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What constitutes equal opportunity for women in sports? Philosophers

have developed three major positions concerning equal opportunity,

but they have focused on fields in which the sexes are either known or

assumed to have equal potentialities. In sports, some relevant differ-

ences between the sexes, though statistical, do appear to be perma-

nent. All three of the most widely held views on equal opportunity

are deficient when applied to this area. Since there may be other

permanent differences between the sexes, in such areas as spatial per-

ception or verbal ability, it is useful to examine the problems of equal

opportunity in sports.


One account of equal opportunity identifies it with nondiscrimina-

tion. On this view, if we do not pay any attention to the race of ap-

plicants to law school, for example, then our admissions are "color

blind" and give blacks equal opportunity. Admission should be based

on characteristics relevant to law school, such as intelligence and

grades, while irrelevant characteristics such as sex and race should

be ignored entirely. Most philosophers have rejected this account as

too weak. If women lack motivation because they never see female

lawyers on television, "sex blindness" alone will not provide equal

opportunity. Although "formal" equality is necessary for justice, it is

not sufficient. These philosophers would permit temporary violations

of this ideal, but only in the transition to a just society.

Philosophy & Public Affairs 7, no. 3 ? 1978 by Princeton University Press




When applied to sports, however, their view proves inadequate. If

our sports were made sex-blind, women would have even less opportu-

nity to participate than at present. Given equal incentives and more

role models, women would have more interest in athletics, but few

would qualify for high school, college, professional and Olympic teams.

Statistically speaking, there are physiological differences between the

sexes that are relevant to sports performance. Remedial programs and

just institutions cannot obliterate all differences in size and strength.

So far from being necessary for equal opportunity, sex-blindness can

actually decrease it.

A second account of equal opportunity identifies it with equal

chances. Oscar and Elmer are said to have equal opportunity to become

brain surgeons if it is equally probable that they will become brain

surgeons. Most philosophers have rejected this conception of equal

opportunity as too strong. If Oscar is a genius with great manual

dexterity and Elmer is uncoordinated and slightly retarded, then they

should not have an equal chance to become brain surgeons. Our

society is not unjust if it encourages Oscar and discourages Elmer

from this profession, because these skills are relevant to the job.

When we turn to women in sports, however, the model of equal

probabilities seems to have some merit. Sports offer what I will call

basic benefits to which it seems everyone has an equal right: health,

the self-respect to be gained by doing one's best, the cooperation to be

leamed from working with teammates and the incentive gained from

having opponents, the "character" of learning to be a good loser and

a good winner, the chance to improve one's skills and learn to accept

criticism-and just plain fun. If Matilda is less adept at, say, wrestling

than Walter is, this is no reason to deny Matilda an equal chance to

wrestle for health, self-respect, and fun. Thus, contrary to the con-

clusion in the example of the brain surgeon, a society that discourages

Matilda from wrestling is unjust because it lacks equal opportunity to

attain these basic benefits.

The third account of equal opportunity calls for equal chances in

the sense of equal achievements for the "major social groups." Blacks

have an equal opportunity to be lawyers, on this view, when the per-

centage of lawyers who are black roughly equals the percentage of

blacks in the population. Like the "equal probabilities" view, this one



calls for equal chances, but it interprets this by averaging attainments

across the major social groups.

When this third account is applied to sports, it seems to have the

undesirable consequence that a society is unjust if less than half its

professional football players are women. If we had to provide sufficient

incentives or reverse discrimination to achieve this result, it would

create a situation unfair to I7o-pound males. (They may even clamor

to be recognized as a "major social group.") More important, it seems

wrong to argue that a low level of health and recreation for, say, short

women, is compensated for by additional health and recreation for

tall women; one might as well argue that women are compensated by

the greater benefits enjoyed by men. Rawls and Nozick have argued

against utilitarianism by pointing out that society is not a "macro-

individual" such that the benefits of some persons cancel out the

sufferings of others. But the major social groups are not macro-indi-

viduals either. Proponents of the third account have not, to my knowl-

edge, replied to this objection.

Beyond the basic benefits of sport, some athletes reap the further

benefits of fame and fortune. I shall call these the scarce benefits of

sport. The term is not meant to imply that they are kept artificially

scarce, but that it is simply not possible for prizes and publicity to be

attained equally by everyone at once. Although everyone has an equal

right to the basic benefits, not everyone can claim an equal right to

receive fan mail or appear on television. For this, having the skill

involved in the sport is one relevant factor. In short, I shall maintain

that the second account, equal probabilities, should be applied to the

basic benefits; whereas the third model, proportional attainments for

the major social groups, should be applied to the scarce benefits. And I

shall construct an argument from self-respect for taking the "average"

across the major social groups in the case of scarce benefits.


The traditional accounts of equal opportunity are inadequate because

men and women are physiologically different in ways relevant to

performance in sports. What is a fair way to treat physiologically

disadvantaged groups? Two methods are in common use, and I shall

suggest a third option.



One common method is to form competition classes based on a

clear-cut physiological characteristic, such as weight or age, well

known to be a hindrance in the sport in question. For example,

middleweight boxers receive preferential treatment in the sense that

they are permitted to move up and compete against the heavyweights

if they desire, while the heavyweights are not permitted to move

down into the middleweight class.

Sex is frequently used to form separate competition groups. If we

apply the boxing model, several conclusions about this practice

follow. Women should be allowed to "move up" and compete against

the men if they wish. Since sex is not relevant to performance in all

sports, the sport should be integrated when it is not. For example, it is

probably irrelevant in dressage, riflery and car racing. In other sports,

the differences between the sexes may be too small to justify separate

classes-as in diving and freestyle skiing. In still others, the sexes

have compensating differences. In channel swimming, for instance,

men are advantaged in strength, but women profit from an insulating

layer of fat. Additional sports could be integrated if the abilities char-

acteristic of the two sexes were valued equally. In many areas, such

as swimming, it is simply unknown whether the existing differences

are due to permanent physiological characteristics or to cultural and

social inequalities. Additional empirical research is needed before it

will be known where integration is appropriate.

An objection to the use of groupings by sex is that it discriminates

against those males whose level of performance is equal to that of the

abler females. For example, if we have a girls' football team in our

high school, is it unfair to prohibit a i20-pound boy who cannot make

the boys' team from trying out for the girls' team? If we provide an

additional team for boys under 140 pounds, does that discriminate

against girls under ioo pounds? Against short boys over I40 pounds?

It is impossible to provide a team for every characteristic that might

be relevant to football performance. The objection has force because

the differences between the sexes are only statistical. Our i20-pound

boy is being penalized for the average characteristics of a major social

group to which he belongs, rather than being treated on the basis of

his individual characteristics.

The justification for maintaining separate teams for the sexes is



the impact on women that integration would have. When there are

virtually no female athletic stars, or when wo

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