How 9-Year-Old Me Learned the Folly of Coed Sports

Giving girls a worse athletic experience for the benefit of the boys on the team isn’t worth it.

Nine-year-old Christina Cauterucci with Molar Women protest shirt.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo provided by Christina Cauterucci.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

Sexism isn’t always easy to spot. As a writer on the gender beat and a politically engaged feminist, I’m pretty good at it. I spend way too much of my time unraveling the complex and insidious ways societies undermine women—the self-blaming Lean In advice, the bosses who call men by their last names and women by their first. But as a kid, I was blissfully oblivious, devouring damsel-in-distress narratives and admiring Barbie’s slim figure along with the rest of my peers. I can pinpoint the exact inflection point in my life, the first time I noticed sexism at work: I was in fourth grade, a 9-year-old girl on a coed soccer team in New Hampshire.

Though the league was mixed-gender, I was one of just three girls on a team of boys. We were sponsored, as all rec-league teams were, by a local small business—in our case, a dental practice. Instead of simply printing the name of the dentist’s office on our jerseys, as was the custom, our coaches opted for a cutesier take. They printed a dental-adjacent team name—the “Molar Men”—on the front of our shirts instead.

I, of course, was not a man, molar or otherwise. It struck me as unfair, though not necessarily wrong in any broader justice-oriented sense, that I should have to don a uniform that identified me as something I was not. I told my mom that I wanted to modify the shirt to say Women—it would only take two letters! Before our first game of the season, with a bottle of Wite-Out and a newspaper protecting our living-room rug, I turned my soccer jersey into a protest T-shirt.

My parents are not what you might call feminist activists, but they still supported my project—in spite of the fact that we’d only moved to town a few months earlier and my gender-equity protest was unlikely to win them any new friends on the sidelines. My coaches, however, were unmoved. I got a few smiles and laughs, mostly of the kids-say-the-darnedest-things variety. Neither of the other girls on the team joined my crusade, and none of the boys much cared. The Molar Men we remained.

The protest’s impact on my life has been far greater than whatever minimal effect it had on the Molar Men. To feel slighted and then to do something about it is an exhilarating, empowering, and rare experience for a child. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t changed the name of my soccer team. I had refused to wear something that didn’t represent me. And, crucially, I had occasion to recognize that girls get treated differently than boys, even when we play the same game on the same team. Kids absorb social cues from adults like dry sponges; at 9 years old, I absorbed that all it took to make the male leaders in my life name their sports team as if the girls under their care didn’t exist was convenience and alliteration.

None of the other teams we played bore such gender-exclusionary nomenclature. But since the league had so few girls that we only numbered three or four per team, I had to imagine that my coaches weren’t the only ones prioritizing the boys on their teams over the girls. As I’ve gotten older and witnessed boys and girls interacting in both mixed- and single-gender spaces, I’ve begun to think that my problem wasn’t unique to the Molar Men, but embedded in coed sports themselves.

The Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Billie Jean King in 1974, holds the position that girls and boys should compete together in sports before the onset of puberty. Before age 12, there are few physiological differences and no statistical differences in athletic performance between boys and girls. But even in their teenage years, the WSF says, players should be encouraged to join coed teams in leagues with rules requiring each competing team to have an equal ratio of girls to boys. Studies have shown that girls who play sports are just as athletic as their male peers, and the range of physical differences between members of the same sex is wider than the average difference between the sexes. It makes more sense, in many cases, to separate kids by skill level, experience, and ability than by sex or gender. (This can sometimes result in gender-segregated leagues anyway, because young boys get more playing time and sports instruction than girls, which often makes them better players.)

The WSF and other organizations interested in girls’ participation in sports argue that coed teams offer more benefits than drawbacks. In a Journal of Sport and Social Issues article titled “Social Justice and Men’s Interests: The Case of Title IX,” Michael Messner and Nancy Solomon make the case that playing sports with girls can help disabuse boys of gendered preconceptions. A 2007 research review from the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport reports that children are socialized to believe that femininity and athleticism are incompatible, and that girls consistently view themselves as less competent in sports than boys do. Giving girls opportunities to achieve alongside boys—and giving boys chances to see girls as capable teammates—could challenge both untruths at the source.

But coed sports teams can harbor many of the same sexist dynamics advocates want them to combat. The Tucker Center report cites research showing that physical education teachers and children’s coaches sometimes bring their prejudices onto the field. They give girls extra points and head starts, use gendered language to compliment girls (e.g., “She plays like a boy”), and offer boys more playing time. Even if kids don’t yet have conscious gender biases, the adults running their programs do. And a kid’s unconscious biases can still have a discouraging effect. One 1999 study of mixed-gender teams of 6- and 7-year-old soccer players found that the girls could name all the boys on their teams, but no boys could name all of the girls. Another research review noted that girls in coed physical education classes are “actively marginalized.” In its 2015 report, the London-based Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation summarized findings from a series of focus groups that asked girls what discouraged them from sports. “Boys were commonly cited by girls of all ages as a reason for why sport and physical activity is not perceived to be fun,” the report said, because girls “perceive some boys as being over-competitive, inconsiderate and arrogant.”

There’s also the question of ratio. If there aren’t many girls in the league, having just one or two on every team could breed feelings of isolation and undermine the positive gender interactions coed teams are supposed to create. The 1999 study observed that one girl on a team otherwise populated by boys was frequently excluded, even when she attempted to make friends. The philosophy behind single-gender education programs like the Girl Scouts holds that they give girls more opportunities for leadership and achievement at a crucial time for their development of self-esteem and ideas about gender. The same might apply to single-gender sports leagues too.

Among advocates for girls in sports, the coed-vs.-single-gender issue is “contested terrain,” according to Nicole LaVoi, co-director of Minnesota’s Tucker Center. She believes girls should be able to choose whether they want to play in coed or single-gender leagues; a WSF spokesperson said the same in an email. The argument against coed teams “is fairly paternalistic,” LaVoi said. “Girls will get hurt, or the boys will be devastated if they get beat by girls, how do we handle locker-room issues, it would be psychologically damaging to boys—which are just ridiculous arguments.” On the flip side, she said, playing in coed leagues “teaches boys and men to respect girls and women as their equals as their teammates, as they have to do in society and in the workplace. And it can teach girls to compete with boys and men, which they’re going to have to do in the real world.”

While I was preoccupied with keeping my eye on the ball and grabbing a halftime Capri Sun while they lasted, were my male teammates learning, unconsciously, to respect me? It seems unlikely that my pinpoint passing from the midfield would have convinced any of those boys, in adulthood, to become advocates for reproductive rights or against sexual assault, or to maintain equitable divisions of housework and child care with their female partners. There are uncountably many influences on a child’s gender paradigm. In a society that privileges men and masculinity, it’s far more plausible that the sexism in the outside world would infect a coed sports team than that the magical egalitarianism of a coed sports team would infect the outside world. More importantly, this defense of coed sports centers boys, not girls. It submits that girls should endure whatever drawbacks come from coed sports for the possible reward of a marginally less sexist world later in life. Boys get the benefit of becoming better people. Girls get the benefit, if you want to call it that, of learning how to deal with boys, a topic in which the world outside sports offers no shortage of lessons.

If working together toward common goals could make boys less sexist and girls better at competing with them, the scores of group projects they’re forced to complete together over the course of their school careers would have done the same. You might be thinking, “Well, hey, a lot of boys value sports more than schoolwork and prize physical feats over mental ones.” To which I’d reply, “Well, hey, we should fix that failure of hegemonic masculinity instead of making girls meet those boys where they’re at.”

For the record, the anti-coed arguments LaVoi offered—that boys will be sad if girls beat them, or that girls are too wimpy to engage physically with boys—sound just as absurd to me as they do to her. But I do think there’s value in single-gender social activities for girls, who get precious few opportunities to define themselves outside of a gendered hierarchy. (The obvious exception here is children who attend single-gender schools.) When I told LaVoi about the coaches who named my childhood team the Molar Men, she chalked the snafu up to bad coaching, not a pitfall of coed sports. For the most part, I agree. Certainly, female coaches can be sexist, and some men make exceptional coaches for young girls. But we’ve all seen plenty of boys favored over girls in coed sports environments. On a single-gender team, that’s impossible.

When I’ve told the story of my Molar Women protest, it’s usually made me smile, as it does my parents, who insist on trotting it out for new friends and significant others as evidence of how precocious and strong-willed I was as a kiddo. It’s the perfect combination of flattering self-mythology and endearing relic from a time when the feminist stakes in my life felt less dire. But while writing this piece, for the first time, recalling the Molar Men provoked in me an unreasonably urgent wave of rage. What group of adult men sees a mixed-gender soccer roster and decides to name their team Men? What people entrusted with the development of young girls don’t think hard about what it might mean for those girls to be treated as nothings in a space that should be a site of hard work, accomplishment, and pride? What parents would watch their children play with female teammates on the Molar Men and decline to request a more gender-neutral name? Did nobody wonder what it might do to the self-esteem of 9-year-old girls to see themselves erased from their own team—not even when one of us went so far as to make a protest T-shirt about it?

Maybe that rage is unfounded. I turned out “fine,” with a cute story to tell and a healthy skepticism of any authority figure with the power to custom-print a stupid phrase on clothing. And it’s possible that playing alongside a girl who refused to be a “Man” had exactly the sort of edifying impact on my male teammates that coed-sports advocates hype. Those advocates might also make the case that I took away an important lesson about gender relations in the real world: My early exposure to men minimizing the existence of girls might have set me up to eventually make my living writing about women and gender.

It didn’t hurt my soccer game, either. I was so determined to earn my unacknowledged place on the team that I scored the most goals of any player that season, with an MVP trophy to prove it. But what radicalizes some girls will demoralize others. For each one who rebels against sexist messaging from her coaches, there’s likely to be another who internalizes it. I left the Molar Men a budding feminist. I still wonder how my female teammates fared.