March 1, 2022

GUEST ROOM | It’s Time to End Gender Biases in Cornell Intramural Sports

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At my recent intramural volleyball game, my team executed a fantastic last-ditch effort to get the ball over the net, turning what surely would have been a lost point into a successful play.  We started to celebrate immediately, exchanging high-fives before the referee had even signaled that the point was ours. I’m sure you can imagine the confusion and disappointment on our faces when we found out that the other team had been awarded the point because three women (and no men) on our team had touched the ball before sending it over the net.

Cornell Intramural Sports continues to enforce antiquated gender-based rules that are exclusionary and just plain unfair. In the case of this 6v6 Volleyball League, it is required that at least one man and one woman touch the ball during each possession where multiple hits are used to get the ball over the net — thus, my team lost the point on an otherwise legal play. Similarly, intramural Flag Football has a nearly half-page long list of written rules specifying various scenarios in which men and women may or may not run and pass the ball (failure to comply results in a five yard “Illegal Male Advancement” penalty). 

Regulations specifying that both men and women must touch the ball are exclusionary to gender-diverse athletes.  Even worse, they rely on the referees to make quick assumptions about who is a man and who is a woman, which could surely lead to an athlete being misgendered. According to their website, the mission of Cornell Intramural Sports is “to establish fun and inviting playing environments for all skill levels.” However, by establishing a clear gender binary, I would hardly call this environment inviting to athletes who identify as anything other than a man or woman.

Cornell does offer both Mix-Gender and Open (with genderless rules) intramural leagues for several sports, hypothetically allowing athletes to participate without having to conform to a “man” or “woman” identity for the sake of the rules. However, it is unacceptable that gender-diverse athletes may still feel restricted to a certain subset of leagues in the first place. Athletes of all genders should feel like they belong in any multi-gender league, period.   

In addition to the erasure of gender-diverse athletes, Cornell’s Mix-Gender intramural policies stem from outdated notions about gender and athletic ability. These policies, enforced across all sports, require that teams have an even number of men and women on the field at all times. In many cases, much like 6v6 Volleyball and Flag Football, they also require that men and women alternate making plays on the field. I think we all know why these rules exist: Cornell Intramural Sports thinks that allowing men to play unchecked alongside other genders results in an unfair advantage for men. The logic that follows is upsetting, but unsurprising: Cornell Intramural Sports thinks that men are better athletes than women. Scientific evidence suggests otherwise, and in this pandemic-fueled age of policies “following the science,” Cornell would be wise to extend that thinking to this situation as well.

Of course, sexism in sports is nothing new. This topic has recently garnered national attention with the success of Univeristy of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a transgender woman. The Ivy League (and by proxy, Cornell) has vocally supported Thomas’s participation in intercollegiate sports. Although the stakes may be smaller when it comes to intramural sports, the message that harmful gender-based policies send is the same. Why can’t we extend the Ivy League’s inclusionary policies to our intramural athletes as well?

Besides all the other harmful implications of gender-based rules in intramural sports, they ultimately detract from the reason why students sign up for intramural sports in the first place: to have fun. Instead of focusing on making good plays, we spend time on the court worrying about whether the “correct” genders have touched the ball. And when we don’t get it right, losing a point on an otherwise legal play is certainly more frustrating than fun. Ultimately, it seems that these needless gender-based policies threaten Cornell Intramural Sports’ mission of creating “fun and inviting playing environments for all skill levels.” So, Cornell, the ball is in your court when it comes to removing unnecessary gender-based rules from intramural sports — let’s just hope that your own discriminatory rules don’t lose you points.

Lainie Eisner (she/her) is a Ph.D. student in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering. Guest Room runs periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected].