I saw a video on YouTube the other day about a young girl who was wanting to learn how to skateboard. The skate park was full of teenaged boys who were being loud and obnoxious which can be incredible intimidating for anyone let alone a younger elementary school girl. She was all ready to go with her helmet, protective padding and of course her skateboard. She was apprehensive at first to get on to the ramps and try it out until her mom encouraged her it was a community skatepark which meant she was allowed to use it just like everybody else.
When she got on the park the boys where zooming past her from every angle. Some of them weren’t showing any concern for her personal space. One of the boys approached the girl thinking the worst the mother got ready with her best “she is just as entitled to use the park as you are.” But, then something surprising happened the teenaged boy instead asked if he could help her with a few things and when she said yes he gave her some pointers on how to fix her feet as well as her technique. He stuck with it and even protected her from the other guys when they weren’t being considerate of her despite being ridiculed by some of his friends. The little girl left with a very different experience than had he not been there which is so special.
I couldn’t help but remember back to one of my experiences when I was going to college at NAIT in Edmonton. It was the summer and I was training to be part of the women’s team again in the fall but I had a problem there wasn’t a lot of places where I could go to play pick-up. Many of my teammates were working or had moved back home for the summer. As is the case for many female athletes you get used to playing against guys in order to have a good run and to get better. I heard from some of the guys on the men’s team that there were runs at Common Wealth Stadium where the Edmonton Eskimos’ CFL Football team plays so I decided to check it out.
I am not going to lie it was a bit of a rough crowd because at the time the locations around that stadium was intense. It was also one of those runs that if you don’t win you are waiting hours to be able to play again. It was also an atmosphere were guys would argue over whether something was a foul or not for what seemed like hours. There were even blood stains on the floor from when some of these arguments got escalated. At first I would just go and watch and shoot around on the side. It wasn’t long before I started to be invited to play with some of the regulars when they were short a player. I soon found out that many of the guys were part of the Edmonton Eskimos football team. They told me that basketball was the first game they loved but many of them either stopped growing or had a more physical build that lead them to excel further at football.
I remember one day I was at the gym and I wanted to get in on the game. I was as usual the only woman in the gym. I started asking around who had “Next” I was pointed to a white guys in his early or mid-thirties. I asked him if his team was playing next and he said yes. Then I asked him if he had a full team to which he responded No. When I asked him if I could play on his team his response still sticks in this mind to this day. He looked up from tying his shoes and said “Are you kidding? I’ll get killed if I have a girl on my team!” I just looked at him stunned and White Dude went back to tying his shoes.
One of the CFL guys heard him say that to me and he immediately stepped in and said “You can be on my team! We Got Next after them”. It just so happened White Dude picked up a couple of guys from the team that lost right before his game so they ended up winning. Now the team I was on was playing against him. I ended up scoring a couple of the baskets and we lost by 1 point in a very good close game. As I made my way off the court White Dude came over to me and shook my hand at half court. He looked me in the eye and said “Good game!” I was a bit stunned that he was brave enough to come over like that after being so blatantly sexist a few moments earlier. I think I stayed around to watch a few more games and made sure to thank the football guy for stepping in and letting me play on his team.
On my ride home I was so disappointed and hurt by White Dude but I was also so impressed by the football guy who stepped up and came to my defence. I went home pulled out my sports magazines and made a collage of the male basketball players and then I pulled out all my fashion magazines and actually found female heads that matched the positions them men’s bodies were in and glued them over top. It was hard at that point in time to find actual pictures of female athletes. I left that up on my wall for years as it was my way of making a statement that I was just as capable as the guys were. It looked so powerful to me and helped me to not get caught up in someone else’s definition in terms of what I was capable of.
It wasn’t long after that that whenever I would go to the Common Wealth other football players would invite me to be part of their team. Some of them would downplay it and say “I’ll take the girl I guess” when we were making school yard picks so that they looked like I was getting the sympathy vote we would catch other unsuspecting guys off guard that didn’t know me. One time I hit 2 threes on one guy before one of the guys on his team yelled at him and said “Man, D-Up there is a reason she is playing with guys! She can play!” I still hit a couple more shots on him even when he was trying.
I think it is so powerful when people help to create an environment for people who are outsiders to feel included. I really liked in the skateboarding story when the boy asked if he could help the girl before just starting to help without getting permission. Some people refer to this unsolicited advice as “mansplaining” because some men have a bad habit of thinking they need to fix things or women are doing without their permission. If you are going to provide help you should ask if the person wants it first. It is much less intrusive than just giving it without knowing if it will be received. Plus, sometimes the recipient knows more than you so it isn’t necessary to explain.
The last point I want to make is many times male teenagers get a bad reputation for acting like jerks especially when they are in a group together. They are often loud, aggressive and act intimidating. I would love to know that some of my players and young men I work with take a step outside the box and surprise people with showing uncommon compassion. Just like the teenage boy did for the girl at the skate park and the football player did for me in the pickup game. Compassion and care go a long way and give people the gift of support which helps others in marginalized groups feel a sense of power and a feeling they do belong. Who knows if the little girl will continue to skateboard but I know I continued to feel comfortable in male dominated environments due to the kindness I was shown by those football guys. You never know how a small act can spark someone else in a very big way or the long term impact it will have.