Do you remember the first jersey you ever owned?
I do. I was six years old, I had just watched Derek Jeter lead the Yankees to a victory over the Mets, and I wanted desperately to own his jersey. I remember dragging my dad – a staunch and disappointed Mets fan – all the way around the stadium into the team store, only to find that the only jerseys in my size — and the majority of shirts in the entire “girls” section — were pink.
“This isn’t Derek Jeter’s jersey,” I told my dad, looking up at the pink and white striped shirt he held.
“This is Jeter, sweetie,” he said, pointing to the number 2 and the big block letters that spelled out JETER.
“No,” I told him. “Derek Jeter wears blue when he plays.”
My dad bought me the jersey anyway. I refused to wear it.
It’s been 45 years since Title IX was signed into law, barring sex discrimination in federally-funded schools and empowering female college athletes. And while some progress has been made, we still struggle with equality in athletics.It should really shock us how few women there continue to be in the upper echelons of professional sports. The imparity is of a magnitude we tolerate in no other industry of its size. While there’s been at least one female assistant coach to work in each of the largest four American sports leagues (the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL), it’s clear that we’re not yet comfortable with a woman serving as the head coach of a male sports team. The same is largely true of ownership and front office executives: there has never been a female general manager or a female commissioner in those same four leagues, and men continue to vastly outnumber women when it comes to both owning and running teams. Even sports agents and NCAA athletic directors tend to be mostly men.
The prevailing, hegemonic narrative about those disparities is that change simply takes time. Girls have not been playing sports or interested in athletics for as long as their male counterparts, so we need a grace period for the statistics to catch up. But as we vest ourselves in this assumption, we continue to sell pink jerseys to young girls and host special, feminized “Ladies Nights” for female sports fans. Then we look around our leagues and organizations and ask: where are all the women?
I think that the answer to that question begins, in many ways, with the pink jersey.
Years after that Yankees game, I would find myself sitting in a small conference room in Milwaukee interning for my dad (who co-owns the Bucks). On this particular day, we were meeting with the representatives from the firm that handles the team’s retail merchandising to review inventory for the upcoming season. Like any good intern, I was there to take notes. But I’ve never been particularly good at keeping my mouth shut when I have an opinion, so when the representative flipped to the slide for the girls’ section — full of pink paraphernalia — I interrupted.
“Why?” I asked. The whole room turned to look at me, it was clear I had spoken out of turn. “I mean – sorry,” I stumbled, “It’s just, our new colors are green and cream. Why are we selling pink clothes?”
The man looked at me, confused. I looked around at the table of six middle aged men, and I realized then that it was likely the first time any of them had ever been asked that question. “It’s what sells,” he replied, matter-of-factly. “To that demographic.”
In February of that same year, I found myself on a tour of another team’s practice facility. The Bucks were building a new practice facility then, so we visited a number of other teams’ facilities when we were on the road to get a sense of what did and didn’t work. At one point in the tour, we came across a small women’s staff locker room. This was somewhat unusual. In many of the older practice facilities around the league, male front office executives were permitted to share some of the players’ shower and locker facilities if they ever needed to, but there was no women’s equivalent.
When the representative who was showing us the facility pointed this out, someone in the group joked about what a “f—king waste of money” it was. Everyone on the tour laughed. The insinuation in the jokes that followed was that it wasn’t necessary for the wives and girlfriends of the players to have a locker room of their own. This, instead of who it was patently intended for: a female coach or staffer.
Herein lies the issue with the pink jersey. It is neither an issue with the color itself, nor with how suitable a color pink is for athletics or athletic gear. There is a real power to Alex Morgan’s pink headband, or Serena Williams’s iconic hot pink tennis dresses. Rather, it’s a symptom of a larger problem: our narrow view of what we expect from girls who are interested in sports.
We tell them that sports are only acceptable to them when filtered through a girlish gaze. We underestimate young girls when we assert that pink — and not the regular culture and colors of the team — is what sells “to that demographic.” Maybe we ought to ask ourselves: what really is so different about that demographic?
Pink is the color we traditionally use to announce the birth of a baby girl. Ten years later, when that same girl decides she loves baseball and wants to be like Derek Jeter one day, we tell her that she should have a pink jersey rather an authentic jersey like her male peers. In doing so, we effectively remind her that girls exist in their own, separate category within sports. She is a Yankees fan, but her pink jersey is starkly different from a young boy’s jersey. What are we telling her about how important she is to the community of fans or to the team? About how seriously we take ambitions she herself might have as an athlete or in the business of sports?
There is nothing exceptional about a girl who is interested in sports. But by confining girls and young women to a section of pink jerseys, we imply that there somehow should be. We have an easier time imagining her on WAGS than we do on the field or in a team’s front office facilities. We tell her, implicitly, that she can’t be like Derek Jeter. In doing so, we also inform her that sports are masculine — probably before it ever occurred to her that they should be.
And 15 years down the line, we’ll wonder why the same girl has not considered a career in sports. Perhaps it is because she has been told for a very long time, in the language of pink jerseys and nuanced exclusion, that it is simply not her place.
This story originally appeared on motto.time.com.