Ladies and gentlemen

Posted: May 29, 2003 12:00 AM

The hubbub last week about Annika Sorenstam playing in a PGA tournament led verbal combatants to choose up sides for or against female athletes competing with men. This is one time, I'm in the middle: I don't see any problem with ladies and gentlemen going up against each other as long as, when doing so, they can remain ladies and gentlemen.

For example, it's fine for girls to join boys in Little League baseball, should they and their parents desire that. (Little Leagues generally have rules against runners slamming into catchers.) But it's not fine, in my opinion, for girls to play Pop Warner football, because training almost-teenage boys to tackle and aggressively block girls works against instilling gentlemanly behavior at exactly the time it's most important to do that.

It's fine for girls who can run like the wind to compete against boys in the track part of track and field, but memories of Soviet shot-putters make us reluctant to endorse pursuits that require females to bulk up muscle mass enormously. Fitness and athleticism are great, but God made men and women different not only in reproductive systems but in musculature.

Of course, customs vary. One North Carolina lady tells me, "Maybe in Texas sports etiquette is inbred, but here it's all a contact sport. There's a high school soccer team we play, all brawny mountain boys and two girls. We lose every time because our guys have been taught to play as gentlemen; they are too gingerly with the girls and the mountain boys move in for the kill."

Whether they receive gingerly treatment or not, physical differences make it difficult for the best women in many sports to defeat the best men. Sympathetic but condescending press reports concerning Sorenstam crowed that she finished third at the Colonial tournament in fairways hit off the tee, but the only stat that truly counts in golf is the score, and there she finished tied for 96th. Driving the ball far requires muscle, and in that category she finished 100th. Could a weight-lifting woman with excellent technique finish 80th? Sure, but what price limited glory?

Opportunities for women in sports have been rare in many cultures. Women in ancient Greece were not allowed to compete in the Olympics. (Some may have participated in a festival dedicated to the goddess Hera.) In China up to a century ago, foot-binding was still a custom among some, with little girls having their toes forced under their feet and held in place by tightly-wound bandages. The girls grew up unable to run and able to walk only on tiptoe. Christian missionaries fought that practice throughout the 19th century and influenced the Chinese government to outlaw it in 1912.

We haven't had physical foot-binding in this country, but we've sometimes had a social equivalent that kept girls out of all sports. That's wrong. It's also wrong to eliminate social arrangements that acknowledge male-female differences. The same goes for competition beyond sports: Provide equal opportunity for women but don't insist on equal results, since physical differences but also different life and career choices will have an effect.

So it's good to have a Ladies PGA Tour where a woman with the skill and gracefulness Sorenstam displayed can finish first -- but if she wants to play in another PGA event, welcome! She is certainly doing more for womanhood than Martha Burk, who failed in her attempt to add mistresses to The Masters.

It also was great to watch the Women's College World Series that concluded on May 26 with UCLA as softball champion, and I'll cheer if one of the quick-handed, slash-hitting infielders tries to make the transition to professional baseball with the hope of someday hitting the major leagues. Of course, there's the issue of take-out slides at second ...