Boys Beating Girls

by Casey Barrett

Here’s the pitch: Awkward high school boy longs to swim. The only sport he’s good at, the only thing that makes him feel good about himself. But, sigh, there’s no boys swim team at his school. So, what does young Eddie (let’s call him Eddie) do? He sucks up his pride and joins the girls team. See, thanks to gender equity laws, no one can stop him. Girls can join boys’ teams, right? So, why not the reverse, if the same opportunities aren’t offered to the guys? Girls reluctantly welcome him on their team. Heart-warming hilarity ensues. Thinking Michael Cera as the lead…

Anyone want to buy the rights? I’ll bang the script out in no time. I’m in LA all week…

Actually, this is no pitch. It’s the story on the front page of the New York Times Sports section today. Their terrific swimming writer, Karen Crouse, reports from the gender-blending world of Massachusetts high school swimming, where around two dozen boys are now members of their girls teams, since many schools don’t have boys swim programs. As you might imagine, this has created a bit of grumbling. Particularly when a man-boy with bodily hair and unfeminine muscles stands up and smokes the ladies in the 50 free, and breaks the “girls” sectional record.

As the father of a daughter, I could not let this happen without some righteous ranting. I would very likely be like the father quoted in Crouse’s story. After watching his daughter get beat by boys at the girls conference meet, the dad sneered “Good job beating the girls” to the guys as they walked by. He was asked not to attend the next meet. I’m just surprised he was so polite.

This feels like fiction. In fact, it would not surprise me if my pitch above was taken seriously by would-be producers… But beyond the utter insanity of this very notion, something else disturbed me in reading this, something not touched upon by Crouse.

That is: Why do so many high schools have only girls swim teams? We understand the plight of men’s college swimming; the cutting of programs has been well documented. But does the problem extend all the way down to high school? Apparently so.

This makes for an ironic dilemma with regards to the current state of the sport. On one hand, we have the most famous swimmer in history in our midst. Thanks to Michael Phelps (with a growing assist by Ryan Lochte), swimming has never been quite so cool for guys to be a part of. And by cool, I mean in that superficial but essential high school way – ie, can you get girls by being good at it? On the other hand, you have diminishing opportunities across the country – in both high schools and colleges – for guys to take part at all.

This poses some scary long term scenarios. It might not show up for a generation or two, but with the balance increasingly out of whack between men’s and women’s swimming, you have to wonder where future men’s national teams will be drawn from. After so many years of inspiring growth, will swimming shrink back to a regional pastime, only celebrated in seaside hotbeds like California and Florida? Looking at the sport in a macro way, this seems like the most likely result at the moment.

But it is reversible. Because there are legions of guys out there who want to swim. So much so that some are willing to emasculate themselves by joining the girls team, knowing full well the jeers that will be coming their way from their peers and the self-righteous dads of daughters. As bizarre as the situation is at these schools in Massachusetts, these guys need to be acknowledged for the courage they’re showing by taking part. It’s the schools that are failing them – and failing this sport.

Swim teams can be expensive propositions that offer little financial return. We know this. We know a big part of the men’s swimming crisis (can we capitalize it and call it a Crisis yet?) comes down to money. But a bit of resourcefulness could easily solve the men’s swim team shortage at these Massachusetts schools. A high school senior quoted in the story came up with one obvious solution: “It infuriates me that they can’t combine two schools’ boys to create one team,” said Sarah Hooper of Needham High. Would that be so hard? Sharing resources, splitting costs, increasing opportunities? Much thanks to the wise Ms. Hooper, for doing administrators’ jobs for them…

You could also take a look at those water-filled money pits and start figuring out a way to generate some revenue out of them. Revenue that could then fund the school’s team. Like say, renting out blocks of hours to outside programs that actually turn a profit. (Full disclosure: I have direct experience with this one. There is a school in lower Manhattan whose swim team is funded directly by the lease our swim school pays to hold lessons at their pool.)

These are not complicated solutions, but they do require folks who care about the sport to speak up. Men’s swimming is one half of the sport of swimming, and its presence is diminishing. Not because it lacks popularity among male athletes. In fact, it’s never been so popular. It’s diminishing at so many schools because it is viewed as expendable.

To get a race in Massachusetts, the boys need to suck it up, drown out the jeers, and go beat the girls.

Anyone have Michael Cera’s phone number?