Are other sports ready for women?

JOHN EISENBERG

September 26, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Let's say the Orioles and Blue Jays are fighting for the division title in late September. The stands are full at Camden Yards for the biggest game of the season. The Orioles start Mike Mussina. The Blue Jays send out a tough, old-pro starting pitcher looking for the 20th win of another brilliant season. . .

. . .and her name is Jacqueline Morris.

Yikes!

But are you ready for it, sports fans?

Sure, you can't envision it. Who can? But there was a time when no one could envision the men's Wimbledon champion wearing an earring and ponytail. Or the Colts playing in Indianapolis. Just as it was impossible to envision a Germany not split by a wall. Or maybe the best basketball player ever retiring because of something called HIV.

The truth is that we live at a time when the boundaries of what is plausible are widening at an astounding rate. The old conventions count for less every year. And then a 20-year-old woman named Manon Rheaume played goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning in an NHL preseason game the other night.

It was, of course, an undisguised grab for headlines by an expansion team trying to sell a cold-weather sport in Florida. Rheaume is a young woman of more than average ability, but Lightning GM Phil Esposito has admitted her gender moved her past worthier male candidates.

But what if the circumstances were different? What if a woman came along who was the equal of the other goalies? And let's stretch the concept to all four major pro sports. A Jays ace named Jacqueline? A Pistons point guard named Petula? A Bear (linebacker) named Sue?

Could it happen? And if the right athlete presented herself, should it happen?

Let's address the latter first. Of course it should happen. Why not? Sure, there are people who hold up sports as some holy, manly universe that would be ruined by women. But when you're talking about keeping things the way they were just because it was always the way they were, you're getting real close to talking about a color line.

If the Redskins were to find a woman who could play quarterback better than Mark Rypien, she should play. You can laugh, but Manon Rheaume certainly showed that a woman goalie was not an absurd reach. She didn't embarrass herself.

With Olympic athletes competing for millions and football bowls in partnerships and the baseball commissioner emasculated, it is time to review all preconceived notions about sports. If Sue is Joe's equal, why not let her play?

A tougher question is whether it is possible for Sue to be equal. And, most importantly, is it realistic to think this will advance beyond an amusing talking point? Are too many powerful minds fTC closed? Are there too many obstacles? What if she signed a $10 million contract and got pregnant? Will every team need to take out an insurance policy on being sued for sexual harassment in the locker room? (Talk about an easy one.) Is our world ready for male bimbos hanging around hotel lobbies looking to get picked Probably not. But let's talk about it anyway. You don't want to talk about the pennant race, do you?

OK, let's go sport by sport. Football obviously would be the toughest for a Manon Rheaume to make it. Maybe on "Saturday Night Live," but not for real. The NFL is too rough for 300-pound rhinos raging on steroids, much less women. Maybe a kicker could make it, and maybe, just maybe in 100 years, a quarterback or receiver with truly exceptional skills.

Basketball is also a long shot because it also excludes by size. One look at a women's college game illustrates the difference. Don't expect a miracle.

That the breakthrough came in hockey is amazing, for NHL marketing is out of the Paleozoic era, and the game is second only to football for sheer macho dork brutality. Now it looks like Manon Rheaume is going to play in the minors. She won't believe her ears. Go get 'em, kid.

The most likely sport for a breakthrough, clearly, is baseball. It accepts all body types, from Cecil Fielder to Dick Bosman to Jose Canseco. Size and strength don't always matter. It's a democracy. If the Geena Davis character in "A League of Their Own" were real, she could play in the majors.

I was going to call Roland Hemond and ask him about it, but I didn't want to ruin his day. I guess that's the point in the end. This is fun to argue about, but don't actually expect it to happen. As anyone who has ever been in a clubhouse can tell you, pro sports is not exactly a warm nest of civil libertarianism. People in baseball are still skeptical of anyone named Gonzales. The idea of a woman on a major-league diamond would blow their wires. There would be fatalities before it happened. Really. Hearts would fail.

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