SportsMonday Column: One of the girls

Sunday, April 15, 2018 - 5:44pm

Since before she can remember, Betelhem Ashame has been the girl who loved sports.

Since before she can remember, Betelhem Ashame has been the girl who loved sports. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Betelhem Ashame

I thought I would always be one of the guys.

Growing up, that’s what everyone said about me. My guy friends who wanted me to know that I was just like them, and my girl friends who wanted me to know that I wasn’t.

Everyone knew me as the girl who loved sports. So naturally, that’s how I began to see myself. But as much as that was true, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong with me.

Paired with the joy of playing soccer at Catalpa Park with my dad, playing basketball with the guys after church and playing catch with my brother in the front yard was the anxiety of arranged playdates with girls my age, icy glares down the school hallway and awkward mistakes about my gender.

While it would have been easier to write about the first three, that’s not what this story is about. In all honesty, if I were a boy, it likely would have been. But as a girl in a boy’s world, it’s more important for me to elaborate on the latter three. They are the ones that stick with me to this day, and not in a good way.

***

I used to have so much trouble with girls that it would have made more sense if I were a boy.

When I say that all of my friends were guys up until high school, I’m not exaggerating. I wasn’t purposely avoiding girls. I just didn’t have anything to say around them. All the girls I knew only wanted to talk about shopping, clothes and makeup. They weren’t shallow. We just had different interests.

The more I hung out with them, the more I felt invisible. I couldn’t add to the conversation, because I didn’t know how. So I kept to myself, and the group kept going. In those moments of uncomfortable silence, I began to wonder if I was supposed to be interested in those things, too.

I still remember when, at the age of 10, my mom told me that one of the other parents had said it would be good for me to spend more time with girls instead of boys. But she didn’t explain why, and at the time, I didn’t understand either.

In middle school, I was the only girl who wore pants instead of a skirt for our school uniform, and who kept my hair in braids or a ponytail instead of wearing it down. I didn’t think much of those choices back then. I just wanted to play outside with the guys at recess.

I didn’t just play sports with them, though. I could keep up with them in conversations about sports, too. I spent most of my free time as a child watching soccer, basketball, football and baseball. I started with the professional teams from my hometown of Detroit, and then learned about the national scene by reading a lot of stories on ESPN and viewing many hours of SportsCenter.

My standing as a genuine fan allowed me to gain the respect of the guys, along with acceptance into their group. So instead of walking from class to class with my best girl friend, I strolled down the hallway with my guys.

The move wasn’t received very well. I still remember how my body tensed up as I saw those girls staring at me disapprovingly. One of my guy friends told me not to worry because they were just jealous. I didn’t understand that either.

Now, I think I do. Gender roles are so quickly ingrained in us that we try to enforce them in ourselves and each other before we hit puberty. I think those girls thought they were trying to help me.

So did the older gentleman who saw my guy friends and I having a snowball fight in the parking lot one winter day.

I was still a child at the time, and I was wearing a hat that covered my hair. He saw two of my friends double-teaming me and happened to yell toward my brother that he should come rescue the other little boy.

I froze. My brother looked at me. I’ve never seen him look so defeated. As he told the man that I was his little sister, I ran inside and cried.

***

When I joined The Daily freshman year, I thought it would be easy to be the girl among guys.

I went to every weekly section meeting during my first semester, but I didn’t pick up any stories. During my second semester, I stopped coming to meetings altogether. It took until March, when I received an email from the Managing Sports Editors at the time, for me to come back and write my first story.

I always tell people that I started my Daily career late because of a tough academic course load and a leadership position in another student organization, but I’ve left out a key detail until now.

I had been around guys my whole life, but I soon discovered that my experience couldn’t compare to joining a 40-person staff with maybe four girls in the room.

As I moved up the ladder, becoming a beat writer and an editor, I kept noticing the disparity and its subsequent effects. In four years, there has been only one time that two girls have worked together on one of our six beats. And I’ve seen many four-man beats. There has also been only one time that two girls became two of our six senior editors simultaneously. And I’ve seen more than one shutout.   

The more I noticed it, the more I felt like the odd one out. There was only one other girl for me to look up to, and I needed her to help me see how far my career could progress. I followed in her footsteps on the softball, men’s basketball and football beats, and for two months, we were even senior editors together.

Kelly took me under her wing and finally gave me a sense of belonging. Because of her, I realized how important it is to have a mentor who helps you grow into who you are meant to be.

So when I became the Co-Managing Sports Editor, I wanted to help move the culture in the right direction and do that for the girls who came after me. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t always succeed. But in the four years I have been here, the future has never looked so bright.

Next year, there will be eight women consistently contributing to what we affectionately call the best college sports section in the country. Three of them will be senior editors together. That might not seem like much just by the numbers — even though one-fifth beats one-tenth any day of the week — but when you know them like I do, it’s easier to understand.

Laney, you have a heart of gold. Paige, you are a fierce soul. Anna, you have the brightest disposition. Aria, you are full of ambition. Sarah, you have more potential than you know. Maya, you have turned into a pro. Jodi, you are improving every day. Bailey, you are well on your way.

I’ve loved being your leader as much as I’ve loved leading the whole section. Keep moving in the right direction.

***

The Daily has done so much more for me than I could have ever imagined, and I could have written this whole column about the incredible experiences I’ve had from a sports perspective. But I don’t know the next time a woman will be writing these biweekly columns, so this is the story I knew I needed to tell. 

The greatest gift The Daily has given me is the understanding that there was nothing wrong with me after all. This community of girls has shown me that.

There is more work to be done, but my work here is done.

I thought I would always be one of the guys. But now, I’m finally one of the girls.

Ashame would like to thank everyone who read her stories throughout her Daily career. You helped the girl who loved sports believe in the power of her voice. She can be reached at ashabete@umich.edu or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.

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