Drawing a (hem)line in the sand

When I first read the words "women's boxing" and "skirt" in the same sentence, my reaction went something like this: How about adding a frilly apron, and accessorizing with a bucket and scrub brush? Loser cleans the ring!

Then I came across a comment from Ching-Kuo Wu, president of the AIBA (which governs amateur boxing internationally), in which he said some television viewers were having trouble distinguishing female boxers from men.

I wanted to fire off a two-word answer: Hi. Def.

Then I asked myself what is often the most important question in journalism: What do I know?

I swam for a little neighborhood club team as a kid and played basketball in high school and college. I never competed in a sport where skirts were required or even optional, so I decided to seek out some athletes who wear them on the job and ask about the pros and cons.

But before I go there, a few notes on the apparel controversy. It flared into public consciousness again a couple of weeks ago, but it's actually been percolating for more than a year, as the women boxers move closer to their Olympic debut in the 2012 London Games. After a little research, I learned the widely repeated AIBA president's comment was elicited by Albany Times-Union boxing blogger Michael Rivest in this September 2010 interview.

At last year's world championships, the AIBA leaned on boxers to give skirts a try, and most national federations complied. Lightweight world bronze medalist Queen Underwood said she was shocked when she opened her box of official gear before the medal rounds and found not only a skirt but what she described as a padded, non-sports bra. Underwood, who is not shy about expressing herself, said she hasn't worn a skirt or a dress on any occasion "for at least a decade," but thought she had no choice but to wear the outfit.

Once she got into the ring, Underwood said she forgot what she had on.

"I was in the zone, and afterwards I was thinking more about the loss than I was about the skirt," she said. "It didn't hamper me, but if they want to pay me to wear Maybelline and doll me all up, fine. I'm not getting paid to box in a skirt."

Reaction among boxers from other countries has tilted strongly against, as has that of commentators ranging from USA Today columnist Christine Brennan to blogger and amateur boxer Malissa Smith, whose Girlboxing site is a good resource for fans of the sport. India's five-time flyweight world champion Mary Kom has been quoted in her nation's media as saying that skirts would help set the women apart.

Officials in another Olympic sport, badminton, tried to play fashion police with female athletes, but the rebellion was so swift and furious they had to back down earlier this year.

Now, back to my very unscientific sample. The women I spoke with who play field hockey, lacrosse and tennis -- sports where skirts are traditional garb -- told me they prefer to practice in shorts but compete in skirts, even when given the choice.

"I never even think about it," said Rachel Dawson, a defender on the U.S. field hockey team that recently qualified for the Olympics by winning gold at the Pan American Games. "I love the idea of 'Look at me, I'm a woman in a skirt, but I can play just as tough as the boys, fighting, diving, hitting.' I love that contradiction."

Former Widener University assistant lacrosse coach Julie Dugan said her college coach at East Stroudsburg University raised the idea of switching to shorts one season. As the players mulled the concept, they faced a team that wore shorts and found the sight jarring. "They looked like they were playing volleyball," she said.

The team decided to stick with skirts -- although they, like many lacrosse and field hockey players, did wear Spandex compression shorts underneath, making sure they were short enough not to peek out below the hem.

"[Skirts] make you look a little more feminine, and I like the idea of being feminine and being good at sports," Dugan said.

Six-time Grand Slam doubles winner Lisa Raymond has seen a million fashion trends come and go in tennis since she turned pro in 1993. She considers shorts more comfortable and said she's seen flattering shorts-and-top outfits out there, but would feel underdressed wearing one.

"I'm kind of a traditionalist," Raymond said. "When you play a match, you're stepping out. It's a performance, as opposed to practice, when you're just grinding away."

The point is that skirts, in and of themselves, are not the problem. The problem is there's no history of or affection for them in boxing, and they're being introduced from the top down (pardon the pun) as if these women were boarding school students instead of sporting pioneers and symbols of strength.

It's hard not to wonder if there's a desire to sand a little roughness away from the sport for a worldwide audience that is used to stick-and-ball competition but not at all accustomed to the simpler visual equation of women slugging away at each other.

"I don't think they should be mandatory," Dawson said of boxing skirts. I completely agree -- and now that the AIBA has put forth the option, I also wouldn't stand in the way of a female boxer wearing one if she wanted.

This isn't the first time what female athletes wear, and the commotion it causes at the intersection of Politics Street and Marketing Avenue, threatens to overshadow the sporting contest itself. And it won't be the last. Such a ruckus wouldn't be fair to women who are stepping onto the Olympic stage for the first time.

As for the notion that viewers might not be able to tell women boxers from men at first or even second glance, I'd flip that on its head and say it might represent a kind of progress.

The AIBA is soliciting opinions on the issue from its athletes and the "wider public." Consider this a contribution to the latter. Taking away a woman's right to wear trunks would be the worst kind of wardrobe malfunction.