Letter to the Editor: The Big Ten should field mixed-gender tennis tournaments to promote equality

Norman Wang

Northwestern’s 2017 commencement speaker, Billie Jean King, has been a central figure in the gender equality movement. Her victory over Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes was so substantial that it was later written, “In a single tennis match, Billie Jean King was once able to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime.” While her commitment to creating opportunities for female athletes is well-known, less publicized is her passion for promoting gender cooperation.

King once stated, “If you help your teammate — it doesn’t matter which gender — then everybody wins… That’s the kind of teamwork I want to see happen in the business world, in marriage, and everything. Girls and boys have not been together enough, especially in sports.” The structure of collegiate athletics unfortunately continues the “principle of separate but equal” that was a byproduct of Title IX. In King’s opinion, “‘Separate but equal’ means women will always be second-class citizens in sport.” I believe mixed gender collegiate tennis events would be an opportunity to fulfill her vision and promote gender equality both on and off the courts.

Tennis has a tradition of mixed gender competition. Mixed doubles, with teams comprised of one man and one woman, have been fielded at the U.S. Open since 1892. Outcomes in this competition format are therefore equally dependent on the performance of the man and the woman. In unmixed events, the average spectator may make the common but mistaken assumption that the men’s game is superior to the women’s game. Technical and strategic prowess are often enhanced in doubles. It can be difficult to appreciate this until men and women are playing side-by-side.

If one of the purposes of collegiate sports is to develop interpersonal skills that may be useful off the court and later in life, then complete gender separation is both archaic and counterproductive. In the modern workplace, working in a gender-uniform environment is the exception rather than the rule. This structure that separates men from women in sport may also foster harmful “locker room talk.” In the recent Harvard University men’s soccer team scandal, a sexually explicit “scouting report” that rated members of the women’s soccer team based on perceived attractiveness was discovered.

A reply in The Harvard Crimson by the female student-athletes singled out in the report stated, “We feel hopeless because men who are supposed to be our brothers degrade us like this.”

Given the potential benefits of having mixed sports teams, an annual Big Ten Conference or Northwestern Invitational mixed gender tournament would be an intriguing possibility that could help us overcome the sexism that is still evident in collegiate athletics and prevalent on college campuses. It would be a chance for spectators to cheer not the “NU men” or the “NU women,” but simply “NU.” Absence of such an event is a missed opportunity to improve gender cooperation and equality.

Billie Jean King once proved that one tennis match could change the minds of millions. When we consider the current structure of college athletics, she would likely tell Northwestern University and the Big Ten Conference: We have more work to do!

Norman C. Wang
McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences ‘94
Feinberg School of Medicine ‘98