This essay is part of our sports collection. See the full collection here.  

Sports are a salutary pastime for Americans especially because they emphasize perseverance, responsibility, hard work, and other attributes of excellent character. Sports also build an approach to teamwork and produce great self-overcoming and some self-knowledge when participants run up against their limits. Sports produce great joys as people overcome obstacles and strive for the level of excellence appropriate to them, just as they produce healthy agonies as people face defeat. It is salutary in many respects that women enter the sporting realm in greater numbers than they did in the past so that these lessons pervade American society.

And yet, when it comes to the most competitive levels of athletics, there seems to be a tension. Nowadays most Americans insist on equality between the sexes in all things, yet this insistence becomes murky when it comes to sports: We also thirst for athletic excellence, which is more commonly found in men. Can equality between men and women actually exist when it comes to sports?

Some scholars see male athletic excellence as a vestige of patriarchy. Eileen McConagh and Laura Pappano, authors of the 2009 book Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is not Equal in Sports, argue that segregation in sports is based on the false assumption that women and girls are unable to compete with men and boys. This segregation, they argue, perpetuates social inferiority.

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Sports in our culture actively construct and reinforce stereotypes about sex differences, they argue. And the dozens of inspiring feminist examples of girls successfully competing in hockey, football or golf seem to show that girls can do anything that guys do. Much of our government policy and popular culture adheres to the principle of equality, so that girls are expected to compete on a level comparable to boys.

But these social trends run up against certain limits. Research, history, and plain common sense show that men are consistently superior to women in the realm of sports. Given this reality, the pursuit of athletic equality may be a fool’s errand.

Market Force and Equality

Although women’s athletics have slowly gained some modest popularity in recent years, owners and fans never quite treat them equally. Pay between the NBA and the WNBA is uneven. The NBA players may seek to promote equality through their television ads, but they do not demand that their sisters in the WNBA receive “equal pay for equal work.” Equal pay would require a substantial pay cut for the NBA players. Further, the pursuit of equality has not led to a demand that WNBA players play with the same size ball as NBA players or have the same three-point line. On the college level, these differences have caused the Department of Education and the Justice Department to get involved, as complaints about inequality in college athletics have been filed and investigated at increasing rates during the Obama administration.

Then there is the matter of viewer interest. Far fewer people watch women’s college basketball in person and on television. According to the NCAA, the average attendance for women’s basketball games at the Division I level was 1,517 per game in 2015; South Carolina led Division I in attendance with just over 12,000 fans per home game. Division I men’s basketball teams averaged three times more than women’s games with over 4,700 fans per game; the South Carolina women’s team would have finished twenty-ninth in the men’s game in attendance. Three men’s teams finished averaging over 20,000 fans per home game (Syracuse, Kentucky, and Louisville). The NCAA tournament attendance average for women was 5,708, while the men’s tournament averaged 20,550 per session.

Do the dictates of equality demand the Carrier Dome be opened for Syracuse women’s basketball team? Or does equality demand a smaller arena so that they can have the same experience of playing in a gym filled to capacity?

Market forces require that women’s athletics have different venues and facilities, just as the WNBA gets unequal pay. Fewer people watch or attend; the sports generate less revenue, and the WNBA is somewhat dependent on subsidies from the NBA. It makes sense that there should be some relationship between revenue and facilities.

Difference and Equality in Athletics

It is difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between men’s and women’s sports. We have different leagues for women in athletics, though the powers that be would never accept “different leagues” for women in academics and other ventures. We don’t have men’s debate and women’s debate, but we have men’s golf and women’s golf. Why do we allow separation between the sexes in sports?

We seem to be at the point where women, at the highest levels, receive the same quality training as men at the highest levels. We can test the Playing with the Boys assumptions with good hard data.

A controlled experiment about sex differences in athletics can be conducted in track and field. Women and men run 100 meters and jump the high jump. World-class women’s Olympic athletes and world record holders presumably receive training equal to that of male Olympic athletes, and they receive better training for a longer period of time than high school or college athletes.

Comparing women’s world records in track and field with the 2015 winners of Division III men’s athletics and Louisiana’s high school track and field champions yields interesting results.

Event Women’s World Record Holder 2015 Men’s Division III champion 2015 Louisiana Boys High School Champion
100 m 10.49 10.24 10.91
200 m 21.34 21.06 22.07
400 m 47.60 47.07 48.98
800 m 1:53.28 1:52.57 2:01.12
1500 m 3:50.46 3:49.64
High Jump 2.09 m 2.14 m 1.82 m
Pole Vault 5.06 m 5.34 m 4.11 m
Long Jump 7.52 m 7.47 m 6.55 m
Triple Jump 15.50 m 15.52 m 13.51 m


Only in the long jump do women’s world record holders beat the men’s NCAA Division III champion from 2015, although women’s world record holders would win every event in the Louisiana boys’ high school meet. Louisiana is the 25th state in terms of population. The 2015 California boys’ champions beat the women’s world record in several events, however.

When looking at the field events, the difference narrows due to the special advantages given to women.

Event Women’s World Record Holder 2015 Men’s Division III champion 2015 Louisiana Boys High School Champion
Shot Put 22.63 m 18.73 m 17.38 m
Javelin Throw 72.28 m 67.50 m 50.64 m
Discus Throw 76.80 m 56.90 m 52.47 m


The results reflect the fact that women use lighter weights of shot, javelins, and discuses. Women’s Olympic shot are 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds), while men’s shot are over 7 kilograms (16.01 lbs.). Men’s discuses are 22 centimeters in diameter and 1.75 kilograms; women use a discus with an 18-centimeter diameter that weighs 1 kilogram. Men’s javelins must weigh 800 grams and be 2.6 meters long, while women must throw 600-gram javelins that are 2.2 meters long. Moreover, the Russian and East German record holders in the shot put and the discus throw broke the record in the late 1980s—before robust steroid testing.

What does equality demand? Should equality advocates demand the use of men’s field equipment? Should the Justice Department investigate such discriminatory practices? Or should such discrimination be lauded as necessary to achieve greater equality?

The Implications of Physical Difference for Other Sports

The physical difference detected in track and field permeates all sports, most measurably in golf and basketball where we can conduct comparisons.

Golf courses for the PGA Tour are 7,200 yards long on average; LPGA courses average 6,500 yards. Consider the 2014 US Opens, when both the Men’s and Women’s Open were held at Pinehurst No. 2 course in North Carolina. Presumably the fairways and the greens were quite similar, though some variation from the weather and wear on the course may have factored into the scores. The women’s course played 6,600 yards long; the men’s at 7,500 yards. The women’s winner was Michelle Wie at -2 (the cut was +9), while Martin Kaymer shot -9 to win the men’s event (where the cut was +5).

Generally, driving distance favors men, but driving accuracy favors women by substantial margins.

Driving Distance (2015) PGA LPGA
1st 317.7 (Dustin Johnson) 274.20 (Joanna Klatter)
50th 295.10 (Hunter Mahan) 252.35 (Syndee Michaels)
100th 289.20 (Ryo Ishikawa) 244.48 (Laura Diaz)
145th 283.1 (Danny Lee) 229.86 (Steph. Meadow)


Putting is a fine skill and seems to be a great equalizer, though even in putting, differences between the sexes are perceptible. The 50th place male golfer would have finished second on the LPGA in putting. The LPGA’s best putter would have finished 24th on the PGA tour.

Total Putts per round (2015 rank) PGA LPGA
1st 27.82 (Jordan Speith) 28.50 (Julie Yang)
50th 28.72 (Fabian Gomez) 29.84 (Suzann Pettersen)
100th 29.10 (Brooks Koepka) 30.40 (Mariaji Uribe)
145th 29.51 (Andrew Svoboda) 31.57 (Karin Sjodia)


Free throw shooting is roughly equivalent in the men’s game and the women’s game. Some of this is due to the fact that the women’s ball has a one-inch smaller circumference than the men’s basketball. Women (perhaps because of the smaller ball) shoot free throws at roughly the same rate as men. Let us examine this by team ranking in Division I basketball.

Rank in FT Percentage NCAA Division I


NCAA Division I


1st 78.4% 80.5
50th 73.4 73.5
100th 71.8 71.8
200th 69 68.3
300th 65.9 64.1


In three-point field goal percentage, there is a difference between the sexes though they shoot from the same line.

Rank in 3 Pt. Percentage NCAA Division I


NCAA Division I


1st 43.6% (Okla.) 41.9 (Oregon)
50th 37.1 (Chatt.) 34.5 (SD St.)
100th 36.2 (Louis) 32.7 (Furman)
200th 34.1 (Va. Tech) 30.5 (Presb)
300th 31.3 (Lamar) 27.2 (LSU)


Perhaps women shoot a lower percentage because the defense in women’s basketball is superior to the defense in men’s basketball. Perhaps this is a lingering effect of millennia of patriarchy. Perhaps the girls can be taught to do it better. Perhaps men at the highest levels practice more than women at the highest levels.

Perhaps there are differences in the strength, stamina, agility, and speed of the two sexes.

Sports and the Pursuit of Excellence

Inequality of intelligence, Tocqueville writes, will always be with us. With apologies to Aristophanes, inequalities traceable to physical beauty and age are also hallmarks of human life. Such inequalities need not affect the principle of equal treatment and they add flavor to life.

Much the same can be said of sports. Sports are a vestige of the age of inequality. We celebrate and recognize excellence. We can identify the winners. We admire them for their excellence.

Teams with too much success—the Dukes, the Alabamas, the New England Patriots, the New York Yankees—are subject to a resentful, envious hatred. “Let someone else win” is a most democratic sentiment. Yet when these traditional powers play, we watch. Excellence fascinates us, and it brings out excellence in others. Nothing very important hangs on whether one team wins or another. We argue about it at the water cooler because, even in our democratic age, human beings admire excellence. Sports scream: “Some playing fields can’t be leveled. Some competitors are better than others!”

In this, sports speak the truth. There is no fine line between athletic accomplishments for women and men. Men are generally bigger, stronger, and faster. Where strength and speed and agility are the factors determining success, human beings watch men’s sports.

Sports bring out some of the differences between the sexes. Sports are valuable ballast in the American democratic regime. Would that we could acknowledge differences and celebrate them instead of burying them under a mountain of false hopes. Would that we could allow reality to govern our thoughts as they do our actions.

A sensible approach to equality in sports would be to acknowledge differences between men and women. Men are more interested in sports than women. Men are better at sports than women. We acknowledge the second reality through the very existence of women’s sports. We acknowledge the first reality in how we act.