Anne Katz: Outdated Intramural policy

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 10:38pm

Growing up privileged in the affluent suburb of Bethesda, Md., meant that, fortunately, I never truly experienced hard-hitting, blatant sexism. To my knowledge, I was never denied any opportunity because of my sex, or had violence directed against me solely because I am female. Looking back on my childhood, I’ve become more aware of how role models, like my parents, teachers and rabbis, made clear, decisive moves to remind me again and again that anything a boy could do, I could do, too.

Here at Michigan, we largely live in an academic and cultural environment where overt, external sexism is hardly commonplace or tolerated. However, the rosy world in which I thought I lived in, one in which men and women are truly viewed as equal, is not realistic. Sexism and misogyny still exist in our world today, but largely in subtle ways that can be easily disregarded by detractors. Furthermore, this prejudice disproportionately impacts those who are the least likely or able to draw attention to it — women of color and of low income.

However, as important as it is to highlight this pervasive institutionalized sexism that denies women opportunities and undermines our ability to exercise agency, I’m placing that aside to discuss a rather curious piece of University policy that, though governing something comparatively innocuous, I still find troubling. No, it doesn’t have to do with anything as serious as the wage gap in the University’s payroll or the ever-prevalent problem of sexual assault, and the subject of the policy doesn’t have far-reaching, damaging consequences that echo throughout society. But neither of these realities mean it should be neglected.

Here at the University, women are treated differently than men when they step on the field to play certain intramural sports. This is the result of something called “co-rec modifications,” a different set of gendered rules enshrined in the official online rule book posted on the Student Life Recreational Sports page. After a bit of digging through the back pages of the website, I found a whole set of rules that alter game play for intramural flag football if women are present on the field. There are different rules regulating plays and passing, and the advent of something called an "illegal male advancement" (which, to me, sounds like a bulky, technical term for sexual assault) that bans male players from being “the first player to advance (carry) the ball beyond the line of scrimmage,” when, in turn, there are no such restrictions “on any run by a female player at any time.” And when a woman scores a touchdown, she wins nine points for her team, but when a man scores, he earns six.

Though I’ve heard of rule modifications being in place for other intramural sports, such as indoor soccer and inner-tube water polo, there are no official co-rec modifications in any other online rule book except for flag football. Presumably, these rules, both official and unofficial, aim to soften game play to make it easier, and thus more “fair,” for the women who choose to participate. However, they’re founded on flawed logic that instead has the potential to corrode both women’s success on the field and women’s will to go out and “play with the boys.”

Don’t get me wrong — it’s important to recognize and address the unique challenges women face every day. Denying the fact that a woman may experience the world around her differently because of her sex allows for a false sense of enlightenment and results in complacency, when in reality, there’s much work to be done. But treating women differently in intramural flag football isn’t a progressive step toward greater equality. The gendered rules unnecessarily draw a hard line between men and women, and predict a woman’s abilities before she’s even stepped foot on the field. All in all, they do more harm than good.

The fact that we have these different sets of rules for co-rec sports was just as surprising to me as it was to most people I talked to. A quick, informal canvas of my peers produced a fairly unified response of “Wow, really? That seems so … outdated.” And it is — to me, the policy seems oddly antiquated, and rubs against the overwhelmingly progressive and inclusive environment the administration actively tries to perpetuate.

Though we cannot kid ourselves and forget that gender relations in contemporary America are not nearly as “enlightened” as we like to think, this relic of a policy is based on the logic that in sports, men have such an overwhelming physical advantage over women that the rules should be crafted to make the sport easier for us when we’re playing together. Superimposing equality onto co-rec intramural sports actually helps women by bolstering our ability to compete with and against men. The rules must be changed to fall more in line with the University's consistent progress toward greater gender equality, both on and off the field.  

Anne Katz can be reached at amkatz@umich.edu.