What's So Wrong With Playing Like A Girls' Junior High Team? Ted Cruz Is Way Off Base

Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo.
Of all the things Republican presidential hopefuls might attack, middle school sports probably shouldn't be at the top of the list. But Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did just that last week at a campaign event in Sioux City, IA. Cruz joked that the Texas Longhorns looked like "a girls' junior high team" when the Iowa State Cyclones beat them 24-0 on October 31.

"I was with [Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King], physically, not too far away when y'all whipped the Longhorns, and I didn't even have anything to defend myself," Cruz said on Friday. "I think they canceled their football program and brought in a girls' junior high team." As The Dallas Morning News explained, Cruz had been hunting with King at the time of the game.

To little surprise, Cruz's comments haven't been received well. For example, Kay Bailey Hutchison, who held Cruz's spot in the Senate before he did, said in a statement that Cruz "has credibility in many areas, but football may not be one of them." The Texas Exes, the alumni association of the University of Texas at Austin, also issued a response to Cruz, through Exes CEO Leslie Cedar's statement:

"It's true that Iowa State beat us. But what we hope Sen. Cruz actually means is that he supports the student athletes at the flagship university in the state he represents, and the third most all-time winning football program in the country, as they strive to compete with integrity and earn their college degrees."

While Cruz meant the comment as a harmless joke, many people have taken offense at his comments — and rightfully so. "Playing like a girl" is one of the most tired tropes in both sports and sexism, and it's one that President Obama himself spoke out against last month. Obama said that playing like a girl "means you're a badass" when meeting with the U.S. women's soccer team.

Aside from the inherent sexism of Cruz's remarks, his comment also diminishes the very real importance of girls' middle school sports teams. A 2014 study by the EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW found that a majority of women in executive positions had participated in athletics when they were younger, and 74% of respondents agreed that a sports background had helped prepare them for their careers.

Participating in team athletics in middle school encourages motivation, adaptability, and determination, according to many of the participants in the EY study. When you're on a sports team, you learn about cooperation and seeing things through at an early age, which can help you prepare for any career, and for life in general.

Duncan Pittman, an educator and academic/financial adviser at Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design, credits her middle school cross-country experience with helping her challenge herself as well as build self-confidence. "I got so much more out of the experience than I ever thought I would," Pittman told Refinery29. "As middle school athletes, running helped form an additional facet of our identities and introduced to a new side of ourselves that made us move, improve, and grow up."

Similarly, Kayla McCulloch, a filmmaking student at Stephens College, in Columbia, MO, says that playing soccer and softball in middle school helped prepare her for future endeavors. For McCulloch, participating in team athletics as a girl helped her prepare for a career in the male-dominated film industry. "As a woman working towards a future in the film industry, I understand that there are many stereotypes and preconceived notions that will be prevalent in my future," McCulloch told Refinery29. "I definitely feel like playing sports in my formative years helped me prepare for these obstacles…. Filmmaking is mostly dominated by males, and through the knowledge I learned from playing sports, I hope to change that."

If playing like a girl means being a badass, as Obama said, there's no reason that playing like a "girls' junior high team" can't be reclaimed as a compliment, too. Girls who participate in athletics in junior high learn valuable skills and go on to do great things, and ill-informed comments like Cruz's won't change that.

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