Suppose you were handed a baseball and told you could do whatever you wanted with it. What would you do? Maybe you'd choose up sides and go to it for nine innings. Maybe you'd rejig the rules a bit first so it couldn't turn into a pitchers' duel. Or maybe you'd invent a whole new game vaguely based on the national pastime.
When women stormed the sports world a few years back, they had to decide what they were going to do with the ball. Model themselves after men's sports? Try to improve the model? Or go off in new directions?
Whatever their choice -- and it's still very much in the making -- women had one objective in mind: to create the best possible world for women athletes.
To some, that means deliberately creating a situation that serves the two-under-par golfer as fully as the once-around-the-track jogger.To others, that means concentrating on the most highly able so they can inspire others.
It has also given women the opportunity to try to find ways to sidestep some of the problems that seem to haunt men's sports.
But even while all these theoretical discussions are going on, the athletes are busy honing their skills on the playing fields.
"The caliber of play is so far beyond what it was three years ago," comments Kathy Mosolino, coach of the New Jersey Gems, one of the eight teams in the professional Women's Basketball League.It is this ever-increasing improvement in the quality of play that has drawn spectators to the WBL, and has helped it to stay in existence, albeit a perilous one.
"That's what I'd like to see created, more professional opportunity," says Billie Jean King. "When the pro segment makes it, it always produces a lot of ripples all the way down. When they are growing up as little girls, they've got to say, 'I want to be a pro basketball player,' and see that there is a place for them to go to make a living. Little boys have so many opportunities. They can picture themselves being a baseball player, basketball player, hockey -- wherever professional opportunities are open to boys, that's what they can dream about in a realistic way."
Professional golf and tennis circuits for women are well established and well monied -- no fewer than four golfers are approaching the $1 million mark in career winnings, a figure six tennis players have passed.But how can women move beyond golf and tennis?
It takes more than athletic skill. It takes public acceptance and money, and the two are bound up in each other. It takes more corporate sponsorship of other kinds of women's professional sports -- and giving them some publicity and plenty of television coverage.
Corporate sponsorship of women's sports is growing every year. Budgets are guarded closely, but Avon alone has ear-marked $5 million for its sports program in running and tennis next year, says Kathrine Switzer, who directs the program. (Ms. Switzer is best remembered as the K. V. Switzer who in 1967 clandestinely became the first woman with an official number to run the previously all-male Boston Marathon.) Clairol sponsors two tennis tournaments -- costing somewhere in six figures. Bonne Bell spends about half a million on 34 running events around the world. Toyota has just taken over the Colgate Series in tennis, renaming it the Toyota Series.
nColgate, which was a pioneer in women's professional sports with the Dinah Shore golf championship, will continue to sponsor its seven-year-old series of amateur track-and-field competitions for young women in the New York City area, which this year awarded $29,000 in educational grants-in-aid to contestants.)
Most of this money is going to what Billie Jean King calls "elitist sports, where you get presidents of corporations who also play the sports themselves, so they have a direct identification with it."
What needs to happen, she says, is for women's team sports to become accepted. The public needs to realize that women can sweat and still be women.
"Until team sports are accepted the same way they are for men, we haven't arrived. Everyone talks about our success; all I can think about is, we haven't even started."
Right now, the team sport that has the most promise for women professionally is basketball. It's a strong sport in college, both in player interest and popular appeal.
The Women's Basketball League has been around for three seasons now, and has seen a number of teams sputter out.The players earn anywhere from $7,000 to $50, 000 a year, and the league has yet to get a game on television. Only two teams --Dallas and Chicago -- made it into the black this year.
"They are really the pioneers now for women in team sports," says Billie Jean King.
How can the WBL make it?
"Keep it small," Ms. King says. "Grow slowly. Don't be overanxious. Don't expand too quickly."
"The players aren't there just to play," says Gems coach Kathy Mosolino. "They have to promote and speak. The league is only there as long as they sell it." She ruminates about Dallas's success in "selling" Nancy Lieberman and how she can do the same with her name player, Carol Blazejowski.
"It takes only one or two players to put you on the map," says pro golfer JoAnne Carner. Remember what Pele did for soccer in this country?
But there are caveats: "The athletes have got to speak up for themselves in terms of what makes sense to them rather than being manipulated like puppets," says Merrily Baker, women's athletic director at Princeton University and president-elect of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).
She thinks women's tennis and golf are "in pretty good shape," due to the athletes' "intensive efforts at the professional level to see that athletes' rights, so to speak, are at least considered."
Ms. King, currently president of the Women's Tennis Association and a key figure in its founding, agrees: "The WTA has set an unbelievable standard for ourselves. We have contracts with the sponsors, but they get what they want and we get what we want."
The WTA was founded 10 years ago when some women tennis players banded together to ensure that they were treated at least as well as the men financially, and to give women a strong unified voice in governing their future.
"I think that's very important for any sport," says Rosie Casals, another WTA member. "I feel that perhaps other sports lack the good association or good organization. You can't have your players pulling one way or the other . . . and sacrificing certain things for their own benefit."
What Billie Jean would like to see is everything run more like a business. She'd run the NBA quite differently:
"I'd have the league be partners, and hire the players from one central source, instead of having the owners competing with each other, because they are really partners in the same entertainment business. What they are doing is hiring entertainers."
If Team Tennis is reborn soon, as she hopes, it will be organized along these lines, she adds.
As things are now, the owners of professional teams are just trying to outdo one another, without much thought for the future, she says.
"Baseball is in big trouble now, because [New York Yankees owner George] Steinbrenner is worth $10 million, and the other owner is only worth $2 million, so Steinbrenner has $8 million more to pay his players. Who is he kidding? He's hurting the league. He isn't helping the league in the long run."
She thinks the idea of sports as business should be applied in colleges, too, especially in the big programs that make money -- not just in how the programs are run, but in who gets the profits.
"It's the kids who are responsible for that money. We watch them play. Give them a percentage of the gate every Saturday."
This isn't quite what Merrily Baker had in mind when she was talking about athletes' rights. She agrees that student athletes get the short end of the stick under the current system. but would rather deemphasize the business end of things and get on with the game.
"I always talk about student athletes, and I really think of them in just that order -- students first and athletes second. While athletics plays a very important role in the life of the students on this campus, it's got to be kept within the proper perspective. For most of them, it's not going to be the major focus of their lives."
The Chris Evert Lloyds of the world are a small, elite group, she says. "The majority of men and women who are involved in sports are not going to achieve those heights or goals. Most of them don't even have those kinds of goals."
To her, the ideal collegiate program would be "very broadly based, which means you do not spend nordinate amounts of money on recruiting. You do not award athletic scholarships, and yet at the same time you strive to develop a competitive level of ability that's trying to maximize the competitive ability of your students."
She envisions "strata of programs that meet tne needs of various levels of ability," competition on interscholastic, intramural, and recreational levels, as well as skill-learning physical education classes.
She is critical of programs that put "a primary focus on revenue-producing sports and ignor other sports, both men's and women's." While those sports might produce revenue, she says, a minority make enough to show a profit.
(Figures compiled by the National Collegiate Athletic Association show that in 1976-77 at the nation's largest schools, $12,250 was spent on each basketball player, $9,858 on each football player, and $1,437 on all other male athletes. AIAW figures show about $2,156 was spent on each female athlete. In 1976-77, NCAA figures show, two-thirds of all men's athletic programs lost money.)
But there are many others who disagree. They want to be able to give women's sports the same kind of financial support given to men's sports:
"You can't morally justified or morally defend doing things for menbut not for women," says Linda Estes, women's athletic director at the University of New Mexico.
"To deny women certain benefits strictly because they are women and there might be some problems -- I don't buy into that at all," says Judith Holland, women's athletic director at UCLA.
What she is referring to is the common fear that as women's sports go big time, they will develop the big problems that men's sports have -- especially recruiting and academic problems inthe colleges, and violent behavior on the playing field.
"People are poeple," says Ruth berkey, NCAA director of women's championships. If coaches are competing for the best athletes, there are bound to be problems.
She claimes that there are problems already within women's collegiate sports, and that the AIAW, which has had sole authority over these sports until recently , has kept quiet about them. She worries that as women's programs join the NCAA (as detailed in the third part of this series) the NCAA will be blamed for any troubles that arise.
Ginny Hunt, women's athletic director at the University of Montana and chair of the AIAW committee that investigates alleged violations, readily admits that about 40 schools have been cited by the AIAW for some kind of violation this year; about half of those schools were penalized in some way. Only the severest cases are reported to the membership, in the belief that minor problems that are easily remedied need not subject the school to public scrutiny. The AIAW does not go poking around schools looking for problems, but relies on members to "self-report."
She says the relatively small number of violations is because there is "not the same pressure to win" as in men's sports, although, she admits, "We're starting to see a change in that."
Brown University's Arlene Gorton, who will take over the AIAW committee from Ginny Hunt when her term expires, also admits that there are problems, mostly "mild," and "mostly coming from pure and simple lack of knowledge of rules."
She attributes this to rapidly growing women's programs which still do not have full-time coaches or a refined communication network. Nevertheless, she prefers AIAW's method of self-reporting to the Alternative she describes as an "unmanageable police bureaucracy," with investigators peering over coaches' shoulders looking for violations.
Rather than glumly accepting that women's programs are destined for scandals like men's pograms, Ruth Berkey is eager to change the way things are done:
"If you believe as a female that there are many pitfalls in the NCAA for the men's athletic programs, then as a person interested in athletics you should be wanting to correct that, and change that for your male athlete. The best way to change and protect that is to get inside the organization and work for changes within the organization. I really feel that women will have a tremendous effect on this association."
She points out that the NCAA has started to examine its recruiting rules, with an eye to relieving the pressures on coaches. These are changes that she welcomes.
Hand in glove with recruiting violations is the violent side of sports. It's all based on the "must win" attitude, says John Cheffers, a professor and coordinator of the human-movement program at Boston University, who has been studying violence in sports for eight years.
He says women's sports are "headed in the same direction" as men's unless this attitude -- the "We're No. 1" attitude -- changes.
"The more they play toward the philosophy of winner take all then obviously the more violent sport will become."
He sees two things that might benefit women: As a group, they are not as powerful as men, so their games rely more on finesse than brute stength. And schools have historically done a better job of educating girls about the spirit of play.
While there might be ways to avoid violence entirely, he says they are "idealistic." He doesn't think competing for the sake of competing will ever catch on.
"The only way to resolve the problem of winning and violence is by making sure officials and coaches are well educated to the problems, and can offset them."
"We can't get away from values, folks," he told a convention of physical educators several months ago.
"Greed is probably one of the worst things that can go along with sports," says professional golfer Pat Bradley. She says she would not be able to accept being a winner of she knew she had cheated somewhere along the way, not counting a stroke or moving her ball.
"If you don't play the right way, don't play at all." She credits her parents with instilling a strong sense of sportsmanship in her.
Last year she won the admiration of many when she penalized herself in the midst of a tough tournament round. Her ball moved slightly just as she addressed it. No one else saw it, but she did not hesitate to bring it to the official's attention. She went on to win the tournament, the biggest one of her career.
She says she couldn't accept being a winner if she knew there was something wrong. And, she says, this attitude "will benefit you throughout life, not just on the golf course."
Kathrine Switzer says women can and should learn from men's mistakes. She agrees with John Cheffers that women can turn their different physical abilities to their advantage.
"The sports we see are the ones which take advantage of men's capabilities." She predicts the development of sports "we don't even know about," ones that emphasize the beauty and grace of movement, much as gymnastics, long-distance swimming, and figure skating do.
"Women will have parity with men's professional sports --but not the same sports," she says.
But to get there, most observers say, women must have nothing less than equality of opportunity on the playing field, part and parcel of the changes that women are striving for throughout all human endeavor.
It's what Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Oraganization for Women, was talking about when she said: "When I can drive by a playground and see boys and girls playing together on the same team, and nobody thinks it's unussual, then I'll know we have true equality."