You can choose compassion

Or JOE DOES FREAKONOMICS™ – Circa 1999, I wrote an article for the Village Voice sports section entitled “Chix with stix: After only about a hundred years, women’s hockey is finally getting some respect.” In a cruel twist of fate, the sports section was canned before the article could run (and the section was later resuscitated and canned more times that I kept track of).

One feature of that article was an analysis of heights and weights of all NHL players and all female world championship team members. My hypothesis was that the complaint that wymmynz are too small to play NHL hockey was bogus because there were obviously some guys in the league who were of a size comparable to some of the grrrlz in the world championships. Since this was before mass availability of data on the Web, I distinctly recall spending many hours manually entering data into what turned out to be an orphan application, Lotus 1-2-3 for Macintosh (yes). I ended up with 713 records.

The results were as expected: Yes, there really were some girl-sized boys in the National Hockey League. “There are 35 NHL players smaller… than the largest world-championship woman. If there’s room in the NHL for 35 woman-sized men, there ought to be room for a similar number of woman-sized women.”

Metrics

The measurement (“metric”) I used in that case was a simple sum of weight in pounds and height in inches. I wasn’t sure at the time that this was a reasonable metric and I still am not. However, in intervening years, we’ve come to understand the concept of body-mass index (BMI), which is a simple calculation of weight over height squared times a factor.

  • Imperial: BMI = 703w/h2
  • Metric: BMI = 105w/h2

We are cautioned against using BMI to compare fit and obese people. Big, strapping bobsledders may have the same BMI, or an even higher one, than a fat tub of lard waiting for his second heart-bypass operation. But in this case we are not making such a comparison; we’re comparing fit men and fit women. I view this as having some validity as a measure of total size of an athlete.

I still have all my old data (which Microsoft Excel, another program that will also invitably become orphaned, opened immediately). I also researched the heights and weights of all the Olympic teams that have won medals since Calgary in 1988, which now includes both sexes:

  • Men: Canada, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Russia, Sweden, United States
  • Wymmynz: Canada, Finland, Sweden, United States

To match contemporary reality, I mapped Czechoslovakia to the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It was exceedingly difficult to locate all the height and weight data online, but I found it (references available on request). I obtained 241 records, for a total past and present data set of 954 records. Any overlaps, if any, were retained, as those athletes are surely not the same weight today they were then, though BMI is unlikely to have changed.

Hypothesis & results

My hypothesis here is the same as before – that there are elite female hockey players of a size comparable to elite males. That hypothesis would hold true even with the last decade’s influx of giant NHL players, up to and including Zdeno Chara at 6′9″/260 (seven feet tall in skates). The previous analysis compared female world champions to male professionals, but since Olympic male hockey pretty much is NHL hockey these days, the comparison is more viable than ever. (If being in the NHL is good enough to get men into the Olympics, is being in the Olympics good enough to get women into the NHL?)

Most BMIs showed an overlap
BMIs ranged from 20 to 30 (with an excluded outlier of 31 in one case, a woman on the Canadian team). Only four BMI values were seen in one sex only – 20 and 21 in women and 29 and 30 in men. That leaves a lot of room for overlap.
Some BMIs showed near-equivalent numbers of males and females
Looking at today’s results only, BMIs of 25 and 29 were nearly identical in frequency, while 24 was almost close. This is where the scouts should be looking.
Guys are bigger than girls (and thank God for that, part of me says, but not the part of me interested in minority rights)
BMIs of 26 and 27 were massively dominated by men, with ten times as many occurrences.
Small men do just fine in elite hockey
You don’t have to be zdenocharaesque to play in the big leagues. A dozen contemporary male players have BMIs below the halfway point in the spread, 25.

Results table

Distribution of body-mass index (BMI) in male and female elite hockey players
BMI Era Number female vs. male
20 1999 6♀  >  NIL
Torino 3♀  >  NIL
21 1999 20♀  >  NIL
Torino 4♀  > NIL
22 1999 18♀  >  8
Torino 9♀  >  2
23 1999 22♀  >  16
Torino 20♀  >  2
24 1999 17  <  67♂
Torino 14♀  >  8
25 1999 13  ≪  105♂
Torino 18♀ ≈ 17♂
26 1999 5  ≪  216♂
Torino 5  <  51♂
27 1999 3  ≪  136♂
Torino 4  <  44♂
28 1999 2  <  39♂
Torino 1  <  29♂
29 1999 NIL  <  19♂
Torino 2♀ ≈ 3♂
30 1999 NIL  <  2♂
Torino NIL  <  2♂

Limitations

This data merely removes one bogus reason why women should not play alongside men in elite hockey. There will be other bogus reasons. And there may well be bona fide occupational qualifications that would force a rational and fair-minded coach to exclude a specific female player from a male team. Performance is an obvious case, as in the example of skating speed. But since it is quite possible to point to NHL players who are technically lousy skaters, and since the Toronto Maple Leafs’ skating coach was, for many years, a woman, each of these bfoqs must be examined closely. They may be applicable in some cases and inapplicable in others. If a female recruit is excluded but it is possible to name an existing male player with the same alleged defect, then it isn’t a defect after all.

If you want a parallel, in the 1990s the Toronto fire department attempted to enforce a new set of fitness requirements that – surely coïncidentally – almost no women could pass and – also surely coïncidentally – were not to be applied retroactively to the fat bastards already on the force. But the fit, strapping young guys the fire department really wanted to hire could pass them no problem. It was actually a pretty clear case of systemic discrimination. (The plans were later reversed.)

There may be reasons why individual women are unsuited to playing with the big boys. Size, however, isn’t one of them, because not all the boys are big.

UPDATE (2006.02.14) – The Freakonomics authors plugged me on their Freakonomics blog.

Confidential to Bronislaw Smigel

What would Harold Ballard make of all this?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.02.13 15:49. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2006/02/13/chix/

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