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Yu-Tsien Tseng's Mission? Bring Sports to Girls in Taiwan

For the past decade, Yu-Tsien Tseng, or "Blue," as she's known, has been fighting to bring equality for women's sports in Taiwan. The society around her favored delicate features and long hair, and discouraged women from serious athletic pursuits. Tseng, with her close-cropped hair and powerful build, had a lifetime of experiences to back that up. But she had few tools to help her change it. One of her most important weapons turned out to be Google.

Tseng, an associate professor at the National University in Taipei, was searching online one day for successful models of support for women's athletics. She Googled "gender" and "equity" in English, and found articles about Title IX legislation in the United States. Passed in 1972, the act guarantees equal support of women's and men's sports. Tseng became fascinated with the law. She also discovered her country had passed a Gender Equity Education Act in 2004, which pledged equal academic backing for male and female students. She set out to use that to provide equal footing in athletics as well.

Her work in Taiwan caught the notice of the U.S. Department of State, which invited her to be one of 16 participants in the 2013 Global Sports Mentoring Program. She was paired with directors at the NCAA and met with coaches, leaders and colleges to learn how they were promoting female athletics.

When she first heard that she would be participating in the program, Tseng says, "I wanted to learn all about Title IX."

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Growing up in Taoyuan, Taiwan, a small city 40 minutes west of Taipei, Tseng sensed she didn't fit in. She preferred contact sports to playing with dolls. Even on the basketball court, where she was most comfortable, Tseng was often criticized for not being feminine enough.

"They want girls to look like sweeties," she says, even when they're defending a layup. Tseng pointed to an expectation that female athletes look and act "ladylike" and to mandates that high school players have long hair tied back for games.

"The ponytailed regulation started in recent years," Tseng says. "If you came to Taiwan for a high school basketball game, you'll probably find most of these players look almost the same. I don't know why people in Taiwan care about the hair so much."

She says her family wanted her to be a "girly girl" as well, but "when I play, I just want to be as aggressive as I can."

These days, Tseng, 31, channels the aggression she once reserved for the basketball court into fighting stereotypes of female athletes throughout East Asia.

The closest Tseng had to a sports role model growing up was Taiwan's first female basketball star, Wei-Juan "Rosa" Chien. Chien, a point guard, was one of very few recognizable female athletes in Taiwan in the late 1980s. She began playing professionally at 15 for the Cathay Life Insurance team in the country's women's basketball league, and went on to lead the national team. She was the first woman from Taiwan to try out for the WNBA and later joined the Chinese professional league. Tseng fell in love with basketball through watching Chien.

She started to play the sport competitively in high school but was mocked for her pixie cut and muscular stature. She began struggling athletically and academically, earning her nickname, Blue. "I didn't do very well in my first year of senior high school, and I was very sad," Tseng says. "I tried not to care about my appearance. I realized that I was very different and thought that maybe I had a problem. It was a time when you question whether you should be yourself or if you should follow what other people want you to do."

But she continued to play contact sports. The following year, with the support of close friends, her spirits rose, along with her grades and her ability to contribute to her basketball squad. Her nickname, however, stuck -- partially because "Blue" was much easier for teammates to yell on the court than "Yu-Hsien."

Yet quietly issues of body images and stereotypes "bothered me all the time," she says.

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Tseng continued to play basketball through college, finding more confidence and acceptance there. "At university I had a chance to hear from female athletes, and see images of them that broke down stereotypes, which gave me confidence that I don't have to be like other people, even if I don't have a ponytail," she says.

As she went on to pursue her master's degree and eventually a Ph.D., Tseng began to look closely at the issues that had vexed her since her childhood, focusing specifically on sports and gender. As an academic, she devotes her time and studies to knocking down barriers such as preconceived gender roles (one of her more widely read essays looks at implications of gender in the popular Taiwanese television show "Hot Shot") and opening doors by creating opportunities for girls to participate in athletics.

By 2013, Tseng had taken a post with the Taiwan Gender Equity Education Association, organizing seminars and giving lectures around the country and East Asia to foster discussions of gender equality and dismantle stigmas attached to female athlete.

That fall, she came to the U.S. for the Global Sports Mentorship Program. For three weeks she was paired with Karen Morrison, director of inclusion at the NCAA, and Delise O'Meally, the NCAA's former director of governance and international affairs (O'Meally is now the executive director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport). Morrison and O'Meally invited Tseng to sit in on committee meetings with the Alliance of Women Coaches and the NCAA's Committee on Women's Athletics. She also visited colleges to learn how they were promoting female athletics.

She felt a piece of legislation in Taiwan similarly structured to Title IX would produce the same results that it did in the States. To her, Title IX seemed a panacea: "It improved the level of female athletic play a lot and led to professional leagues where women could earn money."

But before she could begin working on a Title IX equivalent for Taiwan, she needed to create the support for such a program where there now is little to none. "It felt like we were looking back in time," Morrison says of the state of women's sports in Taiwan. "You have to find a way to build a movement, and then you find allies to help advance women's access to sports."

Tseng's mentors convinced her that she needed to first sway public opinion about the importance of women's sports. Working with the NCAA, she developed a plan based on the uncontroversial assumption that physical education promotes a healthy lifestyle. It was a long game: By advocating for equal and improved physical education in schools, Tseng could instill a love for sports among girls at a young age and incorporate athletics into their everyday lifestyles. From there, women's sports could grow organically into youth leagues, clubs and eventually professional teams like the ones in the U.S.

She organized a workshop with five physical education teachers from around the country to develop ways to encourage girls to play sports. Tseng considers the work over a 10-week period to be her biggest achievement following her program in the U.S.

In April, her work was recognized with an additional grant from the program. Tseng used the money to help stage a panel on gender equity and invited her mentor, Morrison, to attend. "Blue is very quiet and can be shy, but when she's teaching or lecturing, she is a powerful advocate," Morrison says.

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After their experience in Taiwan, Morrison invited Tseng to sit on a panel during the International Working Group on Women and Sport held in June in Helsinki. The panel considered the acceptance of LGBTQ athletes in sport, which has increasingly become an issue that Blue is passionate about. Taiwan has one of the most inclusive societies in Asia -- Taipei's Gay Pride parade is one of the largest LGBTQ events on the continent, and discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal nationwide. Still, no athlete at the university or professional level has publicly come out.

"Taiwan society is not ready for a gay athlete," Tseng says, remembering a lecture she gave in which one audience member labeled gay athletes as "sick" and bad influences. A recent survey, which she presented in Helsinki, found that Taiwanese athletes and coaches were hesitant to accommodate LGBTQ players. It also observed that there were few resources available for LGBTQ issues, though Blue is working on studies looking at the experience of closeted gay and lesbian athletes.

"I just hope there is someone who will stand up and tell people that it's OK to be masculine, to cut their hair short, to ignore those meaningless comments," Tseng says, "and encourage young players to be who they are or what they are."

Now, there is.