Dr. Travers is a Professor of Sociology at Simon Fraser University and Deputy Editor of the journal, Gender & Society. Much of their work focuses on transgender children and youth. Dr. Travers has also published extensively on the relationship between sport and social justice, with particular emphasis on the inclusion and exclusion of women, queer and trans people of all ages.
Dr. Travers has a dream: to see a woman play in Major League Baseball in their lifetime. The coach, athlete and academic is leading an E-Alliance-funded project that is assessing the culture of baseball – a sport that has every reason to be an all-gender game yet continues to present barriers for non-male athletes as well as coaches and other leaders at all levels of play.
Travers’ research team is conducting surveys and interviews with coaches and players from Little League Baseball Canada, Baseball B.C. and Baseball Canada. The researchers are collecting firsthand experiences from girls and women in these organizations as well as coaches and leaders. The project findings could inform policy and best practices to help establish a more welcoming environment, which won’t only level the playing field for girls in baseball, but for others traditionally excluded from play.
“Baseball has worked really hard to exclude girls and women,” says Travers. Until 1974, Little League Baseball forbid girls from joining their teams. “The league only began to allow girls because a US Supreme Court ruling forced it to do so,” Travers explains. “And Little League Baseball responded to that legal defeat by creating Little League Softball and streaming girls into it. So, you know, it’s not an accident. There’s a very deliberate effort to make baseball a male-only sport.”
The researchers have completed several interviews and informed by these findings, and their own life experiences, Travers has a sense of the problem – being the only girl, or one of a few, can be isolating and often demands fortitude and resilience that shouldn’t be a prerequisite to play. Girls stick around because they have an exceptional passion for the game.
Dropout rates reflect this trend. “There are a good number of girls who come out in the early phases,” Travers says. “But then by the time they’re about eight or nine, they’re almost all gone. I think that girls get the message that boys are really the centre of the game. You can be an average baseball player as a boy and feel like you belong,” Travers points out. “Whereas if you’re a girl, in order to feel like you belong, you really have to be exceptional.”
Coaches can make a tremendous impact on helping girls to feel more welcome, Travers points out, by going beyond simply allowing girls to play and overtly supporting them. “Coaches have to work hard to change the culture and the environment so that girls feel welcome, not that you have to treat them differently than the boys. But you need to treat them with the same respect and believe that they belong and can excel just like the boys. For example, I think girls find it really annoying when coaches will use a different tone of voice or terms like, ‘sweetheart.’” It’s also problematic when coaches aren’t paying attention to how gender dynamics are playing out among the athletes, for example when a girl is consistently the last person to get a partner in drills or practice. “If that’s happening all the time, that’s gross. The coach needs to step in and mix people up all the time and interrupt that and be really explicit.”
Travers points out that girls also don’t see themselves reflected in elite play, which is problematic. Even though Kim Ng made history as the first woman to serve as a general manager in Major League Baseball, it remains essentially a men-only institution. “I think that Major League Baseball needs to confront its occupational inequity problem and be mandated to develop and recruit girls and women as players.”
Over time, these factors can compound, and girls often get frustrated and move to softball where they won’t confront the same struggles based on gender. This segregation is especially illogical since baseball is perfectly poised to be an all-gender sport.
Despite these obstacles, Travers still sees potential for incredible change and “to do some really deep cultural work to change the climate and the decision-making structure, the coaching, and the leadership in baseball to make it possible for kids of all genders to play together, which is particularly exciting.”
Baseball is all about mechanics. It’s a game of footwork and physics. “Hank Aaron, who prior to Barry Bonds was the home run king, said there’s absolutely no reason a girl couldn’t play major league baseball,” Travers points out.
Decades after Aaron left the diamond, with the insights from Travers work and other advocates for equity, perhaps the rest of the baseball world will come to the same realization.