Padecky: Don’t be afraid to play like a girl
Sometimes the children can lead us. And sometimes they should.
It was March 22. Tomales and St. Vincent were playing a tennis match. As bad luck would have it - at least that’s what people thought at the time - St. Vincent didn’t have a boy to play No. 3 singles against Tomales’ Javier Flores. How about Emma Roberti, it was suggested. Sure, why not, the Tomales people said.
They held none of the knucklehead thoughts of Raymond Moore, the CEO of a pro tennis tournament who on the very same day said the women’s game prospers only because the male pros are so successful. They “ride on the coattails of the men” is what Moore said. He lasted one day before he was fired/resigned/put on a raft and sent out to sea, duct tape over his mouth.
For two hours and 15 minutes Roberti and Flores battled. The other matches long had concluded. By the final set parents, players and coaches for both teams were ringing the court. The players were the equal of each other. In the end the girl defeated the boy, 6-4, 5-7, 6-3. Guess what happened afterward.
“Well, first off, no one could jump over the net, they were so tired,” said Alice Roberti, Emma’s mother and professor of women’s history at SRJC.
And then? I mean, a teenage girl beat a teenage boy. How humiliating. Tongues will wag, right?
Flores reached over the net, shook Roberti’s hand and then said the words I wish every man could hear, those threatened men who feel the opposite sex does not deserve respect, much less a compliment, when they play sports.
“That was the most fun I ever had,” Flores said.
The mom wanted to adopt that boy. OK, I’m kidding. But the professor sighed, had the look of satisfaction. Javier Flores got it. Didn’t matter to him he was playing a girl. What mattered was the competition - the reason sport exists in the first place. He was tested, he was pushed and he responded with a verbal bow to the opponent who made all that possible.
Oh, how I wish Javier could have said that to Raymond Moore before he opened up his pie hole. Oh, how I wish the people who run the U.S. Soccer Federation could have known what Javier knew. If USSF did, that organization would not have found itself in the embarrassing predicament it finds itself now - describing why it is paying the national women’s team a third of what it pays the men. Five stars from America’s World Cup-winning team filed a grievance of wage discrimination last Thursday.
“What’s most disheartening is that it’s the women who have won three World Cups and four Olympic titles,” said Roberti, who will show an HBO film (“Dare to Compete”) on women struggling to gain acceptance in sports. “Ask any average American to name a male U.S. soccer player and they may name Landon Donovan. Maybe. Ask to name a woman and you get Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe, not to mention the women who came before, like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain.”
Of course, one could say Roberti has a vested interest in championing women. While that is true, there can be no denying that when it comes to American soccer, the women are the stars. The women have the shoe commercials, the ESPN-length profiles and, most significant, the national spotlight.
“There are some angry white males out there,” Roberti said, “who see that their time is passing and they are scared. It’s the good ol’ boy network. Whites no longer are the most populous ethnicity in California and yet the world didn’t end. They (angry white men) are in their twilight time and they are afraid and they probably should be.”
Roberti, 55, has played soccer and is quite familiar with the popular evolution of the game. Now a coach in the Petaluma Youth Soccer League, Roberti was with the first group of girls to play in the PYSL in 1978. Graduating from Casa Grande High School that same year, she has found teaching equality among the sexes “to be life’s calling.”
And it was watching tennis is the ’80s that cemented that determination. You remember pro tennis then? The petulant brats like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase on one court, and on another court fans saw maturity and civilized behavior with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.
“The women elevated the game,” said Roberti, now in her 17th year as a history teacher, the past 11 at SRJC. “They were a class act. There was no cussing, no histrionics. You couldn’t take the kids to a men’s match because of all the cussing.”
Sports, like any other prominent American industry, moves like a glacier when it comes to social change. It took Major League Baseball, for example, 12 years after Jackie Robinson for every team to be fully integrated. Roberti sees soccer moving even slower.
“When the first wave of women (Hamm, Chastain, Julie Foudy) came along, it was not for monetary gain,” Roberti said. “It was for recognition. They had to get people interested before anything else could happen. No one would listen to them otherwise. That first wave broke through the glass ceiling. Now the second wave looks for pay parity. It’s the way things work.”
That’s the way things work in pro sports, where money can corrupt the best of intentions and ideals, while progress might be measured in inches. But on a cellular level - that would be youth sports - it needn’t be that complicated.
Angry white guys didn’t get in the way of Emma Roberti and Javier Flores. Kids, go ahead and play. And they did. Proving to us, us adults, that every so often youth is not wasted on the young. In fact, sometimes, it is enhanced.
To contact Bob Padecky email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.