Today, in a world quite different from the one that existed just thirty years ago, both girls and boys play soccer, baseball, softball, and other youth sports. Yet has the dramatic surge in participation by girls contributed to greater gender equality? In this engaging study, leading sociologist Michael A. Messner probes the richly complex gender dynamics of youth sports. Weaving together vivid first-person interviews with his own experiences as a volunteer for his sons' teams, Messner finds that despite the movement of girls into sports, gender boundaries and hierarchies still dominate, especially among the adults who run youth sports. His book widens into a provocative exploration of why youth sports matter—how they play a profound role in shaping gender, class, family, and community.
It's All for the Kids Gender, Families, and Youth Sports
"It's All For the Kids"
Gender, Families, and Youth Sports
Back in 1995, when we arrived at our six-year-old son Miles's first soccer practice, I was delighted to learn that his coach was a woman. Coach Karen, a mother in her mid-thirties, had grown up playing lots of sports. She was tall, confident, and athletic, and the kids responded well to her leadership. "Great, a woman coach!" I observed cheerily. "It's a new and different world than the one that I grew up in." But over the next twelve years, as I traversed with Miles, and eventually with his younger brother Sasha, a few more seasons of AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization), a couple of years of YMCA youth basketball, and over decade of Little League baseball, we never had another woman head coach. It's not that women weren't contributing to the kids' teams. All of the "team parents" (often called "team moms")—parent volunteers who did the behind-the-scenes work of phone-calling, organizing weekly snack schedules and team parties, collecting money for a gift for the coaches—were women. And occasionally I would notice a team that had a woman assistant coach. But women head coaches were very few and far between.
I started keeping track of the numbers of women and men head coaches in the annual AYSO and LLB/S (Little League Baseball/Softball) yearbooks that we would receive at the end of each season, and I found that my hunches were true. There just weren't very many women head coaches. The yearbooks reveal that from 1999 to 2007, only 13 percent of the 1,280 AYSO teams have had women head coaches. The numbers are even lower for LLB/S teams; between 1999 and 2007, only 5.9 percent of the 538 teams have been managed by women. These low numbers were surprising to me, for several reasons. First, unlike during my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, when there were almost no opportunities for girls to play sports, today, millions of girls participate in organized soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, and other sports. With this radical demographic shift in youth sports, I expected that the gender division of labor among parents would have shifted as well. Second, today's mothers of young children in the United States came of age during and after the 1972 institution of Title IX, and are part of the generation that ignited the booming growth of female athletic participation. It stood to reason to me that many of these women would see it as a natural transition to move from their own active sports participation into coaching their own kids. Third, women outnumber men significantly in every volunteer activity having to do with kids in my town, such as the PTA, Scouts, and school special events. Coaching youth sports seems to be the great exception to this rule.
Sport has changed over the past thirty years or so, from a world set up almost exclusively by and for boys and men to one that is moving substantially (though incompletely) toward sex equity. Yet, men dominate the very public on-field leadership positions. This paradox tweaked my sociological interest. When I first began informally to ask longtime coaches and league officials why most teams are coached by men, they were often surprised to hear how few women coaches there were. Several people told me that they believed that the number of women coaches is rising. But though the numbers have risen modestly in recent years for soccer, they have not risen for baseball and softball, as figure 1 shows.
The proportion of baseball and softball teams headed by women has stayed remarkably flat between 1999 and 2007. In fact, the proportion of LLB/S teams headed by women was higher in 1999 than in any other year of my study. In soccer, there was an increase in the number of women coaches for the 2005, 2006, and 2007 seasons, nudging the numbers above the 15 percent that they reached in 1999, before they dipped to the 10 percent range for the next five years. An older AYSO yearbook that I came across, from 1994–95, revealed that women coached 17.6 percent of the teams that season. It appears that, despite some year-to-year fluctuations, the proportion of baseball and softball teams headed by women has plateaued, while there is reason to think that there is a modest upward trend in soccer.
As I began more systematically to analyze the annual yearbooks, to observe, and to talk with coaches and parents, I noticed some other patterns. Not only are women coaches low in number, they tend to be placed differently than men. As figure 1 shows, soccer teams are twice as likely as Little League Baseball/Softball teams to be coached by women. Boys' teams are coached almost exclusively by men, and this is especially true of boys' baseball teams, only slightly more than 2 percent of which are coached by women. Additionally, there is clearly a kind of "glass ceiling" on women coaching in the leagues for kids more than 10 or 12 years old. Nearly all of the women coaches were coaching kids between the ages of 4 and 10 . The statistical picture is clear: women head coaches are very few in number. Most of the women who do coach do not move up the ranks to coach teams with kids past the age of 8 or 10 years old; they either quit coaching after one or two years, or they "cycle back" to coach a younger son's or daughter's team made up of 6- or 8-year-olds. Of the very few women who do go on to coach age 10, 12, or older kids' teams, nearly all of them coach girls' teams.
When I shared these statistics with league officials, they expressed disappointment with the low numbers of women head coaches. Early in the study, I spoke with Bill Munson, a longtime AYSO coach and one of the main organizers in the league. Munson expressed support for my research, saying that he hoped it might be helpful to him and others in figuring out how to get more women to coach. He said that he is "really frustrated," after spending the last two years "looking for ways to beg, cajole, wheedle women to become coaches." He said that he has a "hunch" that the women coaches that they have had thus far "were athletes in the '70s and '80s, and they have that confidence." But women who never played soccer lack confidence in their abilities to learn how to coach. "It's easier to take a man who doesn't know the first thing about soccer, and convince him that he can learn everything he needs to know in one training session, than it is to convince a woman that she can do it." Besides men's greater apparent confidence, he said, he's not sure what it is that makes it an experience that's so much more likely "to discourage women."
Munson's words were echoed by other league officials in AYSO and LLB/S, who told me that, in their view, they are making an effort to recruit and to encourage women coaches, and that they really don't understand why there aren't more. I wanted to understand this too. The low numbers of women coaches gave me a picture of persistent sex segregation, but simply trotting out these numbers couldn't explain how this picture is drawn. I wanted to know: what are the social processes that sustain this sex segregation? And by extension, I wanted to explore another question: what might be happening that might serve to destabilize and possibly change this sex segregation?
Questions about social processes—how people, in their routine daily interactions, reproduce (and occasionally challenge) patterned social relations—are best answered through a combination of qualitative methods. Between 2003 and 2007, I systematically explored the gender dynamics of volunteer coaches in South Pasadena by deploying several methods of data collection. For a two-year stretch of this longer study, I was fortunate to have the able assistance of a graduate student research assistant, Suzel Bozada-Deas. First, I continued to conduct an ongoing content analysis of eight years (1999–2007) of South Pasadena's AYSO and LLB/S yearbooks. This data provides the statistical backdrop for my study of the social processes of gender and coaching that I have introduced in this chapter. Second, I conducted field observations of numerous soccer, baseball, and softball practices and games. I participated in a clinic set up to train Little League baseball coaches, and observed annual baseball and softball tryouts as well as several annual opening ceremonies for AYSO and LLB/S. A key dimension of this field work was my several seasons of participant observation—for a few years as a volunteer assistant coach, and for the last three years as the official scorekeeper of my son's Little League Baseball teams, ranging in age from T-ball teams made up of 6- and 7-year olds, to Juniors baseball teams of 13- and 14-year-olds. And third, Suzel and I conducted fifty in-depth interviews with women and men volunteers, nearly all of whom were head soccer coaches and baseball or softball managers. Appendix 1 is a demographic overview of the interview subjects, and Appendix 2 shows the racial-ethnic composition of the coaches and of the city of South Pasadena. Appendix 3 compares the proportion of women coaches in South Pasadena youth sports with some surrounding communities. And in Appendix 4, I discuss some of the issues I faced in conducting the research—especially the field observations and the interviews.
The research findings stretched me beyond a simple study of sex segregation in youth sports coaching. My observations and interviews led me to explore how youth sports fit into families and communities. I gained insights into how peoples' beliefs about natural differences between boys and girls (what sociologists call "gender essentialism") help to shape men's and women's apparently "free" choices to volunteer (or not) for their children's activities. I discovered ways in which gender divisions of labor in families relate to more public displays of masculinity and femininity in activities like youth sports. And the study gave me provocative hints about how gender beliefs, family structure, and youth sports are key elements in constructing symbolic boundaries in a community that is defined (often covertly) as "white" and "upper middle class." In the rest of this chapter, I will briefly discuss the context of this study—first, in terms of the community, and second, in terms of youth sports in general, with a focus on the organizations of AYSO and LLB/S.
A Community "For the Kids"
"It's all for the kids," said a smiling dad with an ironic wink as he displayed his son's team banner on the opening day of the South Pasadena AYSO soccer season. Held on a bright and warm Saturday morning in September, the AYSO opening ceremony is an autumn rite, a major community event that takes hundreds of volunteer hours to pull off. On this day, nearly 2,000 kids gathered wearing their new soccer uniforms at the high school track and football field, accompanied by nearly 200 head coaches and roughly 400 assistant coaches. Several hundred more parents and others sat in the stands, as each team marched around the track with their coaches and behind their team banners, which had been painstakingly and often very artistically handmade by parents (nearly always moms). As each team marched by the stands, the team's name and sponsor were announced over the loudspeaker system and the crowd gave them a warm round of applause. The mood of the day was celebratory. On the platform, the local AYSO commissioner sat with various honored guests and dignitaries, including coaches and kids from South Pasadena championship teams from the previous season, soccer referees, representatives of the local police and fire departments, city council members, and U.S. congressman Adam Schiff. Following the national anthem, Schiff gave a short speech in which he praised the growth and prosperity of South Pasadena's twenty-five-year tradition of youth soccer, and spoke approvingly of how the league reflects the values of a community that so cares about its children.
Indeed, over the years, I had often heard South Pasadena parents saying, "It's all for the kids"—while in the midst a school fundraiser, a Cub Scouts event, or a Little League or AYSO event that had taken hundreds of volunteer hours to pull off. The tone of "It's all for the kids" is often mildly sarcastic, and sometimes self-mocking, especially when uttered by a professional-class parent who has moved his or her family to South Pasadena precisely because of its "kid friendly" reputation and good public schools. This belief that "our town" is "safe" and "kid friendly" makes sense due to the (usually) unspoken comparison with much of the Greater Los Angeles area, which is assumed to be much less safe, less kid friendly, with substandard or deteriorating public schools. But simply buying in to the expensive housing market of South Pasadena does not itself ensure a "kid friendly" community. It's part of the community belief system that what makes South Pasadena "special" for kids is the widespread volunteer ethic. And youth sports is one of the most public expressions of this community volunteerism for our kids. At the 2003 opening ceremony, AYSO commissioner Janet Braun stated that the ceremony is "really a celebration [of] our community spirit of volunteerism—all the values that we're teaching our kids.... [The ceremony is] a reminder that we can do a lot of great things when we work together, that children are our greatest asset and we need to help guide them, that we live in a great community, the greatest country in the world."
A community of about 25,000 people, South Pasadena is a town characterized by distinctive early-twentieth-century craftsman homes on streets lined with beautiful mature trees. The entertainment industry frequently shoots movies, music videos, television shows, and commercials in this town, especially when it wants to create a "Middle America" mood. Nestled between Los Angeles's neighborhoods of El Sereno and Highland Park on the west, and the cities of Pasadena on the north, Alhambra on the south, and San Marino on the east, South Pasadena has a reputation for its good public schools (one high school, one middle school, and three elementary schools). Indeed, much of the gentrification of South Pasadena in recent decades results from an influx of educated professionals who moved to town to take advantage of these schools. Over the past decade, South Pasadena home prices have soared at a rate faster even than most surrounding communities. By 2008, one would be hard-pressed to find a home in South Pasadena for less than $700,000. Even relatively modest-seeming homes were going for $1 million, and the larger "estate area" homes for several million. South Pasadena is clearly a more affluent town than neighboring Alhambra (the 2000 median household income in South Pasadena was nearly $60,000, compared with Alhambra's $39,000; half of South Pasadena's adult residents held a bachelors degree or higher, while less than a quarter of Alhambra's residents did). However, this apparent affluence is deceptive: there is a substantial working-class and lower-middle-class population in South Pasadena. Nearly one-third of South Pasadena's households had annual incomes of $35,000 or less in the year 2000. More telling than that statistic, perhaps, is the fact that 55.6 percent of the town's population lives in rental units. Less obvious than the expensive craftsman homes (and apparently unnoticed by the film industry) are several large apartment complexes within the community. By contrast, in the more affluent neighboring community of San Marino, 91.6 percent of residents live in owner-occupied homes, and the median family income is $139,000.
South Pasadena's reputation as a "white" town also runs against a statistical reality that reveals considerable diversity: the 2000 Census found 44.2 percent of South Pasadena residents as white, 25.6 percent Asian American, 16.1 percent Hispanic, 3.4 percent black, 5.2 percent Pacific Islander/Hawaiian, and 4.5 percent claiming "two or more" racial/ethnic categories. While the racial/ethnic breakdown of South Pasadena differs dramatically from that of its immediate neighboring communities, it is a far cry from being a "white" town. This paradox—the reputation of South Pasadena as a wealthy and white enclave, versus the reality of substantial economic and racial/ethnic diversity—became increasingly interesting to me as I conducted this study of youth coaching. How, I wondered, does the very public—indeed, very communal—organization of youth soccer, baseball, and softball fit in with the creation of a community that is viewed as an enclave of class and racial privilege, an enclave in which nearly everything seems to be set up to provide a safe and nurturing place "for the kids"? Asking these kinds of questions is premised on thinking about sport not as some "separate world" to which people retreat from the "real world" for recreation. Instead, it requires us to think about how sports are an integrally intertwined part of tens of millions of peoples' daily lives—in families, communities, mass media, schools, and universities.
The Rise of Youth Sports in the United States
South Pasadena is not unique in the importance its citizens place on youth sports. In fact, organized youth sports has boomed in scope and significance over the past few decades. In the post–World War II years, and through the 1960s, there were very few community-based organized sports activities for children, outside of schools. But starting in the 1970s, several youth sports organizations began to blossom, and since then, participation in youth sports skyrocketed. Adults interviewed for my study—especially those in their forties and fifties who were children before this boom—recall (often with palpable nostalgia) how much "free time" they had as kids, how they and their friends self-organized in non-structured play, including sports played in yards, driveways, streets, and public parks. Today, parents often bemoan what they see as the "over-organized" lives of their children—with the demands of school, homework, academic tutors, music lessons, scouts, and seasonal sports activities leaving little time for spontaneous and self-organized play and sports activities for kids. What is behind this increasing regimentation of kids' lives, and the role that organized sports plays in it?
There are four interrelated social trends that correspond with the boom in organized youth sports in the United States. First, starting in the early 1960s with President John F. Kennedy's concerns that American children (boys, in particular) were becoming too "soft" to compete with Soviet Communism, and continuing through today's fears of an "obesity epidemic" among children and youth, there have been organized efforts to get kids involved in more physical activity, including organized sports. The federal government pushes for physical fitness through advertising to kids, and through alerts to the general public from the Surgeon General's office (supported by the larger medical establishment). Schools and universities have answered this call with increased emphasis on fitness and health education (albeit, ironically, in a context where budget cuts in some places forced reductions in physical education courses in public schools). And community organizations such as the YMCA have responded by building a much larger and varied fitness and sports infrastructure for children and adults. Within this context, adults believe that getting their young kids involved in organized sports is a way to guide their kids away from becoming couch potatoes, and toward developing healthy, active lives.
A second factor in the growth of youth sports in recent decades is what sociologist Barry Glassner calls the "culture of fear" that is projected onto children and youth. Over the past twenty years or so, a range of concerns about children's safety in public life has spurred adults into organizing and routinizing children's activities, increasingly under adult supervision. Glassner has argued that our contemporary cultural fears about children fall into two categories: fears of youth—particularly fears that youth are increasingly armed and dangerous (and these fears are disproportionately projected onto young black males); and fears for youth—particularly fears that kids are vulnerable to being abducted by strangers and/or sexually molested by strangers they may meet in public places, including on the Internet. Glassner argues that these fears are mostly unfounded but are very real in their consequences. One consequence is that organized youth sports have often been viewed as a solution—even as a panacea—for the problems facing children and youth. For example, as a possible solution to fears of youth, in the 1980s and 1990s experimental "midnight basketball" programs were initiated in inner-city areas thought to be populated by "at-risk youth." And, more broadly, as one solution to widespread fears (especially among middle- and professional-class people) for our children's safety, organized, adult-supervised sports are now commonly seen as a safer alternative to letting children run and play freely in parks and neighborhoods. As softball coach and mother of two, Rosa Ramirez, said, "Now you do sports for your kids so they'll have something to do. When I was growing up you didn't have to worry about kids running outside and playing with their friends. So I don't think it was as important as it is now." The parents in South Pasadena often expressed sorrow that their kids aren't able to experience the kind of "carefree" childhood that they did, but they were usually quick to sigh and add that "Things have changed"—that "It's a more dangerous world for kids out there than it was when we were kids." In such a context of fear for kids' safety, organized sports seem a safe alternative.
Accompanying this rising culture of fear that sees our children as needing protection in an increasingly dangerous world is a third trend that underlies the growth of youth sports: changes in family structure, especially among the middle classes. Since the 1970s, fueled by feminism, middle-class women have surged into colleges, professional schools, and, ultimately, into the workforce. Although working-class women were present in the labor force in great numbers in the 1950s and 1960s, the middle-class postwar ideal family consisted of a male family breadwinner and a stay-at-home wife and mother. Starting in the 1970s, and continuing today, this "Leave it to Beaver" family-type is no longer the statistical norm, nor is it the cultural ideal among most professional-class families. But women's movement into the professions has been accompanied by strains and tensions in the lives of families. Men do some more housework and childcare than did their own fathers, but women—even those with full-time jobs—still do far more than their share of this family labor, resulting in what sociologist Arlie Hochschild called women's "second shift." Thus, career women who are also mothers are subjected to a set of cultural double standards and paradoxes around and through which they must navigate. One of these contradictions is that today, even when both parents have careers, it is believed that children need more, not less attention from adults. Parents believe that educational and career success for their kids is far more difficult to achieve than it used to be, so that it becomes their responsibility to give their kids as many enriching experiences and advantages as they can. In response, the ascendant philosophy of childrearing for middle-class parents is what sociologist Annette Lareau calls "concerted cultivation," which involves a carefully controlled scheduling of children's educational, cultural, artistic, and athletic experiences. According to Lareau, middle-class parents see concerted cultivation as a way of giving their children advantages through extracurricular activities, tutors, private music lessons, private athletic coaches, and by spending time with their kids doing enriching activities. "Parents usually enjoy this involvement, but they also see it as part of their obligation to their children. Parental involvement is a key component of the child-rearing strategy of concerted cultivation." And part of this parental involvement commonly involves ferrying one's children to and from myriad youth sports games and practices, and contributing volunteer time to youth sports as head coaches, assistant coaches, referees, team parents, or league officials.
A fourth trend that helps to fuel the boom in youth sports is, as I discussed above, the feminist-inspired growth in girls' and women's sports. After the passage of Title IX, in 1972, educational institutions were forced to start funding athletic opportunities for girls. And community groups and organizations also responded to growing demands from girls and their parents for opportunities to play. So, as youth sports grew, much of that growth reflected changing cultural attitudes and values about the value of sports for girls.
Today, youth sports in the United States is huge. A 2008 national survey found that two-thirds of American youth are currently involved in at least one organized or team sport, and those who are involved report that, on average, they had played on 2.1 sports teams over the past year. And the more privileged one's family is, the more likely it is that the children will be involved in organized sports. The same national study found that white children are more likely to be participants in sports than are children of color, as are kids who live in suburban (as opposed to rural or urban) areas, those who live in families with two parents at home, and those whose parents are college-educated with higher family incomes. Clearly, class and race privilege make it more likely that families will have access to youth sports, and that they will also have the kinds of resources (such as transportation) necessary to participate. And adults in professional-class families are likely to see sports activities as an important element of the larger package of activities that go into the concerted cultivation of their kids. The survey found that 95 percent of parents in the United States believe that sports participation helps raise their child's self-esteem, and 68 percent of parents believe that participating in sports will help their child get better grades in school. These beliefs translate into high levels of parental involvement in their children's sports activities.
Two National Youth Sports Organizations
While 81 percent of high school kids who play sports do so on school-based teams, 55 percent of younger kids (those between third grade and middle school) participate in community-based athletic programs, such as YMCA (youth basketball and other sports), USA Hockey, Pop Warner Football, AYSO (soccer), and Little League Baseball and Softball. My study focuses on two youth sports programs in a single community, both of which are local affiliates of massive national and international organizations. Little League Baseball/Softball (LLB/S) and American Youth Soccer League (AYSO) offer an interesting contrast in youth sports organizations, especially with respect to gender. By far the older organization, Little League Baseball began in 1938 and for its first thirty-six years was an organization set up exclusively for boys. When AYSO started, in 1964, it too was exclusively for boys, but by 1971, the time it began to blossom beyond a merely local organization, girls' teams had been introduced. Thus, over the years, the vast majority of people who have participated in AYSO have experienced it as an organization set up for boys and for girls.
I began my study with the understanding that this differently gendered history of these two organizations might give us hints at the differences in the gender divisions of labor in coaching (more women head coaches in soccer than in baseball). Sociologist Raewyn Connell argues that every social institution—including the economy, the military, schools, families, or sport—has a "gender regime," which is defined as the current state of play of gender relations in the institution. We can understand an institution's gender regime by measuring and analyzing the gender divisions of labor and power in the organization (i.e., what kinds of jobs are done by women and men, who has the authority, etc.). The idea that a gender regime is characterized by a "state of play" is a way to get beyond static measurements that might result from a quick snapshot of an organizational pyramid, and to understand instead that organizations are always historically shifting entities, subject to gradual—or occasionally even rapid—change. Gender relations are embedded in all organizations, but organizations with deeper patriarchal legacies (like Little League Baseball) are characterized by male-dominated divisions of labor and power that have tremendous historical inertia and are therefore very difficult to disrupt and change. An important part of this inertia might be the continuing sense among adult men that they literally own baseball, due to their experience of having played the game as boys and to the deep emotional connection that many U.S. men attach to baseball—a connection that has much to do with nostalgia for their own boyhood, and often with emotional ties to their own fathers. By contrast, we might expect the more recently formed AYSO to be characterized by a more fluid gender regime that is thus more open to incorporating feminist ideals of gender equality. In the United States, youth soccer is a sport so recently institutionalized that many parents—male and female—never played the game as kids. Thus, we might expect that in addition to AYSO having no pre–Title IX patriarchal baggage weighing down its gender regime, today's fathers will also tend to have little or no personal history or emotional connection to the sport. Theoretically, I reasoned, this difference could level the playing field, in terms of adult women's and men's volunteer activities as head coaches in AYSO as compared with LLB/S.
Little League Baseball and Softball
Little League Baseball was founded in 1938 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and by 1946 it had expanded to twelve leagues in Pennsylvania. In the postwar years, Little League expanded rapidly throughout the United States, growing to 776 leagues by 1951, the same year that the first non-U.S. league was formed in Canada. By the mid-1950s, Little League Baseball was fully established as a major institution, with 4,000 leagues in the United States and further growth into Mexico and other nations. Little League Baseball continued to expand worldwide through the 1960s and into the 1970s.
In 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX—a statute passed in the United States to ensure gender equity in schools and universities—Little League Baseball was forced to open its game to girl participants. According to an LLB/S online publication, the organization created Little League Softball for girls in 1974, "amid the turmoil of lawsuits to permit girls to play on Little League Baseball Teams." The creation of Little League Softball is consequential in terms of the gender regime of the organization. On the one hand, it represents an organizational response to the rapidly growing demand among girls to play baseball and to the dramatically shifting cultural climate of the early 1970s, brought about by the explosion of feminism and the concomitant growth of girls' and women's sports. On the other hand, the fact that the organization created a niche for girls to play softball, a substantially different game from baseball, meant that the organization was channeling girls and boys into separate and very different athletic tracks.
Starting in 1943, at the outset of the U.S. entry into World War II, and stretching through 1954, there was an impressive burst of professional women's baseball, celebrated in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. Despite this moment, baseball in the United States seems almost always to have "belonged" to boys and men. In the early 1970s, when girls began to stake a legal claim to play baseball with the boys, this threatened the entrenched gender regime of Little League Baseball. A key case cited by sport historians is a civil rights complaint brought against Little League Baseball by the National Organization for Women (NOW) on behalf of a Hoboken, New Jersey, girl, Maria Pepe. In 1972, the twelve-year-old Pepe played in the first three games of the season on an otherwise all boys' team. "By the third game," Pepe recalled many years later, "it started getting more involved. Little League (the national organization) sent letters to my coach that said they had to drop me. My coach said, 'How do I fight this?' He reluctantly said I couldn't play." In that same year, the national Little League headquarters was threatening to revoke the charter of other local leagues who allowed girls to play on baseball teams. The NOW civil rights claim made its way to the New Jersey Superior Court, which in 1974 ruled in favor of Pepe and ordered Little League Baseball to allow 8–12-year-old girls to play baseball. Once forced by law to incorporate girls, the organization responded rapidly to create a track for girls—but a track that was substantially different from the boys' sport: baseball for boys, softball for girls.
The "slash" in the term "LLB/S" is a visible indicator of the current "state of play" of the gender regime of the organization. When the all-male LLB was challenged, from within by girls and their families, and from without by NOW and other organizations, Little League Baseball's initial response was resistance to girls' participation. Resistance to girls occurred in local sites too. In their 1979 book on Little League Baseball, sociologists Lewis Yablonsky and Jonathan Brower noted how a Michigan Little League board of directors passed a rule that all players had to wear jock straps, and then used the rule to try to stop an eight-year-old girl from playing. And when a girl showed up to try out in a previously all-male Los Angeles area Little League, adult men complained that the twelve-year-old girl had "'infiltrated' their league":
Remarks about her by two men betrayed feelings unrelated to her athletic abilities. "She's got a good arm, but can't field or hit," asserted the first. "She's got big tits and they don't belong in baseball." A third coach put it more bluntly when he defiantly remarked, "I won't let her play on my team. No girl is to play on my team! I'll give up my team if I have to take her!"
When resistance—both in its local and national organizational forms—ultimately failed, the organization responded by incorporating girls, but along a separate and different track. Girls have been (at first, grudgingly) incorporated, but in a way that reflects a history of what sociologist Nancy Theberge called "adapted rules" for girls' sports—that is, sports for girls and women developed with somewhat, or even dramatically different, rules than those developed for boys and men. Today, LLB/S is an organization that boasts 2.7 million children participants worldwide, 2.1 million of them in the United States. There are 176,786 teams in the program—153,422 of them in baseball, 23,364 in softball. Little League stays afloat through the labor about one million volunteers.
I wondered if the South Pasadena numbers on women and men volunteer coaches between 1999 and 2007—numbers that revealed that women coached 11 percent of girls' softball teams, and 2 percent of boys' baseball teams—reflected the general national pattern. When I asked the national media relations manager of LLB/S this question, I was told that the national organization does not keep statistics on either the sex of players or of coaches. In the absence of national data against which to compare my local numbers, I asked several of the communities surrounding South Pasadena for their LLB/S 2006 or 2007 data on coaches. What I found was that South Pasadena LLB/S is, if anything, slightly more liberal than its local neighbors, in terms of how many women are serving as head coaches. Nearby East Altadena had only one woman head coach among its eighteen teams, and she was heading a Challenger Division team that supports the "special needs" kids. Men headed all of the regular East Altadena boys' baseball teams and girls' softball teams, and thirty-four of the thirty-six assistant coaches (94.5 percent) were men. Nearby Santa Anita, which has only baseball and no girls' softball league, demonstrated an almost absolute gender division of labor. Men headed all twenty-five baseball teams; of fifty-five assistant coaches, only one was a woman. And every one of the twenty-two "team mothers" listed in their annual yearbook was a woman. The comparisons with other towns is summarized in appendix 3.
American Youth Soccer Organization
AYSO started in the Los Angeles area in 1964 with nine teams. For the first few years, the teams were entirely for boys. In 1971 in San Fernando, California, Joe Karbus, a father of five who was unhappy with AYSO's all boys' status, organized the first girls' teams. In the mid-1990s, a few AYSO leagues sprouted in Moscow, Trinidad and Tobago, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But AYSO remains mostly a U.S. organization, with today over 650,000 players on more than 50,000 teams. The national AYSO office employs fifty paid staff members, but like LLB/S, AYSO is an organization largely driven by volunteer labor. Roughly 250,000 volunteer coaches, team parents, and referees donate their time annually. AYSO has very well-developed and institutionalized coach training and certification programs, as well as a "Safe Haven" training program that focuses on health, safety, and (especially) anti–sexual abuse training, and that is mandatory for all AYSO coaches.
South Pasadena's AYSO began in 1979. Today, the league consists of 163 teams and hundreds of adult volunteers, with an annual 2006–7 operating budget of $326,000. I wondered if the South Pasadena numbers on women and men volunteer coaches between 1999 and 2007—numbers that revealed that women coached 17.1 percent of girls' teams, and 11.1 percent of boys' teams—reflected the general national pattern. When I asked a representative of the national AYSO this question, I was told that the organization does not keep statistics on the sex of coaches. In the absence of national data against which to compare our local numbers, I asked several of the communities surrounding South Pasadena for their AYSO 2006 or 2007 data on coaches. The data that I received from five nearby AYSO regions, summarized in appendix 3, revealed that South Pasadena's proportion of women soccer coaches is higher—often significantly higher—than in these surrounding communities.
Organization of the Book
In this book, I tell a story that illustrates how coaching in South Pasadena youth sports remains a highly sex-segregated activity. I draw from interviews and field observations to illustrate ongoing social processes that create sex segregation, and I draw especially from the interviews to reflect on how peoples' beliefs about gender differences among boys and girls, about families, and about the community create a context in which most people "choose" to participate in public activities in a sex-segregated manner. I begin each chapter with a brief vignette from my field notes, to provide the reader with evocative scenes that illustrate the social processes discussed in the chapters. I was inspired to use these opening vignettes after reading two recent ethnographies that I admire: Ann Arnett Ferguson's Bad Boys (2000), a study of black boys in a public school, and Sherri Grasmuck's Protecting Home (2005), which looks at the role of Little League Baseball in a Philadelphia neighborhood. Like Ferguson and Grasmuck, I use these field-notes vignettes to create a kind of "feel" for the day-to-day and moment-to-moment social construction of gender and community in youth sports. As Grasmuck notes, many ethnographic studies are written in such a way that they suck the life (and too often the humor) out of everyday life. I hope that these vignettes add analytic depth, as well as keeping some of the life and humor in my story.
My story begins in chapter 2 with a description of the social processes through which women who volunteer to help out with their kids' teams routinely become "team moms" and men become assistant coaches. I show how the term "team mom" persists stubbornly in day-to-day conversations, despite the official gender-neutral terms of "team parent" (in LLB/S) and "team manager" (in AYSO). I discuss the ways that parents' gender ideologies about families and sport come together to create what I call a "sex category sorting process" that channels men predominantly into one activity, women into another.
In the following two chapters, I look at the experiences of women (chapter 3) and men (chapter 4) who become head coaches. I draw from the coaches' stories of how they decided to coach, and contrast their experiences as coaches. Drawing from interviews and from observations, I describe what I call the "gender-sorting process," a concept that helps to explain the glass ceiling on the number of women coaching boys or girls in the older age-groups. In short, I argue that all coaches must navigate their coaching styles between two contradictory sets of knowledge—what I call "kids-knowledge" and "sports-knowledge." Most women and some men coaches in the youngest children's teams begin coaching by emphasizing kids-knowledge, drawing on resources (or "capital") that is culturally defined as "feminine"—that is, defining themselves primarily in affective terms, as nurturing, as caring, as facilitating the kids to have "fun." As the kids rise up into the higher age-groups, their sports activities become defined in more instrumental terms—the coaches' emphasis tips away from fun and equal participation toward sports-knowledge that values and rewards skill acquisition, competition, and winning. Coaches at these higher age-levels are seen as more "serious" (and often more loud and aggressive). Coaches with more affective styles (many of them women, but a few of them men) either drop out of coaching altogether when their kids get to these older age-levels, or they cycle back and coach a younger child's team. The coaches who emphasize sports knowledge, who express more narrowly masculine public styles, remain and coach at the higher levels.
In short, the "sex category sorting process" that I describe in chapter 2 selects most women volunteers into the "team mom" job, and most men volunteers into a coaching job. The "gender-sorting process" that I describe in chapters 3 and 4 selects most women coaches out of the possibility of coaching boys, or of coaching older boys or girls, while selecting out less narrowly masculine men as well. When I talk about "sorting" processes and people being "selected" in or out of certain kinds of positions, I am purposefully deploying language that runs counter to the assumption that people freely "choose" to volunteer in the activities or positions that they end up in. I do not want to deny the clear fact that people in my study are exercising agency, that they are making choices about family, work, parenting, and whether to volunteer as a youth sport leader, and if so, whether to be a head coach, an assistant coach, or a team parent. Instead, what I hope to show is that what people see as individual (or familial) choices are in fact bounded and shaped by institutional constraints, they are given meaning by stubbornly persistent cultural belief systems about gender and families, and they are given force by deep emotional commitments to gender difference.
In chapter 5, I focus on how the women's and men's beliefs and actions help to shape a context that engenders the kids they are coaching. Drawing from coaches' comments on how they see and treat boys and girls in sports, I suggest that youth sports today is a key site for the development of what I call "soft essentialism." Adults' views of children and gender commonly oscillate between two apparently contradictory beliefs—that girls and boys should have equal opportunities, and that girls and boys are naturally different. Soft essentialism, as an emergent ideology, negotiates the tension between these two beliefs. Youth sports is an ideal place for the construction of soft essentialism; unlike in most other institutions, ideas and strategies for equal opportunity for girls are being carved out within a kind of "separate-but-equal," sex-segregated context.
In chapter 6, I broaden my scope to consider how sex-segregation among youth sports volunteer coaches and "team moms" connects with families and community. I explore the fact that many South Pasadena head coaches are professional-class men with demanding public careers, while many of the women involved as coaches or as team parents are college-educated women who have opted out of full-time careers. I look at the way that the ongoing creation of South Pasadena as a "kid friendly" and "safe" town for children rests on the volunteer labor of women and on the choices of some highly visible professional-class women and men to create families with male breadwinners and female homemakers who have left full-time careers. I discuss how sex-segregation in youth sports (and the ideology of soft essentialism) articulate with an ideal family form that is grounded in white, professional-class, and heterosexual experience, which in turn becomes a key part of the symbolic boundaries that construct South Pasadena's reputation as a "safe town for children and families." Finally, I consider how these class-based gender and family dynamics help to create community-based symbolic boundaries: from the inside, many South Pasadena residents see themselves as creating a good, safe place for their kids; from the outside, many in neighboring communities see South Pasadena as a privileged and exclusive white professional-class enclave that is not particularly open or friendly to "others."
Ultimately, I use the story of volunteer coaches in South Pasadena as a window into understanding broader issues of our time—particularly how peoples' perceptions of their own individual choices with respect to family divisions of labor, paid occupations, and volunteer labor with their children's activities help to construct a world of gender inequalities, and how gender inequality fits into the construction of a certain kind of community. This book tells a story that illustrates the multidimensional dynamics of gender in everyday life. In the past decade or so, gender scholars have moved beyond the notion that masculinity and femininity are "sex roles" that people simply absorb during childhood and then bring to their sports experiences, in the same ways that they might bring different-sized baseball bats or different kinds of soccer shoes. Instead, gender is seen as a multilayered social process that is not simply part of the personality structure of individuals but is also a fundamental aspect of everyday group interactions, divisions of labor and power in organizations, and cultural symbols that swirl around us.
This book will illustrate that people are not passive dupes in gender systems; rather, we are active participants in creating gender. In the language of social theory, people exercise agency in the creation of everyday social life. Agency is often reproductive: when our actions are consistent with traditions and conventions of existing gender differences and hierarchies, we help to reproduce those existing relations. Sometimes, agency is resistant: when our actions contradict or challenge existing gender differences or hierarchies, we contribute to changing existing gender relations. Often, reproductive and resistant agencies are simultaneously evident in contemporary sport. We see this paradoxical simultaneity operating every day: when a heavily muscled woman bodybuilder gets breast implants in order to appear strong and conventionally hetero-sexy; when co-ed community softball teams flourish yet informal practices reinforce gender hierarchies (like men cutting in front of women teammates to catch fly balls); when women's college sports grows by leaps and bounds but head coaching shifts from a primarily female profession to one dominated by men.
In short, sport is a "contested terrain" in which gender is being constructed in complex and often contradictory ways. Youth sports, a key part of this contested terrain, is a locus of tension between change and continuity in gender relations. The story I tell here is primarily one of continuity—of how gendered divisions of labor in volunteer youth sports are reproduced by peoples' actions, and of how these gendered divisions of labor help to create a sense of continuity and stability within the context of turbulent historical change in gender, families, and communities. However, even within seemingly stable contexts, there are always points of tension, moments of strain and resistance, and tendencies toward change. I focus my story, when appropriate, also on these moments of strain and tension. In so doing, I hope to make some modest suggestions as to how social change happens, and how social inequalities in families and communities might be confronted and reduced.
About the Book
“In this amazing book, Messner . . . provides the reader with fascinating insights into the gendered nature of youth sports. . . . Anyone interested in gender studies or sport, especially sport sociology, will appreciate this heartfelt, perceptive, and thoroughly enjoyable study. . . . Recommended.”—Choice
“This book is a treat.”—Howard P. Chudacoff American Studies Journal
“Messner’s engaging writing style draws the reader into the fine details of what he observes.”—Men & Masculinities
“[Messner’s] wide-ranging book examines every aspect of this culture.”—Sportsletter"As an eminent sociologist of gender and sports, the son of a high school coach, and a parent, Michael Messner is uniquely positioned to illuminate the persistent and changing gender dynamics of parent-organized youth sports. The result, as predicted, is a perceptive, vividly detailed, and highly readable book."—Barrie Thorne, author of Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School
"Michael Messner has brilliantly assembled many important insights into the current culture of adult-organized youth sports. If every town or municipality governing the use of publicly owned facilities, which are dedicated to ensuring cohesive communities and are truly committed to equality and diversity, made this book mandatory reading, the ethical climate in youth sports will inevitably change for the better. No longer will permits be handed out to youth sports organizations that are, intentionally or unintentionally, excluding participation by adults at the coaching and administration levels by gender difference, racial inequality, and class distinction. Only then will we see safer, saner, less stressful, and more inclusive youth sports programs for our children."—Brooke de Lench, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role Of Mothers In Youth Sports and founder of MomsTeam.com: The Trusted Source For Youth Sports Parents
“Combining years of observation and personal experience with insight and a much-needed critical analysis, sport scholar Michael Messner exposes the numerous ways in which traditional hierarchies and inequalities are (re)produced in one of the most important institutions in this culture—youth sports. Messner's trenchant critique provides ample evidence that in the post Title IX era of 'soft essentialism', youth sports has become a 'comfort zone' where class distinctions, and racial and gender ideologies flourish. Much work needs to be done to create an environment that is truly 'all for the kids.'”—Mary Jo Kane, Director, and Nicole M. LaVoi, PhD, Associate Director, Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, University of Minnesota
Table of Contents
1. “It's All for the Kids”: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports
2. “Looking for a Team Mom”: Separating the Men from the Moms
3. “We Don't Like Chick Coaches”: Women at the Helm
4. “You Don't Have to be a Drill Sergeant”: Men at the Helm
5. “They're Different-and They're Born Different”: Engendering the Kids
6. “It's a Safe and Fun Place for Kids”: Youth Sports, Families, and the Good Community
Appendix 1. Demographic Description of Interview Subjects
Appendix 2. Racial/Ethnic Composition of South Pasadena LLB/S and AYSO Coaches and of the City of South Pasadena
Appendix 3. Proportion of AYSO and LLB/S Women Head Coaches in Communities Surrounding South Pasadena
Appendix 4. In the Field