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Adult participation in coed softball: relations in a gender integrated sport.

Within the last ten years participation in recreational coed sports, especially volleyball and softball, has burgeoned. In softball, amateur coed leagues now thrive in almost every state. Some teams play for recreation only, while others advance to state and national tournaments by qualifying through playoffs. The present study focuses on the levels of participation, meanings attached to the game by the players, and particularly the male and female interpretations of the game by the participants. The data were collected by interviews of 45 male and female players during two summer softball seasons. The findings provide an in-depth account of the mutual expectations of male and female players during the game, the intimidation of females by males, the roles played by each gender, and the overall structure of the coed game in contrast with same-sex softball.

There are few sports where females and males can play on the same team; the primary exceptions include mixed doubles in tennis, recreational volleyball, and softball. The present paper focuses specifically on amateur coed softball, a gender-integrated sport. The growth of this sport is evident when we find that in 1981 the Amateur Softball Association of America first sanctioned coed softball (slow pitch) and in 1990 the A.S.A. registered 25,787 coed teams drawn from all 50 states. The growth of the sport has reached the point where in many communities it is divided into several levels or divisions with the best teams participating in playoffs for state and national tournaments. The purpose of the present study is to examine these levels of involvement and the relationships between female and male players in the naturalistic context of coed softball.

Initially, coed softball was designed as an informal leisure activity for participants with varying levels of ability who were primarily interested in the social dimension of playing together for fun rather than a concern for the outcome of the contest. When the sport is played at this informal level, the emphasis on competition, domination, discipline, training, and victory is minimal. The present level of organization in the sport, however, manifests several levels of stratification with the highest level emphasizing formal rules, roles, and extrinsic goals and outcomes. These levels of participation are consistent with Stebbin's (1982) concept of casual and serious leisure. According to Stebbins, casual leisure includes activities that do not require a serious involvement and effort in the activity. On the other hand, serious leisure requires the "development of skills and knowledge, the accumulation of experience and the expending of effort" (Stebbins, 1982, p. 267). This consideration of the levels of involvement is also evident in Nash's (1976, 1977) research on running. He describes running as typically including three levels of involvement--joggers (minimum level of seriousness), regular runners, and distance runners (maximum level of involvement). Likewise, Snyder (1986) in his study of shuffleboard players describes social and serious players, with the latter category divided into amateurs, professionals, and masters. These studies emphasize that an increased level of involvement is characterized by greater training, skill, perseverance, and personal identity invested in the activity. In coed softball, the maximum level of involvement is evident in the state and national tournaments.

Since coed softball is a gender integrated sport, an integral part of the sport is the interaction of females and males within the sport. In the last twenty years numerous studies have considered the importance of gender relationships in sport. Traditionally, the Victorian ideal was that participation in sports is inappropriate for females. These discriminatory norms provided barriers to a full participation in athletic activities by females. Hall (1988) argues that gender is of sufficient importance that it must be considered a major social category in the social analysis of sport. Some of the studies on this topic focus on the female/male distinction in sport and the concern for qualitatively different models of sport for both sexes, including the contrasting athletic experiences of males and females in American society, (Hargreaves, 1990; Meyer, 1990). For example, both Blinde (1989) and Messner (1990) argue that the male sport model can be identified and contrasted with female sport participation. Inherent in the male perspective is the emphasis on the values of competition, seriousness, hard work, intimidation, and achievement (Blinde, 1989, p. 42). Accordingly, these value orientations serve to legitimate male dominance in the sport world and female participation is often expected to adhere to this model. Using coed softball, we want to examine some of the meanings and practices of females and males interacting in a game situation.

In summary, in this paper we have two objectives: (1) to describe the structure and levels of involvement in the sport of coed softball, and (2) to focus on the variations in gender meanings and relations within the levels of involvement in the sport.


Both authors have participated in coed softball; one of the authors has participated for over a decade and our descriptions are based, in part, on personal accounts while playing the sport. Additionally, detailed field notes based on observations and participation were recorded over a parts of two seasons. Data were also collected through the use of semi-structured interviews and questionnaires. The questionnaires were administered in a random manner to both male and female players in each of the three divisions of the sport. Some players wrote their answers on the questionnaire. Many of the questionnaires were administered orally and recorded on an audio tape. The questionnaire was semistructured and provided for open-ended responses; players that were interviewed orally were encouraged to elaborate on their comments to provide additional subjective information about their experiences in the sport. The interview schedule focused primarily on the participants' feelings and thoughts about women and men both as teammates and competitors in coed softball. The number of written and oral interviews conducted was determined by the "saturation point" where little new information was collected. Forty-five interviews were conducted. Photographs were also taken to illustrate and validate the field notes and interviews. Data were collected in a middle-sized midwestern community (approximately 45,000) and at the state tournament.

Coed Softball: Description and Levels of Involvement

Inherent within the rules that structure coed softball is the assumption that males are, in general, better players than females. Consequently, the rules are designed to neutralize these differences. For example, the American Softball Association rules prescribe that each team must have an equal number of male and female players. Likewise, the batting order of the players must alternate between males and females; this rule is designed to eliminate the likelihood of stacking the males in the batting order. Furthermore, if a male batter is walked, the following female batter is given the option of taking a walk; in this way the defensive team cannot "pitch around" the male batters to pitch to the female batters who are presumed to be less capable hitters. The defensive positioning is also regulated by A.S.A. rules. For example, the alignment in the field must alternate between males and females. Thus, if the pitcher is male the catcher must be female (or vice versa), if a male plays first base, the second base is a female, short stop male, and third base female. In the outfield, if a male plays left field, a female is in left center field, a male will play right center field, and a female in right field.

Beyond these formal rules the unwritten rules generally define coed softball as less serious than same sex softball. For example, men say they are expected to "tone down" the aggressiveness of the play they exhibit in male softball. This means not throwing the ball hard to a female teammate, not sliding hard into an opposing female infielder, and regulating their language. One male player stated that "coed softball reflects the true spirit of sportsmanship." The vast majority of players described coed softball as fun, social, challenging, popular, and recreational. Many players stated that they expanded their "social circle" of friends through the sport. One male player described the sport in this way:

Coed softball is a leisure sport with an emphasis on the 'social' part of the sport. It will become more popular. Some same sex leagues, especially in the upper division levels, are disintegrating and these players are coming to coed. The rules appear to increase female participation.

Our observations indicate that coed softball is family oriented with many married and dating couples playing on the same team. While children are always found at the ball fields, more children are found during coed games than at same sex softball games. Many spouses and friends attend the games and bring their children--presumably because of the leisurely nature of the games. One player termed coed softball a "family thing." Even some grandparents are present, as spectators and baby sitters. One divorcee who began playing coed softball with her husband before their divorce said, "I brought my ex-spouse into coed while we were married and we still play together...and get along." Photographs 1 and 2 illustrate the social dimension of coed softball, especially at the "B" and "C" levels. Note the nonparticipants, including children that are in these two photographs.

Another player stated she likes coed softball "because it is a great sport--families play together and there are different divisions for different levels of skill." Yet, this focus on the social and family oriented aspects of the game are modified according to the levels of play. Although there are no rules determining which teams play in each division, the league administrators place the more serious players and talented teams in the "A" division, with the average teams in the "B" division, and the least serious and less talented players on teams in the "C" division. The best teams compete in the district play-off tournaments and the winners of these go to the state tournament. One male "A" player reflecting on the levels of coed softball remarked, "People have different feelings based on the level of competition and during the state tournament we really put on our 'game faces.'"

Nash's (1976) research on types of runners demonstrates the differential attitudes, identity, and appearance between what he described as joggers, regular runners, and long distance runners. Similarly, the divisions of coed softball players are reflected in their demeanor and appearance. In the "A" division there is considerable interest and talk about batting averages, team records, and league standings. All teams are aware of the best teams in the division and sometimes extra practices and scouting of future opponents is considered necessary to improve the team's standing. There are fewer husband and wife teams in the "A" division and more "pickup players" that are recruited to improve the quality of the team. Most "A" teams are in uniform with matching jerseys or t-shirts. The t-shirt is common to softball teams of all levels, but more attention is paid to the style and conformity in the higher divisions.

Softball "artifacts" are also manifest among the "A" division players--wristbands, headbands, knee and ankle braces, kneepads, and batting gloves. Another artifact of the players is the double pair of shorts. One pair of shorts is worn over the top of the other with the first pair extending several inches below the second. The wearing of double shorts is the player's statement that, "I play good softball." Also, the use of chewing tobacco and snuff among the men in the "A" division is common. Again, this habit seems to reflect the player's intent to announce that he is a serious player. Thus far we have not observed female players chewing tobacco. The ages of the "A" players are primarily in their 20s and 30s. The age of 40 is considered a stigma for these players and most of them either retire from serious play or drop into a lower division team. Photograph 3 shows the usual uniform of an "A" division player

In the "B" and "C" divisions winning is less important, and many of the players are unaware of the division standings. There are more husband and wife combinations in the "B" and especially in the "C" division. Uniforms are not of great concern in the lower divisions and most of the teams do not have matching jerseys or t-shirts with the sponsor's name. Many of the players are younger and less experienced in the lower divisions or are older than in the "A" division. There are also several teams consisting of players who are roughly the same age and who work in the same plant. In the "C" division most of the teams are husbands and wives, other relatives, and close friends. At this level many of the uniforms are blue jeans and cut-offs with mismatched jerseys and t-shirts. The wearing apparel as an identity symbol suggests that this activity is not important to them and is not taken very seriously. In general, fielding errors and mistakes at the "C" level are laughed-off in a good natured way.

Coed teams that compete in the district tournament and advance to the state tournament are concerned primarily with winning. The reputations of some teams precede them at the tournament and there is talk about watching certain teams and players. Many teams at the state tournament get together strictly to play there. They strategically recruit players to play specific defensive positions and to hit in particular spots in the batting order. Very few husbands and wives are teammates at the state tournament level. Softball artifacts abound, while knee or ankle braces are prevalent, many openly tape thighs, knees, ankles and wrists as if ritualistically donning battle gear.

Emotional display is more overt at the state tournament than it is in the local coed "A" division. Obviously, the state championship title is at stake, and talented players are willing invest their talents and identities pursuing it. There is not much laughing or joviality at the state tournament. Most of the players are serious and tense. Some men and a few women curse openly when they make an out or error.

In summary, while coed softball is often characterized as a "family sport" with an emphasis on good sportsmanship and fun, this characterization is primarily of the "B" and "C" divisions of the sport. In fact, the "A" level of involvement and tournament play incorporate the high level of seriousness that is present in formal sport throughout the American society.

Nevertheless, the game is a unique because it includes an equal number of males and females on each team, and the formal rules are designed to promote an equal involvement in the game by both sexes. Further, in contrast to pickup games of softball that might include males and females or mixed games of volleyball, the coed softball game is nationally established within the American Softball Association. Thus, the sport provides a unique opportunity for studying the meanings and relationships associated with gender within an institutionally established sport. We consider this topic in the following section of the paper.

Female and Male Relationships

We are particularly interested in looking at the gender relationships to determine whether there is an equality of involvement or, conversely, does male hegemony emerge within dynamics of the game. Merely because we have observed a dramatic increase in female participation in sport does not necessarily indicate a feminist revolution as long as the organization of sport continues to support patriarchal values and reactions (Dilorio, 1989, p. 54). Likewise, an equal number of men and women on a team does not provide a complete picture of gender relationships. On the face of it, coed softball seems to provide an opportunity to "deconstruct" the definition of sport away from a male dominated, elitist, highly competitive situation to a more socially supportive, inclusive, process-oriented activity (Dilorio, 1989, p. 56; Birrell and Richter, 1987). Yet past experience would suggest that in a competitive situation males dominance would prevail. Indeed, we speculate that the more competitive the situation the greater likelihood that males will dominate the interaction.

As noted earlier, sports in the American culture have traditionally been associated with masculinity. To be an athlete is defined as being masculine, and characteristics of competitiveness, aggressiveness, strength, and achievement are associated with both masculine and athletic roles. Females who participate in sport are often thought to experience a conflict between being a female and an athlete. That is, we traditionally view female participation in sports such as softball, basketball, field events in track, and body contact sports as inappropriate and masculinizing. Furthermore, this process is linked to sexuality. As Dilorio notes, "...while the male athlete is stereotyped as compulsively and aggressively heterosexual, the female athlete has struggled with the opposite definition--the one of lesbianism" (Dilorio, 1989, p. 54).

Our findings suggest that while female participation in softball has become more socially acceptable in the last decade, a legacy of the negative stereotypes remains. A female player who plays coed softball said, "I hate the stereotype of women players being 'queers'." A male player added, "Good women players are usually looked at as 'dykes'." Several female players revealed that a little bit of "tomboy" might be helpful in the competitive world of softball, but it is important to retain some semblance of femininity. A couple of males tried to put the "tomboy" concept in perspective. One said, "There are not many tomboys in coed, although this trait helps. This perception is usually applied to the good female athletes." Another male interviewee said, "Girls in coed are viewed as tomboys, but many still look good in a dress. "A female player said, "Women softball players are more masculine than most women. However, the playing wives of male coed players may be the more feminine of the female players." These comments suggest the continuation of stereotypes about the best women softball players being "dykes," "tomboys" and masculine. One female player added that, "the less feminine and better females play the 'A' league and the state tournament girls are not the same as the other league players." In summary, within coed softball, a sport originally designed to promote sociability, fun, and playfulness, some of the negative stereotypes of females athletes are evident.

In our interviews the majority of players indicated that more was expected from male players based on the assumptions of their greater physical strength. One female said that men are expected "to carry the weight and bear most of the pressures of winning and losing." However, many of the interviewees subscribe to the notion that the females make the difference in the successes of the teams. Their reasoning is that the men on each team are seen to be generally equal in ability, and as one female player said, "The men tend to cancel each other out." Consequently, players of both genders perceive that men provide the offense and key the defense, while the women must get an occasional hit and hold the weaker defensive positions. Anything they add is a "bonus," and this bonus is a strong contributor to the game outcomes. One male player put it succinctly, "The men are even, but the women are the key to winning games." Other players expressed similar views. A male said, "The males 'carry' the females, and it's an extra if the females perform more than the routine plays." And a female player added, "Males are supposed to be better, while the females must be competitive and need merely to catch the ball."

These statements indicate the players of both genders have differential expectations of the female and male players. In one sense the perceptions of women is that they are expected to play the traditional submissive role as a "helpmate" by trying as hard as they can "to perform the routine plays." Yet, in another way the women players are considered the important ingredient; that is, the team who has the best female players is likely to win. Note, however, that the central motif in this discussion is the emphasis on winning. In short, at the "A" level the male model of sport defines the role relationships.

We observed many examples of play on the field that further illustrate the differential gender roles within the dynamics of a game situation. For example, it is a widely accepted practice for a male--usually the pitcher--to cover home plate for a female catcher. This is recognized as a way to protect a female catcher from a hard slide by the base runner. Several of the female interviewees who have played the catching position mentioned this coverage was acceptable to them.

But there are other situations where females players do not appreciate male defensive coverage. For example, sometimes male outfielders cut in front of female outfielders to make what they perceive to be a tough catch, or to make a strong throw after the catch. Many female players resent having a male make this type of play in front of them. They consider it a reflection on their own abilities. It is similar to "pouching" in mixed tennis where the male player dominates the action by covering not only his side of the court but also much of his female partner's side of the court. This is perceived by female players (and apparently also by male players) as a lack of confidence in their ability to play the shots. Similarly, in coed softball a male player expressed his concern for taking balls away from female players in this way, "It's based on the assumed female weakness; I think the women should be allowed to field without the guys hogging all the balls."

In our interviews we raised the issue of males intimidating females during game situations. One male player said, "It's not so much intimidation as it is 'taking over' by assuming the female is weaker and incapable." Other players noted that intimidation occurs by trying to 'take out" a female defensive player by a hard slide and hitting to the "weaker girls." Parenthetically, in our analysis of the interviews and written statements we were struck by the frequency of references to the women players as "girls." This usage was evident by members of both genders and we might interpret it to mean they are accorded less prestige and importance in the game situation.

Our observations suggest that with the increased seriousness of coed softball, at least in the "A" level and in the tournaments, there is a greater tendency for males to be intimidating and dominating. Additionally, at the "A" level it is sometimes acceptable for females to give advice or suggestions to males about batting and fielding. The advice, however, is generally subtle or minor and offered one-to-one, and is contrary to the well established mode of men advising women. All of the "A" division teams we observed were managed by males, and the major decisions and changes are handled by the manager with some help from a male associate.

At the "B" and "C" levels the male and female players mingle freely on the bench along with their children and spectators. Again, the informality and nonserious nature of the sport at this level promotes a greater sociability, friendliness, and playfulness. On the other hand, the dugout of "A" level teams and at the tournaments are sharply stratified by sex. Even the married teammates gravitate towards teammates of their own sex. Perhaps because many tournament teams are "constructed" primarily for their excellence, players feel more comfortable associating with teammates of their own sex and ability. Photograph 4 shows the bench of an "A" division team. Children and other family members are not present. Note also that the two male players are seated together above the female players.

In summary, our observations and interviews indicate the subtle and not so subtle ways male players dominate females is most evident in the "A" level and at the state tournament. At this formal level winning is particularly important and when the "game is on the line" the males are not willing to "take a chance" on the woman player "blowing it." On the other hand, in the "B" and "C" levels of coed softball as several players said, "there is equality," "respect for the ability of both sexes," "respect for each other," and "cooperation, no pressure, and fun."


The general feelings expressed about coed softball by members of both sexes is that it is fun, enjoyable, relaxing, and a sociable game. Some players also mentioned its unique characteristic--playing with and against the opposite sex--as a new "wrinkle" to the game of softball. For others, participating with co-workers and family members of both sexes was an attraction. A couple of the female players said they learned to play ball with their brothers and coed softball reminded them of their childhood--a nostalgic feeling. The characteristics of the game differ, however, between the levels of the sport. These variations are evident in the presentations of self that are symbolized in the uniforms and seating arrangements in the dugouts. Furthermore, players from the "A" division indicate by the meanings they attach to the game, and by their self definitions, that they are more serious, intense and committed to winning than the "B" and "C" level players.

Our research interests were also directed to another dimension of the game. That is, the consideration of coed softball from a feminist perspective. While the formal rules of the sport are designed to promote equality, this goal may not be manifest when the five male and female teammates take their positions on the playing field. It is our argument that sexist behavior is most manifest among the "A" level players--especially in tournament play. At this level, even the males who express a pseudo admiration for the female players by saying "the women are the difference between the coed teams" hold to the opinion that the males are better players and they must dominate the play in order to win. In short, while gender equality is formalized by the game rules, the emergent norms constructed by the interactions of the players on the field represent a different reality that reflects the ideology of male dominance. For example, when a male player is walked the female batter on deck has the option of also walking, a strategy that the predominantly male managers will support. This is a good strategy for winning games, yet, the female player does not have the enjoyment of playing the game to the fullest--that is, attempting to hit the ball. We noted other strategic moves such as a male pitcher covering home plate for the female catcher, a male shortstop taking the throw from left field for a tag at second base (rather than the female second baseman) and a male outfielder cutting in front of the female outfielder to make the catch and long throw.

Some of the female interviewees condone at least some of these moves, yet most women found these intrusions detestable. Indeed, they represent a violation of the "spirit of the rules" that are designed to make women full participants in the game--regardless of the outcome. In short, coed softball, at least at the "A" level reflects many symbols of subjugation where, as one woman player said, the "men take over." Men run the teams, the play of males is emulated, the most successful female players are "tomboys," and their sexuality is questioned. These cues of inequality subvert the liberal feminist premise that all roles should be free of traditional gender meanings (Davis, 1989). Indeed, coed softball highlights a paradox present in many female sports. That is, coed softball is a sport context where there is an opportunity for full gender integration. Yet, as the norms shift from process to product (the "C" and "B" to "A" levels) the patriarchal norms emerge. It is important to be conscious of this paradox, for it is only in this way that the limitations of an uncritical acceptance of the traditional views of gender in sport can be challenged and changed.


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Blinde, E. (1989). Participation in a male sport model and the value alienation of female intercollegiate athletes. Sociology of Sport Journal, 6, 36-49.

Davis, L. (1989). A postmodern paradox? Cheerleaders at women's sporting events. Arena, 13, 124-133.

Dilorio, J. (1989). Feminism, gender, and the ethnographic study of sport. Arena, 13, 49-60.

Hall, A. (1988). The discourse of gender and sport: From femininity to feminism. Sociology of Sport Journal, 5, 330-340.

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Messner, M. (1990). When bodies are weapons: Masculinity and violence in sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 25, 203-220.

Meyer, B. (1990). From idealism to actualization: The academic performance of female athletes. Sociology of Sport Journal, 7, 44-57.

Nash, J. (1976). Acquiring new identities. In J. Nash & J. Spradley (Eds.), Sociology: A descriptive approach (pp. 161-181). Chicago: Rand McNally.

Nash, J. (1977). Decoding a runner's wardrobe. In J. Spradley & D. McCurdy (Eds), Conformity and conflict (pp. 172-185). Boston: Little, Brown.

Snyder, E. (1986). The social world of shuffleboard: Participation by senior citizens. Urban Life, 15, 237-253.

Stebbins, R. (1982). Serious leisure. Pacific Sociological Review, 25, 251-272.
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Author:Snyder, Eldon E.; Ammons, Ronald
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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