This story appears in the June 11 Women in Sports issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
WE ARE ONLY scratching the surface of what women will accomplish in sports. Sports Science host John Brenkus explores the ever-expanding range of possibilities for female athletes.
FINDING 1: This is just Brittney 1.0
Brittney Griner is a slam-dunking example of how female athletes have changed. When the Baylor rising senior visited the ESPN Sport Science lab, we measured her at 6'8", with hands 9 inches long and 9.5 inches wide -- about the same size as LeBron James' -- and a wingspan of 7 feet, 3.5 inches, wider than that of seven-footer Andrew Bynum. But what separates Griner from her peers are above-the-rim skills more commonly seen in the men's game. That's the evolution in female athletics -- women are not necessarily just getting bigger, they're also getting better. And it won't be long until the Baylor center's exploits are eclipsed. Incoming UConn freshman Breanna Stewart put away two alley-oops at the 2012 Powerade Jam Fest in March, and YouTube has clips of Chicago high schooler Amber McLin slamming at age 13.
FINDING 2: The pool is getting deeper
Sports is a numbers game. The bigger the talent pool, the better the talent to choose from. That's why the Olympics are dominated by countries with massive participation, like the U.S. and China and not Guatemala and Liechtenstein. And in the U.S., there are still huge gender gaps in participation: 4.5 million boys play high school sports compared with 3.2 million girls. In Division I schools, meanwhile, only 45.6 percent of athletes (as opposed to 52.6 percent of students) are women. To see what happens when the gap shrinks, check out basketball in the Title IX era. The number of girl ballers has exploded, the participation gap is shrinking and the quality of play has skyrocketed. Women are already as good as or better than men at shooting free throws. In Division I college hoops, 23 men's squads shot over 75 percent, while on the women's side, 27 teams broke 75 percent. Among pros, NBA players shot 75.2 percent last season, while WNBA players shot 77 percent.
FINDING 3: Women can pack a punch just like men
This summer, women's boxing will make its debut at the Olympics in London. The sweet science, like football, seems an obvious candidate for a sport where females might compare unfavorably with males. But that assumption is out of whack with simple physics. When it comes to hitting, women can do it just as hard. Take Sir Isaac Newton's word for it. The impact force of a punch is equal to mass times acceleration. And acceleration depends on technique. Using what's called kinetic linking, a boxer transfers energy from the bottom up, starting with proper footwork, then moving through the lower body, the torso and out to the fist. It's like cracking a whip -- the handle moves relatively slowly, but each successive segment of the whip increases in speed until maximum velocity is reached at the tip. We tested the punching force of female boxer Lucia Rijker (the villain in Million Dollar Baby) against Nigerian Olympic featherweight Muideen Ganiyu, with both weighing about 140 pounds. Because of her excellent lower-body technique, Rijker actually landed numerous punches that generated more force than some of the male Olympian's punches.
FINDING 4: Anything we both can do, women might do better
In the past 30 years, West Virginia and Alaska Fairbanks have combined to win 24 of the NCAA titles in rifle, a coed sport. Both teams have primarily been dominated by men. But as in pool, darts, poker and motorsports, where a Y chromosome is not an insurmountable advantage, riflewomen can compete on an even playing field with men. And we are just beginning to witness that sea change. As evidence, take a look at TCU, which has won two of the past three NCAA rifle titles. Every member of its championship teams boasted two X chromosomes.
FINDING 5: Expectations are everything
We can encourage every girl in the country to play a sport. But a culture of lower expectations still suffuses female athletics. And that starts early. In one 2000 study by researchers at NYU, mothers were asked to estimate how steep a slope their 11-month-old children could crawl down. At that age, the motor skills of boys and girls are the same. The boys' mothers accurately estimated the angle of the slope their babies could crawl down to within one degree. The girls' mothers, on the other hand, underestimated their children's ability by an average of nine degrees. Throughout a girl's entire sporting life, differing gender-based rules and standards in sports reinforce being underestimated. For example, the benchmarks for the Presidential Physical Fitness Award for 14-year-old boys include 40 pushups or 10 pull-ups. For girls? Twenty pushups or two pull-ups. Men's professional tennis matches are best of five sets; women's are best of three. A baseball game is nine innings; softball games are only seven.