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The Physicality Gap

by Nicole Wilkes

Photo Courtesy of

Many American children enter the world of recreational sports as early as kindergarten or first grade. In fact, ESPN concluded that at least 1.5 million American six year olds were involved in organized sports in 2013. At this age, pint-sized athletes are not separated by gender as programs for sports are almost always co-ed; boys and girls are taught to play the same way. As children get older, more single-gendered options are made available.

This is when the differences between boys’ and girls’ youth sports start to surface. Some sports, such as basketball and soccer, do not operate under different levels of physicality for different genders. Others do. Most notably, male ice hockey and lacrosse players of this age begin to exercise their newfound right to body check, which is defined as “an obstructing or impeding with the body of the movement or progress of an opponent”.

When a male ice hockey player becomes a Bantam (the youth hockey age group for 13-14 year olds), he receives the league’s blessing to body check his opponents without penalty. At this point, almost all female players leave the co-ed game for all-female U-12 or U-14 teams if they have not done so already. Body checking is illegal in girl’s and women’s leagues alike, from the five-year-old “Mites” to the Olympics.

“Not allowing there to be body checking in girls’ hockey simply because they aren’t boys is a subtle sexist attribute that hockey associations around the world continue and maintain,” said Callum Fraser, writer for TheHockeyWriters.

Body checking was permitted in a women’s international ice hockey tournament once in 1990, per request of the European teams entered. However, after the United States and Canada went on to dominate the tournament—the two teams combined won five games by a margin of at least 13 goals—the International Ice Hockey Federation banned body-checking in international women’s tournaments.

Many fans and players feel the logic behind the ban on body checking in international tournaments does not justify the ban on body checking in America’s own girl’s and women’s leagues. The prohibition of body checking makes for more stopped plays and forces defensemen in particular to rely on their “Operation” skills to finesse a puck from an opponent’s possession with only their sticks. Unfortunately for the players as well as spectators, this often results in the call of a hooking or tripping penalty.

“I’d freaking love to hit,” says Angela Ruggerio, a former US defenseman and four-time Olympic medalist. “You don’t know how frustrating it is. Players’ heads are down all the time and all I can do is poke-check.”.

Lacrosse, on the other hand, is always single-gender; men’s and women’s lacrosse are, as many agree, different sports altogether. These differences can, for the most part, be attributed to the drastic gap in the physicality of the men and women’s versions of the sport. Most male lacrosse leagues allow some body checking in the “U9” age group and above. Girls’ and women’s lacrosse leagues prohibit any form of body checking, only allowing light forms of stick checking at the high school and collegiate levels.

As a result of the physicality, the boys’ game calls for full helmets, chest padding and protective gloves. However for girls, this equipment is reserved for goaltenders. As far as protective equipment, female lacrosse players sport nothing but a pair of caged goggles and a mouth guard. The men’s and women’s sticks also differ from one another in length and depth as men’s sticks have deep mesh “pockets” and the women’s do not. This makes it more difficult for women to throw, catch and travel with the ball.

“It’s a whole different fame,” said South River High School defender Sam McKelvey in an interview with the Washington Post, “the girls’ is more of a finesse game. Guys’ is more brutal.”

The difference in the physicality rules of men’s and women’s sports perpetuate the gendered deal of the strong, brave man and the dainty, passive woman. It does so whilst holding female athletes back from more free, exciting play. If body checking is safe enough for male ice hockey and lacrosse players, it is safe enough for girls.

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