgens kick in, will probably consist of a long fight for funding, audience and decent pay, if she is lucky enough to win a scholarship to play college basketball and get to the WNBA. All of the exciting discussion Davis sparked about whether a woman can someday cross the “muscle gap” and play major league baseball is really beside the point. She can’t dream as big as the boys she beat.
The point of Mo’ne Davis is not what she proves about girls against boys. The real point of her is how a stunning wildflower can bloom in even the stoniest soil, given the tiniest opportunity and some sustenance. Look what can happen, how a child can burst out of category. Look what athletic striving can result in — that tremendous rearing back of hers, and then the delivery, a white streak that seemed to leave a groove in the air.
As the commissioner of the Philadelphia youth baseball association that produced Davis’s Little League team points out, there is a distinct possibility there are other Mo’ne Davises we will never see or hear about.
The Taney Dragons have only been playing Little League for two years, and we might have missed her. “It’s a shame, because there were a couple of girls before Mo’ne,” said Lou Cammisa, the commissioner. “And there are a lot coming up. We were able to put her on a pedestal, and it’s going to help other girls stay in baseball, and not fall off into soccer. We can say, ‘Hey, this is what you can do.’ ”
Cammisa confesses that when he first saw Davis, he too was dismissive of a female pitcher. He was the coach of a 10-and-under team that played against Davis when she was with another South Philly youth team named the Monarchs. As she took the mound, he and his assistants looked at each other, and said, “The other coach must not think much of us.” His players said, “Let’s go pound her. If they’re gonna throw a girl in there, we’re gonna tee off.”
After the first inning, they came back to the dugout saying, “That’s not a girl. That’s a machine.”
Cammisa has watched with amusement as scores of other opponents had the same reaction to Davis. “Every team that faced that mound has been surprised,” he said. The luxury of being on her side has caused him to examine his reaction. “I’m always telling myself, ‘Why did I think like that?’ ”
Other guys might ask themselves the same thing. One of the side effects Davis had on sports media over the last week was to spur several articles examining female vs. male physiology in athletic performance. Article after blog cited studies of bone differences, or statistical analyses showing that female world record performances in track and swimming tend to trail male records by about 10 percent. But what all of these “muscle gap” considerations, even the most intriguing ones, really amount to is the same old backhanded statement: Women’s sports are less worthy and valuable.
Mary Jo Kane, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, believes all of this analysis is “completely misguided” because it obscures the fact that scores of women regularly outperform men physically in all kinds of ways. A relentless focus on muscle ignores that great performance is as much about head and heart, and perpetuates artificial barriers to female improvement, such as red tees and three-set tennis matches. “Sex segregation in sports doesn’t protect women so much as it protects men,” Kane claims.
The smarter approach is to look at all male and female performance on a continuum, Kane argues. A marathon is a perfect example. Men and women race together in the same sport, on the same day, at the same time. “But we artificially construct two separate races and make a gender comparison between the first-place man, and the first-place woman,” she said. “So even though this woman has actually outperformed the vast majority of men, the punch line, because we’re seeing it as a binary rather than a continuum, is, ‘No matter how good a woman is, she can’t beat the best man.’ ”
For instance: In the 2013 Twin Cities Marathon, 4,924 men finished the race. The top women’s runner placed 45th overall among them. You can look at that in two ways. On the one hand, she trailed 44 men. On the other, she outran 4,879 others. Why do we focus so relentlessly on the former rather than the latter?
“She just beat several thousand men,” Kane said. “If you add that, the punch line now becomes, ‘Some women can beat most men.’ Why is it we glorify the first comparison and completely erase the other one? And that’s the point.”
For a few brief days, Mo’ne Davis caused some powerful men to think in a different way about sport, to see exciting new potential in a little girl. She was so viscerally striking that she shifted their perceptions of female capacities. Maybe that will lead them in turn to another visceral perception: of how much female aspiration gets suffocated daily by the inevitable narrowing of access, opportunity and attention, and the small, deadening, devaluing assumption that because her body isn’t as big as a man’s, her talent, by definition, can’t be as important.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.