Sometimes sexism operates in such subtle ways that the experience leaves me wondering whether sexism even occurred at all. When a stranger grabs my ass, sure, I know what’s wrong with that situation. But my experience on my co-ed soccer team never felt like an obvious assault on my personhood. Instead, I gradually became aware of a slow, systemic wearing-away.
It started as a mystery. Why aren’t women playing adult co-ed sports? And why, once they start, do they so often drop out? The mystery actually started as a question to myself, but it was a different question: Am I crazy?, I texted a friend after a particularly frustrating Friday night soccer game a couple of years ago with my co-ed team. Wondering if I’m crazy is part of the experience of being a woman that I have come to accept, and when it came to playing soccer it was no different. As I stalked off the field in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I couldn’t tell if I was making a big deal out of nothing. Was I looking for something to be mad at? Were the guys really not passing to me, or was I just not as open to receive a pass as I thought I had been? Was it just me, or did they really only want the minimum number of women on the field, even though we had plenty of women subs? And why didn’t any of the other women there seem to be angry?
Figures from one multi-sport league show that its nationwide enrollment breakdown is almost exactly two-thirds male and one-third female, but that tells us nothing about actual participation, and, anecdotally, why women are less likely to come to games, and more likely to leave the league altogether.
“There seems to be a trend that women players do not show up for the games as much,” said Laura Lennon, who plays in co-ed soccer in the Philadelphia Sports Leagues. “Our team started out with seven girls and I’ve only seen two of them.”
“Where do these women go?” asked Kelaine Conochan, national marketing director of ZogSports, by far the biggest co-ed league in the country. Her questions were rhetorical, even if I felt like the second was directed at me: “Why do you stop playing?”
I know now that I wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t alone. “I left every game angry,” Erin Verrier, a former college soccer player told me of her experience playing in a New York co-ed league after graduating. Most, if not all co-ed leagues are set up to render women as second-class athletes.
Co-ed leagues generally require a minimum number of women to be in play at a certain all times. ZogSports’ rules are representative: two out of eight players on a soccer field must be women; in volleyball, two out of six; in softball, every fourth batter needs to be a woman. The assumption here is that to make the teams “even” they need a certain number of women players, which implies that women players aren’t as skilled as men. I’ve played in enough co-ed leagues to know this is untrue.
The other, equally pernicious implication of this rule is that without the gender requirements, women would not get any playing time. “I 100 percent feel like a handicap!” Brittney Chapman told me of her co-ed flag football league in Maine. That league, Casco Bay Sports, goes so far as to dictate how often the ball must be passed to female players. That this rule even exists is a reflection that men find it so troublesome to pass to women that if left to their own instincts, they might play an entire game without letting one touch the ball.
It gets worse. My college friend and former teammate Ruth Bartlett currently plays indoor soccer in San Diego at Let’s Play, a chain of 25 sports complexes around the country. In her co-ed league a goal scored by a woman counts for two points. And “women have unlimited touches on the ball and men get only three,” she told me. “Apparently they made the rules that way because boys weren’t passing to girls enough and were being ball hogs.”
Sadly the overt diminishing of women’s skills by their male teammates or the league rules isn’t really a surprise. What was a revelation was the anger men exhibit during games that are supposed to be just for fun, and the physical aggression with which they play.
For Verrier, the final straw came shortly after she saw an injured woman at her friend’s wedding. “A friend of [the bride] was walking around the wedding with a cane, because she had just torn her ACL in a co-ed soccer league, because a guy fucking tackled her.”
The next week, Verrier was tackled twice in her game, by two different men. “One really knocked me to the ground and really hurt my knee. And I was like, well thank god that hit me at the front of the knee, not the side.” After that, Erin hung up her boots. “I’m not going to risk fucking my body up. It’s sad because I’m probably never going to play soccer again.”
Kelley Quinn broke her foot playing basketball, when a man she was guarding bowled her over while going for a layup. And it wasn’t even an official game. “It was just a scrimmage to determine whether you were in the A league or the B league,” she said. “I couldn’t play all season.”
On any given night, in fields and parks across this city, you can watch men play the most important game of their lives. This would make sense if I were talking about the Yankees, the Mets, NYCFC, even the Brooklyn Cyclones. But we’re talking about adult co-ed social sports leagues. When you play co-ed sports with men, they play so hard you might think that their lives are on the line. What are they battling for? Personal pride, a free T-shirt, to impress their friends?
From my own experience, the stakes always feel higher for the men on the field. Their anger is more palpable, their physicality overly aggressive. They often get verbally pushy with the refs or other players.
“They just take it so seriously,” Verrier told me. “They get angry. They fight with one another. They knock me over and then try to put their hand out.”
“A bunch of our women kept getting thrown around like rag dolls,” said Amanda Giobbi of her former ZogSports basketball team in New York, which she used to co-captain.
“It’s mostly the men that are out of hand,” my male colleague Alex Mason said of his Brooklyn softball teams with both ZogSports and NYC Social. Then, he corrected himself: “I’ve actually only ever seen the men lose their shit.” He opted out of both leagues for that reason. When I asked him why he thought that men couldn’t enjoy a reasonably competitive, low-stakes game without getting so aggressive, he responded with a question of his own: “Have you been on the internet?”
“Women self-select away from jobs where they don’t feel they have the experience,” ZogSports’ Conochan told me, theorizing that women don’t return to sports as adults because they lack confidence. This is an unfair stereotype, which puts the onus on women and ignores the environment they would be entering. Does it support women trying things they might not be amazing at, or is a man on their team going to scream in their face, or never pass them the ball after their first mistake?
So why do men play in co-ed leagues at all, if they don’t want to play with women? This question was best crystallized for me recently by standup comedian Hannah Gadsby, who in her Netflix special Nanette calls out misogyny by posing a question: “If you hate what you desire, do you know what that is?” She then graciously answers her own question: “Fucking tense.”
Quinn quit playing after three seasons of playing in an “open gender” basketball league (where both genders can play, but there are no requirements for getting women into the game). Quinn and her co-captain Giobbi got sick of being on the only team in the league that consistently played women. “I didn’t like that the teams we were playing didn’t think that women would be a good addition to their team,” Quinn said.
They eventually complained to ZogSports about the lack of women in their “open gender” league. ZogSports’ response was to direct them to a women’s three-on-three half-court league, at which point they decided to stop playing with the league altogether.
“I’m not going to pay full price to play half-court basketball, when the other half of the court isn’t even being utilized,” Giobbi explains. “Nobody’s ever going to convince me that the numbers aren’t there because women don’t play these sports. It might be that women have already gotten to adulthood with so much trauma from playing sports with men that they don’t even look into it. Maybe that’s the reason. But it’s not that there are no women in New York who play basketball.”
I’m thinking about anger and where it goes. About how the world has told men that it will readily absorb their anger, whatever outlet they choose: catcalling a woman on the street; shooting up a school; screaming at a ref because if you don’t win this game you don’t know what you’ll do, because you hate your job; spouting hate speech at women on Twitter.
When I get angry I’m supposed to do a sheet mask and write in my gratitude journal.
ZogSports sells co-ed leagues as an escape. “Life is hard, we’re in dark times. Everything is doomsday,” Conochan told me. “But at literally the end of the day how nice is it to put on your sneakers and go outside to kick the ball around?”
And it does sound nice. I wish that it could be that easy. I wish that kicking a ball around was a relief, instead of filling me with a hot rage that sets fire to my stomach. Too many women are forced to accept that playing recreational sports wasn’t a release valve after all, it was just another source of frustration, it became the very thing we sought to remedy.
So, a preliminary answer to the question of where all the women go? Women don’t play co-ed intramural sports because it’s not fun for us. In fact, it sucks.
Melissa Fisch is still playing co-ed soccer in New York, despite the obvious drawbacks. “It’s sexist, but like, most things in this world are sexist.” That’s a depressing thought to me.
Co-ed social sports leagues aren’t really co-ed. They’re men’s leagues, where women are required to be present for the game to happen. I’m not surprised that women stop showing up. They’re too tired for this shit. It took a long time for me to admit that I, too, was tired. Because there is something incredibly gratifying about winning at a men’s game. I liked the feeling of surprising men with my skill, putting the ball in the net, and winning their respect. And men’s games aren’t just limited to social sports league. They’re the internet. The office banter. The boardroom. The whole world is a men’s league. If that doesn’t exhaust you, and you can manage to excel on men’s terms, you’ll be set, because impressing men by their own standards is the only thing that makes you valuable to them.
Catherine LeClair is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. If you want more of her work, check out her new comedy series about making content for the internet.