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TOMBOY: a Documentary, a Movement, and a Personal Story – Golden Gate Sports

Photo courtesy Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
“Semantics are powerful.”
Stereotypes cling. Words linger. Perceptions grow.
What does the term tomboy mean to you? Have you ever been called a tomboy or have called someone that?
Is the term tomboy referring to a girl who plays sports and, therefore, is like a boy? Is it a girl who isn’t feminine enough? Or is it a girl who is athletic, driven, passionate, and fierce? Can a girl who is active and sports-oriented be thought of as a girl, or will she be deemed as too “masculine”?
These are some of the questions that Comcast SportsNet explores in TOMBOY, a one-hour documentary and multi-platform initiative that promotes discussion on gender in sports. Produced locally by CSN Bay Area, this documentary puts the spotlight on the experiences and stories of some of the most well-known female athletes, broadcasters, and sports executives in the world.
Photo courtesy Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
TOMBOY can be seen across all NBC Sports regional networks and nationally on NBCSN, and it will debut Friday, March 10th at 8 PM on CSN Bay Area. You can watch the trailer here.
Brave. Tough. Strong. Determined. Unstoppable.
A tomboy is described using these words in the film, but not everyone immediately associates these adjectives with the word tomboy. In the documentary, Caroline Paul, author of “The Gutsy Girl,” offers some insight into the phrase tomboy and the perceptions that have grown around that word.
“I don’t understand why these great values like bravery, resilience, confidence, and leadership are considered male. We need to decouple it from gender, because those attributes are so important for the life of both a girl and a boy. Saying tomboy, immediately inferring that she’s not totally a girl, is not only not helpful, it’s kind of insulting.”
Given the negative association between the term and certain gender stereotypes, “tomboy” is considered derogatory to many people, which explains the line through the word in the title of the documentary.
Billie Jean King, a pioneer and expert on the gender in sports topic and one of the greatest athletes of all time, says in one of her segments in the film, “semantics are powerful.” The words used to describe a particular type of female can lead to unhealthy and unproductive actions from others that can affect her the rest of her life. Sports can be a salvation for that though.
I couldn’t help but relate to the stories and the feelings that the powerful women featured in TOMBOY exhibit. I have played sports since I was three years old, and I have played and coached just about every sport out there including soccer, basketball, tennis, swimming, flag football, baseball, golf, lacrosse, etc. After playing soccer for 10 years, basketball became my main sport at the age of 10, and to this day, I still play and coach basketball.
Upon graduating college, I have worked in sports writing, coaching, and teaching and currently serve as a lead teacher in an after-school program where I am surrounded by sports every day.
Sports have been my passion, my escape, my happy place, and my sanctuary throughout my whole life. I’ve been considered a tomboy since I first picked up a soccer ball. To some people, that is the perfect term to describe my aesthetic and my calling in life. Semantics are powerful, but that term will never define who I am or what I believe in.
“Sports are just not for her.”
According to David Koppett, the executive producer of TOMBOY, the creative force behind this initiative was Sean Maddison, one of the film’s producers. Maddison was at his son’s first soccer practice when he noticed a distinct difference between how parents treat their sons versus their daughters.
He overheard one mother say about her daughter after she came off the field crying, “sports are just not for her.” That young girl didn’t come back to play after that.
Words linger.
An ignorant statement like that is what fueled the fire for this movement. When analyzing the topic of gender in sports, two themes tend to come up in every discussion: access and awareness.
Some laws and regulations have been passed to attempt to eradicate some of the disparities that exist between boys’ and girls’ access to sports, but there’s still room to grow. Title IX was a good place to start. It states:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
In TOMBOY, the influential women featured preach the message of equality throughout. Access to sports is a “civil right,” according to Bay Area sportswriter and legend, Joan Ryan. Title IX was created in 1972, but the fight for equal access to sports, regardless of gender, continues on even today.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, “only 25 percent of girls are getting enough physical activity to give them the best chance at good physical health and high personal achievement.” In addition to that, they also noted in the film that “girls have more than 1.2 million fewer opportunities to participate in high school sports than boys.”
Perceptions grow.
Awareness is another area for growth. It’s a topic that some people might not see the importance of, but it’s also a topic that some might not have ever even thought about before.
When discussing the term tomboy, Koppett said that his view really changed because of this project. He hadn’t really thought about the effect of that term on people, and it truly revealed how things can be hidden from us.
In his time producing this documentary, in addition to his experience covering both men’s and women’s sports teams earlier in his journalism career, Koppett discussed the gender stereotypes he’s seen over the years and how his awareness level has grown.
Photo courtesy Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
“Covering elite women athletes and teams opened my eyes about how similar they are to men’s teams. They are just as dedicated and as tough, and sports opened my eyes to those stereotypes,” Koppett explained to me in an interview. “There has been some slow progress through consciousness. Without awareness or consciousness, there can be no action. It’s a baseline, but concrete actions can be even more important.”
Stereotypes cling.
My grandmother was in middle school in the early 1930’s, so she grew up during a time when these stereotypes were perhaps even stronger than they are now. She wanted to play on her school’s basketball team. She tried out and made the team, but she was told that since she wore glasses, she had to wear protective goggles while playing. She tried playing with the goggles, but they were so bulky that she couldn’t see what she was doing and wasn’t able to play with them.
She went to her coaches and asked for a different kind of goggles, so she could still play. She didn’t complain about how they fogged up or how uncomfortable they were. She simply asked politely for an alternative.
Instead of offering her more appropriate equipment so that she could play, they took her off the team because of this simple request and put her on the cheerleading squad instead, which they perhaps thought was a better place for a girl.
It was like those coaches said, “sports are just not for her.”
“A strong and empowered woman is one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet.”
Confidence equals beauty. Strong equals sexy.
One of the goals of this documentary is to begin the movement towards changing people’s views about females in the sports industry. Women are just as talented as men. They are just as competitive, just as strong, and just as confident. And women gain a lot of those attributes through sports.
Conditioning, strength training, and skill development are some of the most exhausting elements of playing a sport, but those parts of the process are what make athletes mentally and physically tough. Improving at a sport is a time commitment. There’s no instant gratification, but ultimately, athletes get better, they become more committed and confident, and they become harder workers.
The most challenging parts of sports are where athletes learn the most from.
In TOMBOY, Cappie Pondexter, a professional basketball player, discussed what it felt like being called a tomboy growing up and the impact that sports has had on her.
“I wasn’t happy about it, but at the end of the day, my love for the game over-powered all that…I’m so in tune with who I am as a woman that I don’t care what other people have to say…I know who I am at the end of the day.”
In addition to the confidence and self-awareness gained from being competitive, sports can also improve character, can give perspective, and can teach skills on how to work with other people. Hillary Knight, a professional hockey player, discussed this in one of her TOMBOY segments.
“Sports has brought me to different places in the world. I’ve experienced different cultures, I’ve been educated, I’ve been provided a different scope to look at life…through everything, I think it’s a common goal when you can work with other people and…compete at the same time but really bring out the best in other people.”
All these qualities together build a strong, empowered woman, one who is fearless and unstoppable. These are the type of women that are featured in TOMBOY and are the type of role models that can make a difference in the world.
Miesha Tate competed in a sport that is thought of as an even more “masculine” sport than some others. As a former UFC fighter, Tate developed an extremely thick skin, and she thrived off of hard work. She is the embodiment of a strong and empowered woman, and in the documentary, she discussed how powerful sports can be.
“It’s not just about that sport. It’s not just about that season. It’s not just about that day. It’s about what it teaches you about work ethic, drive, determination, and reward for hard, hard work.

“I think beauty is something that’s always going to be appreciated. Confidence is beautiful in itself, so I think that when a woman exudes confidence and is successful at something, people are naturally drawn to her. I think a strong and empowered woman is one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet, because we’re so capable in so many ways. We can be compassionate and strong and beautiful.”
Being confident, respectful, and compassionate is a dangerous combination. It’s a set of beliefs and actions that any athlete should play with. Showing greatness and proving worth is important, but it must be done in the right way.
CSN Bay Area hosted a symposium at San Francisco State on Tuesday, February 28th with a panel of some prominent Bay Area female journalists and executives. Amy G, the sideline reporter for the San Francisco Giants, was one of the panelists, and she told a story about a radio host that used to criticize her in a very unprofessional, childish way. He claimed that she didn’t know what she was talking about and was only in her role because of her looks.
She got the opportunity to participate in various baseball drills at one of the Giants’ balldude camps soon after this criticism surfaced, and this particular radio host happened to be in attendance as well.
Little did he know that Amy G used to play softball. At this camp, she ended up excelling at all the drills, while he struggled throughout the whole day to make simple plays. After seeing her compete at such a high level, he stopped berating her and has been quiet ever since.
Photo courtesy Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
Instead of sinking down to his level and speaking out disrespectfully towards him, she went out and proved to him that not only is she a female who is good at sports and who, at this particular task, was better than he was but that she also goes about her business in the right way.
I had a similar experience while working at a summer basketball camp. It was the first week of camp, and I was the only female working, which is something I’m very used to. In this particular alpha-male dominated atmosphere, the coaches that made the teams that we would work with throughout the week gave their male friends some of the best players for their teams, and they put most of the weaker and smaller players on my team.
I saw this as a challenge and one that I was excited to accept. I got to know my players on a more personal level, and I had fun with them while teaching them the fundamentals of basketball.
The other coaches made comments and got satisfaction out of the fact that I lost my first two games that week, but after that, my tight-knit, ragtag team of misfits won six games in a row on the way to winning our division’s championship game. In that title game, we beat an undefeated team, whose coach was the one that helped make the teams at the beginning of the week.
Winning with respect and character is more gratifying in the end. And getting to know the players on my team on a level that the other male coaches didn’t do was possibly what set me apart from the rest. We won as a team, and I could not have been more proud of how my team won with grace and dignity.
Women might be handed unfair circumstances. Or be told unfair criticisms. But we still act with confidence and class. And that makes us dangerous.
“I’m tired, but I will never rest.”
The criticism, the disparities, and the ignorance can be exhausting. It attempts to set us back and to bring us down. But now is the time to band together and work. This is our call to action, and this is what will make progress.
Emily Allard, a professional softball player, wrote a beautifully honest manifesto that she reads at the end of TOMBOY. She begins with several statements that begin with the phrase “I’m tired…” She then uses statements such as “I know I’m not the only one…” and “I see love, I see light…” to show the progression of the movement.
She closes her manifesto with the powerful statement of “I’m tired, but I will never rest. Women will never rest.”
Photo courtesy Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
Statements like these are refreshing and rejuvenating. Positivity like that is what gets stuff done and gets people talking. If women can support each other in this fight, even more will get done.
It starts with awareness. Laws and funding can only go so far if people are still stuck in their old-school style of thinking. These actions will accomplish more and become more effective once we establish that inherent level of understanding and acceptance.
As Joan Ryan said, this has become a civil rights issue, and it needs to start from the ground up.
This is a balancing act though, because awareness starts the conversation and keeps it going, but it ultimately leads to needing more access as well. Awareness needs to start with families encouraging their daughters at a young age, but young children also need proper access to sports to ensure this awareness is sustained.
Women might be getting more opportunities than in the past, but they should also be getting these opportunities because they’re the best person for a job, not just because they’re female.
Ann Killion, a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, spoke at the symposium about how some companies make a “uterus hire,” meaning they hire some women just so they can boast that they have a woman on staff, and that perpetuates the stereotype.
I started writing for a Golden State Warriors blog several years ago, and I remember being excited and grateful for the opportunity to write for a blog that focused strictly on one team and one team that I love.
I spoke to the founder of the blog, and he told me that he wasn’t sure how to say this in a politically correct way, but he thought my hire would be beneficial to the blog because they could then say that they had a girl on their staff, unlike other Warriors blogs.
While I respected his attempt to diversify the staff, I didn’t think it was too much to ask to be wanted and appreciated for my writing ability, my work ethic, and my unique perspective and not strictly my gender.
Now that I work with kids full-time and coach basketball at an incredible school with a supportive community, I’m feeling even more appreciated than ever. In fact, people highly value the fact that I’m a strong female who is athletic, can work and connect with kids, can build strong relationships with the kids and my coworkers, can effectively coach basketball, and can go about my business with a positive, fun, and hard-working mindset.
I was tired, but I see love and passion now. I feel inspiration, and I want to help others. I will not rest.
“I didn’t like to be called a tomboy, because what do you call a boy? He’s a great athlete, he’s well-coordinated…so am I! I just happen to be a female.”
Billie Jean King, a 39-time Grand-Slam champion, makes this statement in TOMBOY.
Growing up, I was referred to as a tomboy so often that it became normal to me. Too normal. When it comes to how others perceive you, it shouldn’t matter what your gender is. Or if you play sports. Or if you don’t.
As I continue to learn more about gender identity, I aim to crush the tomboy stereotype within myself and for others. Instead, I’d rather focus on the positive qualities that I’ve gained through playing sports and what sports mean to me.
In high school, I decided to quit playing basketball after my sophomore year, in the hopes of being able to focus more on academics and figure out what I wanted my career to be. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life and one that I think about all the time.
While playing club basketball and other sports in college, my education was still one of my top priorities, but my love of sports didn’t fade.
I graduated college and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I decided to get into sports writing and coach basketball until I figured out my next step. While I worked those jobs and tried to find a bigger-picture view on my career, I should’ve just looked right in front of me.
Sports was the answer. It always was, and it always will be for me.
I’ve worked in sports-related youth development programs including the Junior Giants and the school where I currently work, and I truly believe that I ended up where I am for a reason. With the support of my family, close friends, and mentors, I am doing what I love, and I’m proud of what I’ve gone through, the decisions I’ve made, and the person I’ve become through this process.
This documentary is inspiring and moving. It makes you want to discuss and act on these issues. It shows raw emotion and personal stories, and it professionally addresses uncomfortable subjects.
This is only the beginning.
Koppett of CSN Bay Area told me he wants people to watch this film and “remember it as a topic…without trying to manage so directly what the direction of their thoughts and conversations should be.” The main goals of this film are to have the audience walk away with more awareness and for this to become an ongoing conversation.
Stereotypes cling. Words linger. Perceptions grow.
Women overcome adversity on a daily basis. The women featured in this documentary prove that women can be unstoppable. When we work together, we are a force to be reckoned with. We never give up, and we’re proud to be female.
Semantics are powerful.
Some might say sports are not for girls.
But a strong and empowered woman is one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet.
Some people will call me a tomboy.
I’m tired, but I will never rest.
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