Long before she took office as the president of UNC’s club women’s rugby team, senior Lindsey Oliver was attracted to the sport for its uniqueness relative to other team competitions.
Oliver said the physicality of rugby is unlike most women’s sports, and the opportunity for organized aggression enticed her. But while she was initially drawn to what made the sport different, she was impressed by what was kept the same.
“One of the things I really like about rugby is that the rules for the men’s and the women’s game are exactly the same,” Oliver said.
“So it’s the same amount of tackling, the same amount of hitting, the same ball size and field size. It’s different in the way fans view it and sometimes can be different in the way refs treat it, but generally it’s the same.”
Oliver’s point about equality for men and women in pay and status is one that organized sports as a whole have yet to answer.
The latest iteration of this debate is currently being waged by members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, including standouts Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan, who filed a federal complaint against U.S. Soccer citing wage discrimination in late March.
Although the concept of co-ed professional sports is an unlikely future, gender neutral sports are alive and well on college campuses in club and intramural programs. One such team at UNC is the co-ed club field hockey squad.
Junior Cameron Hardie was introduced to field hockey while attending high school in the United Kingdom and decided to pursue the sport in Chapel Hill. The sport is predominantly played by women in the United States but is a popular sport for men and women internationally.
Hardie said the club team is composed mostly of international male players and American female players. He said though his teammates came to the sport through different channels, this distinction actually benefits the team.
“It’s a fun dynamic because there are people on the team of different genders who have different experiences with the sport, and I think that helps the team grow because we draw from those different backgrounds,” Hardie said.
Hardie said there are unwritten rules to take into account when sharing the field with members of the opposite gender — a large male player wouldn’t bodycheck a smaller female player, for instance. Despite this, he said the differences between an all-male and mixed team environment were miniscule. Ultimately, the focus is on the team.
This simple fact holds true at every level of competitive sports — the most successful athletes, from middle school playgrounds to NFL stadiums — are driven by a desire to bring their team closer to victory.
The fire of competition that captivates club athletes inspires Division 1 athletes, too.
Caitlin Gallant, a sophomore on UNC's varsity fencing team, said fencing provides an interesting challenge because it balances an individual and team effort, but that the largest competition is often the mental battle against oneself. Fencers balance intense physical and strategic exhaustion over the course of a fight, and Gallant said fighters have little time to think of gender.
“With fencing, it’s never stereotyped. I never feel different whether I’m facing a girl or a guy, and I feel like there’s no limitations or feelings that you have to go easier because it’s a girl. That’s completely gone once you’re on the strip,” Gallant said.
“In something like sports, where it’s a good way to let off steam by doing something you enjoy, any sort of issue like that shouldn’t be on your mind.”
Though many sports, especially at the highest levels of competition, don’t offer male-versus-female competition as fencing does, Oliver said traditional gender roles established off the rugby field don’t necessarily have anything to do with what happens on it.
Citing one of her teammate’s pre-game rituals — getting a manicure before spilling blood, sweat and tears for Carolina rugby — Oliver said traditionally feminine behavior can be reconciled with the brute physicality of a traditionally masculine sport like rugby.
“I think rugby sort of redefines what is feminine because I consider myself a woman, but I can do powerful things that involve a lot of muscle use and hitting other people and consider myself a woman fully still.”
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