Rowan University is making headlines this week for policies that have been criticized as sexist and outdated: The school’s cross-country team was recently told to move its practices to another location, after female runners on the college’s track were reportedly deemed “distracting” to football players also practicing nearby.
Oh, and they were also told they couldn’t run in sports bras, thanks to a school policy that athletes must wear shirts at all times.
The controversy at the South Jersey school has gone viral, prompting discussions about double standards placed on women—including women athletes—and their bodies. The college has since revamped its "no shirt, no practice" policy and clarified that sports bras get the thumbs up. But questions still remain about why the issue was brought up in the first place, and whether the cross-country team is really being treated fairly.
Here’s how it all went down: Last month, the men’s and women’s cross-country teams at Rowan met for practice on the school’s only track, which happens to surround a football practice field. As their workout intensified, some members—of both sexes—removed their shirts, the New York Times reported.
A football coach approached the women’s cross-country coach and told him “that the runners were distracting the football players,” according to Outside Online. This isn't the first time comments like this were made to the female runners, team members told Think Progress this week, but it is the first time there were lasting repercussions.
A few days later, the cross-country team was told that—per university guidelines—only one team could use that specific practice facility at a time, and that the football team had dibs. Also, per another guideline, they were informed that all athletes must wear shirts during practice.
The team’s choices were limited: They could change their practice time or move to the high-school track across the street. The athletes were frustrated that they were the ones asked to move—and with the message they felt the school was sending to women about their bodies.
Former cross-country runner Gina Capone heard from her friends on the team and wrote about the experience on the self-publishing platform Odyssey. “If you're running in a sports bra, then you must be asking for it, right?” she wrote. “Well, according to a football player at Rowan University, this is true.”
Capone’s powerful essay is resonating with women around the country—many who have also been told that tight or skin-showing workout wear is somehow inappropriate. (Who can forget the scandal that ensued when Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt after the U.S. World Cup victory in 1999?)
“I'll have you know the real reason women run in sports bras, and it's not to show off our hard-earned abs,” she wrote. “Women, whether they have a six-pack or not, run in sports bras because, quite frankly, it's hot outside. We run in sports bras because our workouts are demanding, challenging, and vigorous. We run in sports bras because we are confident, hardworking student-athletes.”
Women do not run in sports bras, she continued, “as a way to show off our bodies in attempts to distract men.”
Capone wrote that all 15 members of the Rowan University women’s cross-country team believe that running in sports bras should be allowed at practice, even those who choose to cover up. She also pointed out that the women’s cross-country team is one of the only teams at Rowan that’s not provided a daily uniform for practices. “How is it expected for the women on this team to partake in a non-existing dress code?” she asked.
“The fact that the Athletic Department supports the claim of this being distracting, or the women ‘asking for it,’ is disgusting,” Capone wrote, calling out rape culture as the real issue at play. She also quotes an anonymous source—presumably a woman on the team—who points out that female runners aren’t the only ones who wear revealing workout clothing.
“As girls, we could look at the football team and say that their tight pants showing off everything is asking for it, but we don't,” the unnamed woman said. “When we are on the track, we are doing a hard workout that requires all our focus, so we aren't looking at them and what they are doing. If they are distracted by us, then their practices clearly don't require their full attention, or they just aren't as committed to the sport.”
The women on Rowan’s cross-country team don’t just represent their school, Capone wrote, but also a growing community of female runners. “It’s time women are allowed to embrace their bodies and not live in constant fear of being degraded by men,” she wrote.
The running community, of course, took notice. The controversy was tweeted about by Runner’s World columnist Peter Sagal and former U.S. track and field athlete Lauren Fleshman.
“Well isn’t that just the perfect micro example of how normalized it is in our country to control women’s bodies because men don’t want to take responsibility for their own,” Fleshman wrote. “From sports bra legality, to dress codes, to responsibility for sexual assault, to reproductive rights.”
Former Olympic Marathoner Kara Goucher chimed in, as well. “No lie—I had to bring a note signed by my mom that said, ‘my daughter has permission to run around in her underwear’ after a group of us ran in sports bras at practice,” she tweeted. “That was 1995, I thought things had changed.”
Rowan listened—at least in part. Less than 24 hours after Capone’s piece was published, the school issued a statement addressing the controversy and blaming a “longstanding verbal protocol that all athletes must wear shirts, even during practice.” The administration promises to immediately develop a written policy “that allows women athletes to wear sports-bra tops without shirts during practices,” the statement read.
Some good has certainly come of this incident: Team members interviewed by The New York Times and Outside Online say they appreciate the university’s statement and their reversal of the old policy. Capone has also started an empowering discussion on Instagram, posting a photo of herself sans shirt and asking others why they work out in sports bras. “Let’s use our voices,” she wrote. “Let’s raise some hell.”
But the cross-country team is still unable to use the school’s only track, which is disappointing to Capone and her classmates. Advocates outside of Rowan’s community aren’t letting the school off that easily, either.
Kelly Roberts, creator of the #SportsBraSquad movement, told Outside Online that she wishes the school had stood up for female students from the start. “Until we stop telling women to cover up, we’re never going to solve the larger problem,” she said.
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