‘Sexism from a new lens:’ Kansas athletes point out inequities in face of anti-LGBTQ law

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TOPEKA — Kylie Forney spent her whole life training to play collegiate softball, a dream deferred by a year because of a shoulder injury easily avoided with better attention for women in athletics.

She had experienced pain in her shoulder for years until it became unbearable the summer before she entered her freshman year on the softball team at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2022. She had torn the labrum and rotator cuff in her shoulder.

The injury, requiring her to wear a sling and receive a medical redshirt her first collegiate softball season, could have been avoided with gender-specific resources and weight training. As a student-athlete at Andover High School, she often lifted too-heavy weights above her head and strained muscles in her body when she overcompensated to complete the lift.

When Forney tried to receive medical attention for her shoulder and other injuries accumulated throughout her career, she found that football players and other male athletes received priority. Sometimes, she said, women are left waiting for treatment if a man needs something.

“I feel they think we are sissies, and weak, and that we have a low tolerance for pain,” Forney said. “That we come off as if we are complaining about every injury. Whereas in my mind, being a college athlete, we worked so hard our entire childhood to get here. Why would we complain about an injury that can keep us from playing the game we love?”

Kylie Forney works out Aug. 8, 2023
 Kylie Forney works on stability training with Anna Woods, a women’s health trainer. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

In April, the Kansas Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto and passed House Bill 2238. The law bans transgender girls from playing sports at publicly funded educational institutions or at a private postsecondary institution that competes against the public entities.

Opponents of the “fairness in women’s sports act,” as the bill is called, said the attack on transgender children was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist and ignored real fairness problems that female athletes face.

The Kansas State High School Activities Association reported approximately two student athletes in Kansas would be affected by the legislation.

“Let’s be clear about what this bill is all about — politics,” Kelly said. “It won’t increase any test scores. It won’t help any kids read or write. It won’t help any teachers prepare our kids for the real world. Here’s what this bill would actually do: harm the mental health of our students.”

HB 2238 opened the conversation in Kansas about fairness in women’s sports, but women have been battling equality issues in athletics for decades. None of those sometimes dangerous imbalances are mentioned in the “fairness in women’s sports act.”

In Kansas, 16,000 more boys played high school sports than girls in the 2022 school year, according to a survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

In December, the American Journal of Sports Medicine released a study reviewing more than 650 sports medicine studies. They found only 8.8% of the studies focused solely on female athletes, while 70.7% focused solely on male athletes and 20.5% focused on both.

Donnavan Dillon, Loud Light’s Topeka and Lawrence organizer and a junior at the University of Kansas, followed LGBTQ legislation last session and said the law isn’t about transgender issues, but sexism in general. He said there were experts who came to the legislative sessions to speak about the science behind being transgender, but politicians didn’t listen.

Dillon said while the bill is framed around protecting women in sports, there is no progress being made on paying women’s coaches more, gaining resources for athletes, and equality in funding.

It’s “sexism from a new lens,” he said.

“All this boils down to sexism, and the Legislature (is) putting forward policies that just show how much they hate women and are sexist — whether it’s abortion bans, this bill, there’s just so many instances of that throughout the legislative session,” Dillon said. “I think it’s appalling.”

This year, more than 520 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Seventeen states — including Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma — have banned transgender students from competing in sports consistent with their gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project. Five other states have court orders blocking similar bans.

Mayah Martin
 Mayah Martin in Holcom Park in Lawrence where her Rugby team practices. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

Facing off against doubts 

Last year, Mayah Martin, a University of Kansas club rugby player, was tabling at an event to spread the word about her team. She received multiple comments from men about how rugby is too rough for girls and how different it must be from the male side of the sport. 

She said even in her personal life, when she brings up playing, she hears comments about how there’s no way she plays rugby.

“I’m quite the girly-girl of the group, I would say, so people automatically assume that I’m either lying for whatever reason, or that there’s no possible way a girl could be playing a sport like that,” Martin said. “People need to just realize that it shouldn’t be as taboo as it is, and if you want to play a sport, you can. It shouldn’t be some huge controversy that I like to tackle people.”

Martin said having the public constantly question you can shake your confidence. She said she’s glad to have such a deep-rooted love for sports that it doesn’t bother her, but such doubts have the potential to affect someone just coming into athletics.

In the 2021-2022 school year, 4.4 million boys and 3.2 million girls played sports in United States high schools, according to a survey conducted by NFHS. In the 1971-1972 school year, 3.7 million boys and about 300,000 girls played.

That means, in 2022, fewer girls participated in high school sports than boys did in 1972.

The legislation created to increase fairness in these sports does not reference any incentive to increase participation of girls in sports — it only stops transgender girls from competing with their peers.

At the collegiate level, widespread participation in women’s sports only began to surface in the 1960s.

Joyce Pigge, a political science professor at Bethany College who retired recently after 50 years of teaching and coaching, took charge of the women’s intramural sports program after graduating from college in 1967.

When she was growing up in Illinois, there were no opportunities for girls or women to play sports. But always being around athletics, she found herself in charge of the program. In 1971, she noticed great potential in the women athletes and asked to start a basketball team.

The first year, they played only two or three games. The team ended the latest season 20-8.

Pigge also had a hand in creating the women’s volleyball, softball and tennis teams at Bethany. Elsewhere in Kansas, Pigge said, the pioneers of women’s sports were making history.

In 1968, Kansas State University held its first women’s intercollegiate basketball game. At the University of Kansas, Marlene Mawson helped build the foundation for women’s intercollegiate athletics.

“I look back on those times fondly, because it didn’t matter if you were big KU or a little Bethany, we were all in the same place,” Pigge said. “We were playing each other. We were scheduling together. It was just camaraderie, because it was all about offering opportunities for the women who were on our campuses.”

In 1972, Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law, prohibiting sex discrimination in any federally funded programs and requiring equal opportunities for men and women.

The NCAA challenged the legality of Title IX and lost.

NiJaree Canady running to prepare for Stanfords after-summer fitness test. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

Dangers of doubt

NiJaree Canady graduated from Topeka High School in 2022 and completed her first year at Stanford University as a pitcher for the softball team. Last season, the team played in the Women’s College World Series, and she secured the win against Washington University to send Stanford into the semifinals.

Before her success at the collegiate level, she played basketball and softball in high school, qualifying for the state tournament three times in basketball and winning back-to-back state titles her junior and senior year in softball.

“If you Googled ‘Topeka High basketball schedule,’ our male schedule would come up, even though we were one of the most dominating teams in the state at that time,” she said.

Canady said there is an imbalance in expectations of women in sports. Thinking back to her basketball career, she said if she and her teammates got excited in the game, they would often receive a warning. Then she would watch the boy’s game and sometimes see players yelling at the referees, being far more aggressive, and not receive a warning.

She said she found herself at the beginning of her career being quiet, shutting herself down and not saying anything that could be seen as emotional.

However, she eventually learned if the men could do it, so could she, asking: “Why should female athletes have to conform?”

Canady said she sees the pressure to push down emotion in coaches who are women. She believes they aren’t allowed to speak and act as freely as their male counterparts.

NiJaree Canady mentally prepares to start an early-morning sprint. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

Laura Moreno serves as dean of athletics at Bethany and is the first woman to do so. She said people sometimes only see emotion coming from a passion for sports. She also said how that passion is perceived and accepted can be different between men and women.

“The passion and dedication and prioritization that you show as a female in athletics, I think, can be taken very differently than it is as a male in athletics,” Moreno said, “If a female celebrates or comes across with fiery passion, that can be looked at in a much different light than it is when a male does that same thing.”

The way the public views women’s athletics is a part of the history of women’s sports, from early rulebooks written as less competitive than men’s sports to women athletes being brought into the mainstream and men suddenly showing interest.

The NCAA hosted its first women’s championship, previously held by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, in 1982. Throughout the increase of women’s sports, the coaching positions started to be paid more, and in turn, men began to want to coach the teams. Additionally, since women were now integrated into the established sports of the universities, the women who administered the women’s divisions in the schools lost their jobs.

Pigge said through this time, and even now, people often blame women if a men’s sport gets cut, saying it is the women’s fault because they want to be equal.

“Title IX obviously did much to change the landscape of things, but it’s still an issue where a school will eliminate a team and they say, ‘We have to comply with Title IX and it’s because of the women that we’re having to do it,’ and stuff like that,” she said. “I mean, that stuff still happens. But it’s absurd.”

Moreno, who coached softball at Bethany before her time as dean of athletics, said while successes like Title IX work to move things in the right direction, athletics need to get to the point where the opportunities for women are truly equal to those available for men, and women being in a high position in athletics or a coach to the opposite sex isn’t an anomaly.

The equality women gained through legislative support like Title IX stands in sharp contrast to anti-LGBTQ legislation that limits opportunities.

Kylie Forney works out Aug. 8, 2023
 Kylie Forney does dumbbell sideways lunge holds Aug. 8.  (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

Focused programs

Forney is about to enter her sophomore year at UTSA after her shoulder injury kept her from competing last year. She said increased gender-specific coaching could have reduced the injuries she suffered growing up.

During her junior year at Andover High School, Forney fractured her leg during one of the last plays of a softball game. When she went to get an X-ray, they missed the break and she played for another month until she was in so much pain it made her nauseous. When she went back for another X-ray, the bone had completely broken, causing her to miss about six months of competing.

Coming back from physical therapy, she entered her senior year basketball season, where in one game had a severe concussion and neck sprain that put her out for about two months.

Senior year was also when her shoulder injury started to progress from the pain she had played through since freshman year to an unbearable level. When she finally received an MRI after fighting with insurance, she was told it was probably bicep tendonitis and to go to physical therapy. She asked for doctors to look in the shoulder anyway, and they found her torn labrum and rotator cuff.

In the summer of 2022, Forney was introduced to Anna Woods, a strength trainer who specializes in women’s health. The athlete saw a huge improvement in her body and realized how much she had been doing wrong with weight programs not designed for her. She realized that her injuries, especially to her shoulder, could have been avoided.

Pete Manely, director of athlete training services at Sterling College, said focused research and internal programs can help both boys and girls increase strength and avoid injury. He said weight training, and learning balance and precision, can go a long way for athletes.

While injuries happen in all sports, Manely said, it’s more common for women to experience injuries to their ACL, a ligament in the knee. He said a football weight program should not look the same as a volleyball training regimen.

In his experience, about 80% of women have lifted weights in high school while 100% of the men lifted.

“Girls having the opportunity to not only have a weight room access, but someone who can actually train them not only the right techniques but the right lifts, the right weights, the right — just right everything,” Manely said. “It could absolutely help with decreased injuries, maybe decrease ACLs. That’d be the hope.”

Abandoned by changemakers

Martin, the KU rugby player, said if lawmakers really cared about women’s sports, female athletes wouldn’t have nearly as many problems.

“We have to come together to support ourselves,” she said, “because no one else seems to want to do it for us.”

During legislative debate this year over the ban on transgender athletes, Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, talked about the inequities she faced as a high school athlete.

“We got hand-me-down uniforms, we often shared practice space, and our events were never promoted as much as the guys’ teams,” Vaughn said. “So if we really cared about fairness in girls sports, why are we not advocating for equal funding and resources for female athletes?

“Or what’s more, why aren’t we demanding pay equality for professional female athletes? Or why aren’t we fighting to eliminate or extend the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases to seek justice for the many female athletes who are sexually abused as children? The reason is because this bill is not about fairness. It’s about discrimination.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Kansas legislators, governor release $35.7 million tied to public university adherence to DEI law

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