International Women's Day
Coach MK was invited to participate in an #IWD2020 fireside chat about the importance of sports and inclusion. The text of her speech is below.
My name is Mary-Katherine Fleming. My ninth wedding anniversary is on Wednesday. My husband and I were both badly bullied as children, and were the weird kids who weren’t invited but neither wanted nor included. When we got married- we invited everyone. 8000 people, our combined Google address books, received wedding invitations. What we learned the hard way, was that inviting everyone was not the same as making anyone feel wanted or welcome. It was a really difficult, humbling and expensive lesson. It’s a lesson I think of every year on International Woman’s Day.
I am an entrepreneur, podcaster and run coach. I know my demographic and I know my scope of practice, and my clients, all recreational runners, are never really talking about the running. The conversation they want to have with me is about their own potential, a conversation that will change their identity as well as the way they view themselves.
This is a big deal- knowing exactly who you are all of the time is a privilege. I think of it as 'the privilege of certainty'. Some will spend their lives looking for identity as well as their place in this world. I have always known who I am and what I am- and that it was bad, that I was wrong, that I was too much, too loud too opinionated too outspoken to FORCEFUL too INTENSE. That made it hard to find my place. This messaging is everywhere: either you fit all expectations, or you don’t fit, period. Where you fit and what expectations are put on you start the day you are born, so by the time you are certain that everyone is putting you in the wrong box, it’s kind of too late. You already have a name, clothing, and all kinds of expectations that may not fit, and how do start over? Where do you go when you don’t fit?
Starting over is something I DO know how to do. Running has been the continuous thread in my life- every time I have moved, 15 times since I left home, the first thing I look for is a run club. You could say it’s my starting line, no matter where I go. An anchor to which I can start to build a new routine, schedule, social circle, where I choose to live- running provides the foundation upon which I can build a new life. It’s my constant and THAT is why it is so beneficial to my mental health. It has helped me through transitions I planned- like from Smith county TN to college freshman at Georgetown, and transitions I never saw coming- like from badass banker and expatriate to overeducated stay at home wife who could not POSSIBLY understand what it’s like IN AN OFFICE. (Seriously you wouldn’t believe how some people talk to me. I didn’t see that coming.). Running provided a platform for reinvention, and it’s the tool I use to help others reinvent themselves.
It needs to be said that I am not an athlete, and I’m not in the business of sports. That has to do with competition.
Title IX became famous for making sports accessible to women. As a white femme heteronormative cisgender woman, I realize the importance of accessibility. I also realize that it is incomplete. Title IX made it illegal for any program receiving federal funds to discriminate on the basis of sex, it forced everyone to take a look at who was included and who was excluded and question the structures that supported exclusion, “oh, we CAN’T let women join because there’s only one locker room!!” REALLY?
Unfortunately, this is a conversation we are still having. It can feel like a struggle, two steps forward and two steps back. Do I REALLY have to explain why I’m worth as much as a dude, why my experience is just as valuable, that I am not a niche? Are you really justifying this because I don’t conform to gender expectations you assigned to me, that I’m too forceful too opinionated too intense? When is the last time you said that to a dude? Where do I go now that I don’t fit? How do I start over?
Sports can be a lifesaving force for kids who don’t fit at home, a safe place for kids whose home isn’t safe. Title IX makes it illegal to keep anyone out on the basis of sex, but sports is quickly turning into my wedding- everyone is theoretically invited but not all feel wanted or welcome. So the kids who need sports the most, the ones who are most likely to feel rejected by their families and communities, may find there’s no space for them in sports; that they can’t join because they can’t use the locker room. As much as I support Title IX, I also recognize the importance of inclusion and now that I see where sport is failing, I cannot unsee it.
I get that women are a protected category and there are no easy answers, but I have to wonder if we are asking the wrong questions. What I want is a future where we are all looking for ways to pull more people in rather than justifications for keeping some people out. We can’t even keep the cheaters out! I have no idea what a level playing field looks like- I've never seen one. So, the existing gendered standards and definitions feel a whole lot like the gendered societal expectations that have failed me, someone who frankly is pretty dang close to normative, so what purpose are they actually serving? Are we helping more people than we are failing? What it HAS done is give us a real-life Harrison Bergeron story, with the IOC acting as the Handicapper General. I’m not sure that serves the spirit of competition. It certainly doesn't seem fair.
I’m lucky though- the conversation I get to have with my athletes doesn’t involve any of the hard stuff. I don’t need to know a person’s weight or gender in order to coach them, so I don’t ask.
All I know is this: one of the kindest, most inspirational and talented coaches I can think of is a female...and she is not employed as a coach. One of the most incredible runners I can think of, with the underdog backstory sports fan can rally behind, has been banned from international competition. The kids who could benefit from sports the most still can’t use the locker room. On International Women’s Day, three days before my anniversary, I am reminded of the importance of making people feel wanted and welcome, and wonder how much longer it will be before we finally move beyond the binary into that egalitarian place that sports could in fact be. It is long overdue.