The Olympics are over now. Sigh. I watched way way way more TV than is good for me, learned a lot about sports I’d frankly never heard of before, which I am now hooked on–rhythmic gymnastics rules–got caught up in story-lines and personalities previously unimagined. It was awesome. It’s always awesome.
What’s really remarkable about the London Olympics, I think, has to be the performances of women. Countries that had never before allowed women to compete (lookin’ at you, Saudi Arabia) suddenly had women in their delegations. Most moving of all, the story of Woydan Shaherkani a sixteen-year old judoka who competed despite ferocious attacks via Saudi social media. She lost her only match in 82 seconds, and advanced the cause of Saudi women by fifty years.
But I’m an American, and as usual, found myself reverting to a certain ironic jingoism, rooting for Americans. Which pretty quickly, meant rooting for American women. Yes, Michael Phelps is remarkable, and Ashton Eaton is the unofficial ‘greatest athlete in the world’ by winning the decathlon. And I was proud of the US men’s basketball team. This team invited a lot of comparisons to the ‘Dream Team,’ the ’92 team that featured Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley. But that ’92 team was there to play basketball. I think it was Kobe Bryant who pushed the guys this year to have a real Olympics. You kept seeing them, watching swimming, beach volleyball, track and field, gymnastics; there’d be LaBron and Kobe and Kevin Durrant. Good for them. And Spain, who they played for gold, was tough. That was not an easy win.
But the American women really dazzled. Americans love team sports, and we fielded both men’s and women’s teams in a lot of Olympic sports. Look at the record: the women’s soccer team won gold; the men’s team didn’t even qualify for the Olympics. Indoor volleyball: the men lost, women won gold. Water polo; likewise. Gymnastics: oh, yeah. Beach volleyball: two US women’s team played for gold, neither men’s team qualified for a metal.
It’s not just that US women won. The women’s soccer team won one of the greatest soccer games I’ve ever seen in my life. They then played Japan for gold, in a game just about as good. The level of play was exciting, amazing, incredible. Abby Wambaugh, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan should become massive sports stars in America. The women’s volleyball team, led by Logan Tom and Lindsay Berg was favored to win gold, but the woman who kept wowing me was Destinee Hooker, a regal 6’4″ powerhouse who seemed to rescue the team whenever things looked scary. The women’s water polo team won gold for the first time in history, led by a 19-year old, Maggie Steffens, and completely hooked me on their quietly ferocious sport. (The underwater camera shots only lacked sharks to be completely terrifying). It’s not possible to overstate the magnificence of the US beach volleyball partnership of Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, who won gold for the third straight Olympics. I’ll never forget one play in particular, when Misty dove for a volley, batted it to Kerri, who just got a hand on it back to Misty, who barely got it over the net for the point. I yelped. Honest, I yelped.
Other women also dazzled. They all seemed so. . . nice. Missy Franklin, a powerhouse who just kept winning race after race, came across as this perfectly normal, giggly, sweet seventeen year old. Allison Schmitt, slightly hearing impaired, kept winning the close ones, and the medley relay, adding Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer, set a world record. One of my indelible memories of this Olympics will be Katie Ledecky, a fifteen-year old swimmer, who swam in the 800 freestyle, a distance event. She jumped out to this huge lead, and the announcers were all, “you can see her inexperience, she can’t possibly maintain this pace, the older swimmers will let her burn herself out and blow past her, huge tactical mistake.” That kind of thing. And then she kept it up, just kept going, won gold by four seconds, which in swimming is, like, a mile.
It was all about the women, and I’m not the only one to call this the Title IX Olympics. So, yes, this Olympics shows the power of a successful federal law.
So, Title IX requires colleges to offer the same opportunities to women offered to men. In sports, that means athletic scholarships, which meant American colleges had to support women’s programs in, well, volleyball and swimming and diving and water polo and gymnastics and track. Men’s sports, however, start at a 90 scholarship deficit, because of college football. So women’s sports offer 90 scholarships just to get even with football, and then scholarship opportunities are handed out fifty-fifty. Which means, in practice, so-called minor sports like wrestling and men’s swimming and men’s volleyball take it on the chin.
Football fans, or guys who played, or coaches, will all tell you that playing football teaches invaluable lessons on teamwork and sacrifice and pushing yourself to the max. I don’t doubt for a second that that’s true. I think wrestling, or diving, or men’s gymnastics all teach exactly the same lessons, and are inherently every bit as valuable. I think it’s great for women to have all these athletic opportunities. I think it would be just as great for men to have similar opportunities.
So maybe it’s time for football to go away.
I’ve been a football fan my whole life. Some of my greatest memories as a sports fan have come from football. Montana to Dwight Clark. Steve Young to Jerry Rice. I think at its best, football is a sport of extraordinary power and appeal and skill and athleticism.
But we’re learning so much more about it, about the corrosive effects of repeated head traumas, of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. We’ve seen the suicides of young men driven to end the pain, Dave Duerson. Junior Seau. We’ve seen the blown knees and shattered shoulders. And parents of high school age boys have started asking themselves and each other a different question than the one they asked twenty years ago. It was “do you think he can make the team?” Now, it’s “are you going to let him play football?”
The answer, for me, would be no. My sons aren’t in high school anymore, but I had a son who played high school basketball, and quit, a decision I supported. I would not have signed a football permission slip, though. My parents did, for my brother, when he was in high school. I think they wouldn’t today.
Football has never been more popular in this country, and the idea that it’s a sport on its way out seems preposterous. But this Olympics shows how wonderful lots of sports are, how worthy lots of different sports are of our support. I think in time, the cost of insurance premiums will prove prohibitive for budget-conscious high schools.
When football goes (and I think it’s when, not if), our viewing calendar will fill right up. Meanwhile, the US women showed us how wonderful lots of sports can be. And how equally wonderful it is to see women, as well as men, play ball.