KIRCHOFF: Was Simone Biles Applauded for Quitting... Because She's a Woman?
At the outset, it needs to be stated I am not a sports fan. I generally don't watch sports, I haven't seen a single second of the 2021 Olympics, and most famous athletes' names mean as much to me as a pet rock's taste for water. Okay? Okay. But I am familiar with the concepts of competition, pressure, winning, and quitting. Furthermore, I know that Simone Biles is a fantastic world-class athlete who stands alone in her field. She's incredible, and I'll likely never be as good at anything as Simone Biles is at gymnastics. Okay? Okay.
I also know Simone Biles and many of her gymnast team members were treated to a litany of abuses from coaches like Larry Nasar. The path to Olympic gold is rife with pressure, torment, and at least from this outsider's perspective looking in, not a whole lot of fun. Yet Simone Biles triumphed over all of that to reach the pinnacle of athletic greatness by making it to the American Olympic Team not once but twice. That she beat the competition and the odds speaks, to some degree, to her spiritual and mental fortitude. Okay? Okay.
But I have to ask. If a male athlete had triumphed over the same odds, took up the flag to represent America on the world stage, and led a team of athletes, only to quit to focus on his "mental health" would he have been applauded and as fiercely defended as Simone Biles was earlier this week for doing the same?
I'll need to offer another disclaimer here, because I don't think quitting is necessarily the wrong thing to do, especially in the face of injury. Nor do I want to make this column in anyway about bashing Simone Biles. I'm not. But I am asking if we're applauding her for leaving the Olympic TEAM, applauding her for caring for her mental health because she's a female athlete. If we in fact are treating her more delicately because she's a female athlete, is that not demonstrating soft bigotry of low expectations?
I'm not sure. Again, because I'm so unfamiliar with sports, I don't know if a male athlete has quit to focus on his mental health and received support and applause. The closest answer I got was from Brodigan who brought up Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who cited the mental toll of the cycle of injury, rehab, playing, injury, rehab, playing as his reason for leaving the sport in his prime.
Call me crazy, though, but I don't think we'd applaud Michael Phelps if he quit a team to focus on mental health. Would we applaud Usian Bolt for quitting a team to focus on his mental health, or because track just wasn't as fun anymore? Would we applaud any man at all for quitting his Olympic team other than physical injury? Or have we and I'm just a clueless idiot?
Note that I keep citing TEAM and OLYMPICS. We're not talking about an individual playing out a season. We're talking about someone who took a spot on a team for a competition with a relatively short span. Don't get this twisted, the Olympics being short isn't a slight against those who compete in the Olympics. But nor is it a 3-4 year contract as is more standard in professional sports. And remember, Simone Biles took a spot on a team. A spot which could've gone to another woman who may not have quit and cited mental health.
I can't imagine the pressure of competing at such high levels of any sport. It's a mental trip to compete at any level, most especially if you've ever won or come close to winning. So the pressure way up at the top has to be suffocating. But thousands of athletes right now are doing just that. They're at the top for a reason.
I am mostly uncomfortable with applauding a woman for quitting due to reasons other than injury. What are we saying when we applaud a woman for giving up if we wouldn't applaud a man for doing the same? Would we not tell a man to "man up" and get back in there and kick ass? Would we not tell a male athlete to suck it up, to grow a pair, to "take one for the team" and do his best?
I think we would. And that's what disturbs me most about the going attitude around Simone Biles. She is a kickass athlete. She is strong. So why are we celebrating her decision to give it up for "self-care" rather than encouraging her to dig deeper and at least try to overcome the struggles within to do her best? As we would a male athlete.
One last thought before I sign off. Men and women are different, duh. But women often have an internal pressure to be perfect, and if they're not, they give up. They're also more often encouraged to quit if they're not perfect. It's a vicious cycle I've seen and experienced personally. For example, when women apply for jobs we post, they're qualified for the job. Fewer of them apply, but those who do actually have the experience. Conversely, most applications I get for any job are from men, but only a few who apply are qualified. It tells me that men are more comfortable with risk and failure than women are. This tends to make sense biologically, as women taking more physical risks doesn't serve the species: women have babies and need to keep SAFE! Whereas men do not carry children and do not have the same mental wiring. But it seems to me these tendencies carry out in areas that are not always physical, and if a woman isn't perfect, if she's afraid she'll fail, she bails where a man wouldn't. Further, other people encourage a woman to bail in the face of mental or physical struggle. It's a concept discussed in a TED Talk linked here. Listen/watch if you care to.
Bottom line for me, a woman who enjoys the thrill and sweet anguish of competition, it breaks my heart when I see a woman who gives up, or feels like she has to give up, in a competition. It's a key reason I'm against men competing in women's sports. I do not want us applauding Simone Biles for leaving the Olympics. I want us to rally behind her to find the courage within her to forge ahead and conquer, if for no other reason than to avoid the possible mental anguish she'll face when she looks back on the 2021 Olympic games. We need to be Simone's supporters cheering her on to be her best, as we would a man. Doesn't Simone Biles need us to believe that we believe in HER to excel and overcome? Doesn't she need us to help her be strong, to support her, to root for her, as we do for male athletes?
We didn't do Simone Biles a favor by applauding her exit. We let her down. And we sent the wrong message to future female athletes that when the going gets tough, leave and be applauded for it.
So much for feminism, eh?