It is staggering to think how far women's sports have come in the 1990s. Ten years ago, most sports fans couldn't name more than a handful of female athletes outside of the occasional Olympic gymnast or figure skater. Now, any woman or, perhaps more importantly, man who reads the sports pagescould name any number of players in two women's professional basketballleagues, and the most well-known soccer player in the U.
S. is Mia Hamm, a member of the national teams which have won not only the Olympics but World Cup competitions.
What may surprise readers (or may only surprise male readers) of Nike Is aGoddess is that women were held back from competing in many sports because sports were seen as unbecoming, unfeminine, or hazardous to women's presumably delicate physiology. Despite the rather pretentious title, Nike Is a Goddess contains fascinating stories of the evolution of women's sports, especially in the 20th century. What might make men uncomfortable, and rightly so, is the premise that, in many cases, certain competitions were closed to women because the competitors themselves and/or the public support threatened male competitors and teams in a very real way.
That premise is presented several times, though only in addition to sports history that stands on its own as excellent sports writing. While the familiarnames of recent years are present basketball star Rebecca Lobo and skater Tara Lipinski the real intrigue comes from stories like those of Jackie Mitchell.
Mitchell was a 17-year-old baseball phenomenon playing in amateur men's leagues in Chattanooga, Tennessee, until she was signed to a minor-league contract. In April, 1931, she appeared in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner, however, voided Mitchell's contract, insisting that baseball would be too strenuous a game for women. While the book is presumably aimed at female readers, all fans of sports history would do well to absorb this volume. Women's sports weren't invented this decade; they've been there the whole time.
Shelton Clark is a reviewer in Nashville, Tennessee.