Dads, sports play important role for women

The first year of my first newspaper job, in the late 1980s, I came across the "now dad gets it" phenomenon.

I was writing about a high school basketball star rehabbing her ACL injury and missing her senior season. Her father was a former Division I hoops player who played in the late 1960s and early '70s. He was encyclopedic about his daughter's every accomplishment and setback, and he was devastated she was hurt. But he was optimistic about what would, indeed, turn out to be her own successful Division I career.

The girl had gone off to her room to do her homework, and her dad and I kept talking. Then he stopped for a second, smiled and said, "You know, I used to be the biggest sexist. I thought women didn't have any business playing sports. I was totally against it. Then she came along, and it changed everything."

She was his firstborn, a little competitor from the start. When she was a toddler, he'd tell her that he could eat more strawberries than she could, and she'd start stuffing them in her mouth like crazy. He'd say he didn't think she could hit the rim, and she would set her jaw and throw the ball up with all her might and prove him wrong.

Then she started to grow tall, like him, display her natural athleticism, like him, and really show a gift for basketball, like him. He'd encourage and challenge her. He'd block her shots and play defense against her and tell her how to fight through picks.

And he "got it." It suddenly was so obvious to him, he couldn't understand why he thought the way he did before. Girls and women played sports for the same reasons boys and men did: because it was fun, and because they liked to compete.

As the WNBA promotes its Dads and Daughters Week in celebration of Father's Day, I've been thinking a lot about the fathers I've known in the time I've covered girls and women's basketball.

Some understood and encouraged the importance of sports in their daughters' lives right from the start. They groomed their girls' athletic abilities just as they would their boys'. Often, these men were (and still are) athletes themselves and have a wealth of knowledge to teach.

Some dads were surprised and then delighted by their daughters' interest and ability in sports. Some viewed their daughters with a kind of awe, because they saw toughness, commitment and resolve that they themselves feel they don't have.

Some dads didn't have a good relationship – or perhaps no contact at all – with their daughters as they grew up. Through sports, though, they ended up connecting, which gave these men a second chance to be fathers.

And all of this leads to something I strongly believe: Fathers' love for their daughters always has been and will continue to be one of humanity's strongest forces for positive social change.

I once read a biography that detailed the personal lives of most of the key figures of the women's suffrage movement in the United States. These were women born in the late 1700s and early 1800s, at a time when females had extremely limited access to education. That – and their complete second-class status legally – meant they had very little power to change their lives.

It was, in general, considered a foolish extravagance to educate a girl beyond what she needed to know to run a household and raise children. Females, by and large, were considered too weak-minded to learn much else. And even that "rare" intelligent girl might be able to learn, but what good would it do her?

Most professions were closed to women. Many mothers, obviously, did not have advanced education because they'd been denied that. And the fathers who did have that typically had no inclination to pass it on to their daughters.

But women such as Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and others had this in common: a father who decided to teach them much more than what was usually offered to girls.

For most of these women, their fathers were progressive for their time; specifically, many worked toward the abolition of slavery. Thus, their overall view of education was advanced.

Even so, the fathers often were not enlightened in any particular way about the singular importance of women's rights when they began teaching their daughters. In fact, some of them were opposed to or at least disturbed by the fact that their daughters participated in the suffrage movement when they became adults. Somehow, they missed the logical connection that their daughters would make practical use of their education to try to change the status of their gender.

So why did they teach them?

It seemed that it was the same story over and over: The little girl was bright to begin with, and her intelligence won over her father. So he came to view her not as "a girl" with a female's supposed litany of deficiencies, but rather as "his girl" – an extension of his own mind and heart. His love overcame – or at least strongly challenged – his prejudice.

Different revelations clicked for different fathers. Some truly changed the way they regarded women in general because they made the transition from that affection and respect they developed for their daughters. Some went only halfway down that road. Some didn't really go far at all.

Regardless of the journeys these fathers took, though, the bottom line was the daughter was educated. And the world changed because of that.

Now, it might seem I've moved way, way beyond the scope of basketball and dads and daughters going to WNBA games … but I don't think so.

America is an incredibly blessed nation in so many ways, including the progress women have made. Especially when you consider that millions of girls worldwide at this moment live in societies where they have almost zero chance of being educated or having any degree of economic or social autonomy.

But there are still many barriers here to be knocked over and many attitudes to change.

Much has been written about the positive impact sports have had in race relations in this country, particularly in the last 60 years or so. And sports have had that kind of impact on gender relations, too. The more things people find in common, the more they're able to get past their differences. Shared experiences as both athletes and sports fans bring
people together in ways that can be very beneficial.

In the case of fathers and daughters, sports can be as strong a bond as anything.

If you're the father of a girl, you're constantly sending messages to your daughter about your attitude toward women, and she's processing that information – even if she doesn't realize it – toward her view of her own self-esteem and self-worth.

Introducing your daughter to sports in some form is very important. Even if she ends up having no interest in or aptitude for competitive sports, she needs to become comfortable with exercise and athletics for her health.

Taking your daughter to a WNBA game gives her a chance to see women at center stage, accomplishing things that she can try to emulate or at least be inspired by.

If you do end up "sharing sports," you and your daughter will be closer because of it. And it will create memories that endure with exquisite clarity.

You might not think you're changing the world. But the man who gave his little girl a mathematics book in 1808 probably didn't think so, either.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.