Sexism Against Female Athletes Starts Early. Just Ask My Daughter.

Like Serena Williams, she understands that the world wants to police her body and constrain her emotions.
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In sports or life, the rules rarely bend for women of color, like Serena Williams.
Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images

On Friday night, in what was supposed to be a friendly preseason game, my 16-year-old daughter and a teammate earned a red card for their high school volleyball squad.

Although I’ve sat through countless volleyball competitions, penalty cards are so rarely awarded in the sport that, until now, I had no idea they were even possible. What terrible transgression did the girls commit to warrant such severe disciplinary action? They changed their jerseys inside the gym.

My daughter started the match at libero, a position that requires her to wear a contrasting jersey from the rest of the team. For the next set, the coach decided to use another player at libero and put my daughter in a different position, which meant both girls needed to quickly change jerseys in the three-minute interval between sets.

Three minutes is hardly enough time to run to a locker room, change and return to the court before the buzzer sounds ― and as the visiting team, they hadn’t been provided a locker room anyway. My daughter and her friend tried to discreetly suit up in a corner of the gym, but were caught and punished. What were the girls supposed to do? I still wonder. Dash into the hallway and flash their sports bras at the snack bar patrons instead of the fans in the bleachers?

According to my daughter, who also plays for a competitive volleyball club, the regulation against changing jerseys on the court or courtside is well-known but rarely followed. In fact, she’s never seen the rule applied before in high school or club play.

Why exactly is changing inside the gym forbidden? If the rule arises out of misguided ideas about modesty or decorum, then why are female volleyball players required to wear such tiny, tiny shorts? And why is the uniform for women’s beach volleyball essentially a bikini? My daughter’s coach told the girls he thought the ref had made a sexist call ― but perhaps the real problem is that the rule itself is both sexist and impractical.

Twenty-four hours after my daughter’s game, the volcano of sexism in women’s sports erupted once again. At the U.S. Open, chair umpire Carlos Ramos made several questionable rulings against Serena Williams in the women’s tennis final. Williams confronted Ramos with passion and fury during her match against the eventual champion, Naomi Osaka, and wound up penalized more severely than legendary bad boys of tennis like Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe.

Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins suggested that Ramos “wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him that way.” Other fans and pundits blamed Williams for the chaos, unwilling to empathize with a woman who felt unjustly disrespected in a critical career moment.

After the match, Williams tearfully promised to keep fighting for the rights of women to stand up for themselves and express honest emotion. She also brought up the case of Alizé Cornet, the French player who received a warning from a male umpire for unsportsmanlike conduct in the first round of the U.S. Open.

Much like my daughter and her teammate, Cornet got in trouble when she removed her shirt briefly outside the designated changing area. Of course, sweaty male tennis players change their shirts courtside all the time, without penalty. The U.S. Open later clarified that Cornet actually hadn’t broken any rules. Williams, on the other hand, was fined $17,000 for her alleged violations.

I look at all of this and I don’t know what to say to my daughter or her younger, soccer-playing sister. Ideally, participation in sports allows girls to unleash their ambition, their aggression, their passion and their excellence. In the gym, on the court or on the field, girls should feel free to celebrate what their bodies can do, not just how they look. But my girls already understand the ways that the world wants to police their bodies and constrain their emotions.

My daughters are also girls of color, like Serena Williams, and they learned a long time ago that rules will rarely bend for them, in sports or in life. Did I forget to mention that the teammate who was disciplined alongside my child is black?

Female athletes are allowed to push the boundaries that define traditional womanhood, but only so far. One aspect of Serena’s greatness has always been her willingness to push harder than anyone. The men who control the games ― at Flushing Meadows and in high school gyms ― still aren’t ready for a complete breakthrough.

Editor’s note: Serena Williams is a member of a board of advisers to Oath, HuffPost’s parent company.

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