Baseball's Bill Veeck once signed a midget to pinch-hit, so why should I be shocked that Phil Esposito, general manager of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, is giving a tryout to a woman goalie? All it's costing him is a round-trip plane ticket, the price of a hotel room and $55 a day in meal money. That's a pittance for all the free publicity his expansion Lightning has received. What nettles me, however, is that even as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of Title IX (page 52), which really was a giant step forward for women's sports, Espo's stunt is being hailed in many quarters as a similar breakthrough.
The woman is Manon Rheaume, 20, of Lac-Beauport, Que., and she led Canada to the women's world championship last spring. She moves well, plays angles and knows what she's doing between the pipes. So do most good high school goalies. Could Rheaume start for most high schools? Absolutely. Could she start for most men's college or junior A teams? Doubtful. Certainly not the top ones. Does that qualify her for an invitation to Tampa Bay's training camp? You tell me.
Let's go to the stat sheet. Rheaume made history last year when she played 17 minutes of Major Junior A hockey for a men's team, the Trois-Rivières Draveurs. An injury had befallen the Trois-Rivières' starting goaltender, leaving the Draveurs shorthanded. Rheaume's boyfriend happened to play for Trois-Rivières, so someone had the bright idea of calling Rheaume up from her Tier II team. (It should be noted that the Draveurs, like the Lightning, are in business to sell tickets and reaped a mountain of publicity because of Rheaume.) Rheaume sat on the bench for her first two games, but she took over at goal midway through the third game with the score 5-5. During her 17 minutes of action she gave up three goals. She had to leave after a shot smashed into her face mask, putting a three-stitch gash in her eyebrow.
That was the extent of her game action against the boys. Rheaume's final Quebec Major Junior Hockey League numbers? An 0-1 record and a 10.59 goals-against average, which is pretty high even by that league's shoot-'em-up standards.
Now, is her playing goal in Tampa a breakthrough in women's sports? Sorry. I call it manipulative and sexist, a desperate attempt to sell a bad hockey team to an uninitiated Southern city. "Are we doing it for publicity? Yes," Esposito admitted lo the Tampa Tribune. "I'm not going to lie about that. Her chances of making it are probably slim and none." It doesn't hurt the publicity-seeking Lightning that Rheaume is pretty and that she reportedly was offered, and turned down, $50,000 from Playboy for a photo layout. O.K., Phil, bring on the dancing bears.
Don't put it past Espo to sign Rheaume to a minor league contract. The Lightning has a minor league team in Atlanta it also has to sell tickets for, and another affiliate in Louisville.
I certainly don't blame Rheaume for seizing her opportunity. She has been able to make a name for herself—she already has an agent—and however this business with Tampa Bay comes out, the experience will make her a better goalkeeper. She has the right attitude when she says, "I'd like to test myself against the best." She's not the first woman athlete to try out for a men's professional team. Ann Meyers got a look-see from the Indiana Pacers in their leaner years, and Nancy Lieberman played two seasons in the publicity-starved U.S. Basketball League. A woman named Eleanor Engle had a minor league baseball tryout in 1952. No great good or harm came of those previous publicity stunts. Blips in time, like Veeck's pinch-hitting midget. Esposito says that while Rheaume's chances of playing in the NHL are slim, a woman goalie in the NHL might be viable someday. It's conceivable, of course. Speed and reflexes are more important in goaltending than strength and size. But you can also say that about table tennis, and, trust me on this, the top male table tennis players would make mincemeat of the top women.
Wait a minute. Don't trust me on this. Let's hire a promoter and stage a Ping-Pong Battle of the Sexes. Top U.S. man against top Chinese woman, a match pandering to nationalist and sexist leanings simultaneously. They could compete right after Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova stage their classic $500,000 duel, which is scheduled for this Friday. Why ask why? Sit back and—for $24.95 on pay-per-view—enjoy the, um...well, it's not really tennis, is it? (At least Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King played their infamous 1973 match by the rules of the sport.) Connors gets one serve, Navratilova two. Plus she gets to hit into a portion of the doubles alleys. Now that's what I call value for your entertainment dollar.
The harm in these gender-bender sideshows, as I see it, is that they spawn silly arguments about relative skills and divert attention from what the women's sports movement is really about. It isn't about making men's teams. It's about having women's teams. The vast majority of female athletes have no interest in competing against men. They want to be able to compete against other women, to be coached by good coaches, to have opportunities equal—not identical—to men's at all levels of sport.
The tryout that will truly herald a breakthrough in women's sports and merit our attention and applause is the day someone like Manon Rheaume is able to seek a spot on a Tampa Bay entry in the National Women's Hockey League. Now that's a goal worth tending.