Stepping Over The Fine Line: Redefining Gender Norms in Sports With Digit Murphy

Digit Murphy, renowned coach and founder of Play It Forward Sports Foundation, Inc., sat down to discuss her efforts in bringing greater recognition and legitimacy to the field of women's athletics. Digit's enthusiasm and drive are truly contagious as she colorfully describes her efforts in changing the narrative of women's collegiate and professional sports. The time is now for a cultural and financial shift toward female athletics, according to Digit, and our society has shown enough signs that it is ready.


Rod Berger: We’re in a world where we’re seeing some changes early on with little kids in schools and in educational environments. We’re battling a gendered mentality, “girls are good at this, boys are good at that.” And then we try to flip it and integrate more roles into science and math. And then we understand, well, wait a minute, what do we do to the boys and how do we assess.

Part of that is understanding where kids fit into this discussion around sports. I have young kids, and so what do they naturally do? Play sports. My kids play soccer on co-ed teams. Is it nice that the young girl gets to "participate" with the boys in the neighborhood? Or is it that it’s part of what we should be putting into it in a way in which we format the very educational system that we are putting them through?

Digit Murphy: It’s interesting. One of my friends has twins who happen to play soccer right now. She has a boy and a girl, they’re both great players. But the experience that the boy has is completely different than the girl’s experience. Similar to what you said, girls may participate, but the coaches have lower expectations for them. They have higher expectations for male players, sometimes to their detriment. And what we do is put kids in gendered boxes in sports, boxes where they don’t belong.

Kids belong where they belong. Boy, girl, black, white, whatever they are - they’re human. We have to start to treat sports and education the same way.

There may be a boy that doesn’t enjoy sports, all they want to do is run. But, their dad is pushing them to play football. Next thing you know, that kid is hurting mentally.

When it comes to sports, it’s really important to not put kids in boxes at such a young age. It’s important to educate the adults that are in charge because that’s one of the many problems. It’s not the kids, it’s the adults. It’s the adults who arrive with expectations, with preconceived societal notions that say, “Boys play sports, girls don’t,” or “Boys play these sports and girls don’t.” We’re ripping down the barriers. The media can have a huge impact on how to change the paradigm and shift quicker and faster. It is coming, Rod.

RB: And that’s where the messaging comes in, right? Earlier you talked about sponsors, where do they fit into this conversation? You can track the thinking process. If you have parents at a soccer game with young kids, they’re at home before the soccer game. In their home are sports channels that are communicating messages that show one at a higher value than another. You can see where this later translates to a coach - to an experience - to a “Really nice job, Susie. Billy, why didn’t you do this?”

DM: Yes.

RB: It’s an intertwined experience that we have to detangle to some degree, don’t we?

DM: Yes, we do. It’s the responsibility of companies, in my opinion, to support socially-charged companies like us. We’re a social justice movement for sports. We really are. We’re about pay equality. We’re about shifting the paradigm.

Sponsors need to jump on the bus of our types of companies. If they do that, we will carry their brand message into communities. For instance, Play It Forward is a nonprofit that has education and sports entwined. The reason why we started this nonprofit was to integrate a professional athlete’s salary with a nonprofit salary so that our athletes could go out into communities and be a brand ambassador.

The idea when we first started our sustainable sports model was to have the players our players do this – similar to existing male players. If I look at the Patriots, you’ll see Tom Brady in the community. He’s sponsored by Shields MRI and he will visit young kids in the hospital, right?

Our players would also be sponsored by Shields MRI, be brand ambassadors in the community, and get paid. For Tom Brady, that’s just part of his contract. That’s almost charity, which is amazingly impactful. But, our players would actually get paid to be brand ambassadors - be ambassadors of social justice. Talk to kids in the community about being strong. Have a nutrition platform sponsored by Kellogg’s or Ocean Spray, you know what I mean?

These are the kind of ways we’re trying to shift the paradigm. We’re trying to shift the sponsorship model so that it’s no longer traditional. It’s about humans getting compensated for their contribution to society, and we’re just using sports as the platform.

When you ask, what are the sponsor’s responsibilities? I think it’s to dive deep into the social conscious of the athletes, of the companies, of the personalities that they’re sponsoring, and to better support people that are doing the right thing. That will save the planet.

RB: Yeah, I know it will. I like the way you weaved that in there with a real time example. Thinking, how can we do that in a more thoughtful manner and extend beyond the expectations of players?

How do you think about and conceive competition? I’m a 40-year-old male. I remember not getting an award for coming in last. It’s starting to transition over to that. Does that play a role in this conversation at all? Is there some level of watering down the experience.

DM: I don’t think so. I think that as I get older, I look at it so much differently than I did when I was 40. There are competition boxes that we need to check off - when and where to assign the level of competition that you and I experienced. The level of competition that is out there today. There’s a whole participation generation that’s okay to play in that box. It’s fine to have fun. It’s fine to get a ribbon. Who screws it up are me and you, right?

Here’s what happens. We pay a s**t ton of money - oh, I’m sorry, I’m doing my locker room thing, I’m starting to get coach-like - we pay a lot of money for our kids to participate in sports. The expectation is that they’re going to become a pro athlete or be the best.

Here’s what we need to do. We need to spend less on the participation generation and minimize expectations so kids get to have fun. Then, as you move forward and begin to check the boxes off, you say, “Okay, we’re going to a tier 1 system with these kids and we’re going to let them play.” What happens is we’re putting kids that aren’t competitive into a competitive environment and we’re screwing them up.

RB: They’re confused, right? Because they don’t understand.

DM: Parents get upset when their kids don’t perform well. They say, “Are you kidding me? I just spent $15,000 to put you into this hockey program. You’re going to be good.” What we have to do as adults is to stop thinking about the end result, the scholarship opportunities. Instead, think about what our kids are learning in the moment. If we can start to manage our own expectations as people, our kids are going to be fine.

I want to say one last thing. When I first started coaching, I was the Bobby Knight of Women’s Hockey. I was all over them. I was on the line. I was kicking the c**p out of my players because that’s the kind of coaching I saw on TV. That’s how I perceived coaching.

There’s a whole other empowerment strategy that works, especially with talented players. You don’t want to constrict talented players, you want to give them the game. If you give them the game, they will not only manage the rules, they will elevate to a level that you never expected. They will self-regulate and manage. The problem is that you have to be a very confident individual, you need to have support behind you in order to coach like that.

Coaching is stressful. Coaching is all about winning and losing. That’s how we started this conversation. It’s about winning and losing. That’s competition, right? So if you put pressure on coaches to win all the time, they’re going to make bad decisions because it’s all about the win.

Coming full circle, put kids in the right boxes, manage your expectations. If you put kids in the right places, they’re going to shine, they’re going to thrive, all because they’re in the right spot. I could talk forever on this subject because I’ve lived it and very few women have.

RB: Let’s close with this, Digit...

DM: Are we going to close? I don’t want to close yet!

RB: That just means we’ll have another conversation. But color the lines in for me a little bit. Talk with me about the sights, the sounds and the smells. If you walk into an environment – and I’ll let you pick that environment – and you start to see and hear things, how will you know that you’ve reached the goal you’re working towards? I think some of us have our heads down working. We’re plowing ahead to what we’re trying to achieve. Sometimes it’s hard to know when we’ve reached our destination.

DM: It’s so simple. It’s about people smiling. It’s about the great energy you feel when you walk into a room. Women’s Lacrosse is one of the sports we just started, and we just finished our first year. I loved going into games and seeing little girls proudly holding signs, rooting for their favorite player.

You walk around as a CEO. You shake people’s hands. They say, “Thank you,” the players thank you. Again, this is our first year. Don’t get me wrong. It’s the honeymoon phase. But that environment of positive energy, it transforms into powerful energy of playing.

If you look at our players and our refs and our coaches, it’s all by design. We are a sports entertainment product. We don’t need refs, coaches and players at odds. This is about the game collaborating as well as the players.

Here’s the way we pictured it. Players can play without refs calling a penalty every two minutes. Unless it’s egregious, let them play. Let them own the game. What that does is empowers the players to do things they wouldn’t normally do. It gets them out of this fear factor of, “Oh my God, I can’t do that. I’m going to get a penalty.” Just do it and then let the refs really give you the latitude to control it.

I’m trying to paint a picture of empowerment, of power, of positive energy, of collaboration. It seems like it’s pie in the sky. But, I see it working under our umbrella right now. The only thing that could mess it up is money, salaries and greed. I think when those things come into the conversation and the equation, it brings us off track.

I’m not saying that it’s not something we aspire to, maybe we want those problems. As women, we have the secret weapon to control it.

RB: I think it’s really great. And as you were talking, I was thinking about how it all parallels. Your point about Bobby Knight and that type of coaching culture. From me and our shared generations, that says something. It colors in the picture. It was a world of parenting or educating, it was talking to, it was utilizing fear, it was, to some degree, utilizing shame and understanding that whether it’s sports or academics or parenting, understanding the whole person, the whole child in a way that’s more inclusive and provides an opportunity where they can take ownership. Own the field. Own the rink. Own the experience and then you can really see what’s possible. That’s what I take away from this.

I just want to wish you continued success. I know this will be the first of many conversations.

DM: Yes.

RB: Thanks, Digit.

DM: No problem. Thank you for having me.

RB: You’re welcome. Once again, I’m Dr. Rod Berger.

Digit Murphy is a pioneer in women's sports. She is a thought leader in the sports space. Digit works tirelessly to advocate for women in sports. She believes all women in sport deserve a voice. She spent 23 years as the head women's ice hockey coach at Brown University. During her tenure, she brought the team to national prominence. She went on to coach the Boston Blades (women's pro hockey) to two Clarkson Cup Championships. In the spring of 2015 she Co-Founded the Play It Forward Sport Foundation with her partner--PIFS a women's sports advocacy non-profit. She works in tandem with the United Women's Sports LLC-UWLX as a strategic partner. Digit is presently collaborating with American ED TV to help share her mission.

Follow Digit Murphy on Twitter

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About Rod Berger, PsyD.

Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit and in EdTechReview India.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger's latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS's Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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