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Women In Sports Who Broke the Rules — and Came Out On Top

Because sitting on the bench is NOT how to #PlayLikeaGirl.

Last weekend, 10-year-old Kymora Johnson should have been making the sort of headlines 14-year-old pitching superstar Mo'ne Davis was making this time last year. But instead, she and the rest of her male teammates on the Charlottesville Cavaliers were disqualified from the final rounds of the National Travel Basketball Association Boy's National Championship, despite being ringers for the championship — simply because Johnson is a girl.

It was Johnson's play in an earlier round of the tournament, when the Cavs went on to win the Elite Eight, that first caused a bystander to complain to NTBA officials about her. When asked why Johnson, who was clearly adorned in feminine accouterments including nail polish and a pink jersey from the get-go, wasn't pulled aside before playing several minutes on the court, NTBA president John Wiley said he assumed she was only going to watch. In a tone-deaf comment, Wiley stated, "We have no problems with girls sitting on the bench."

Despite the fact that Johnson had been playing with the team and helping score victories for five years, NTBA officials pointed to bylaws stating that, while teams could be mixed gender up through regional competitions, national contending teams had to be gender-segregated (since there were separate championship tournaments for boys and girls teams). While the NTBA’s bylaws line up with those of Title IX, disqualifying the team still drew wide ire for what it boiled down to: an entire group of athletes were eliminated from a national championship because a girl was playing with them.

Johnson plans to continue playing with the Cavaliers, as well as the new girls' teams that have cropped up in the past few years. Luckily for Johnson, she has no shortage of badass women athlete mentors who wouldn’t take no for an answer to look up to.

Billie Jean King
In what's easily one of the most iconic matches in sporting history, then 29-year-old tennis champ Billie Jean King, an outspoken advocate for the women's liberation movement and professional tennis player, took on the sports world’s reigning male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs, in what was dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes."

The 1973 bout occurred because Riggs kept making spectacles out of his ability to beat women on the tennis court, and a month after King had put away a Wimbledon title herself. After a week of partying in Los Angeles prior to the match, Riggs couldn't even come close to beating King, and her boxy spectacles and inability to back down have become iconic ever since.

Kathrine Switzer
Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, and with it came all the drama of a Hollywood movie. Two miles into her run, an irate male marathon official chased Switzer and attempted to tear her numbers off. Switzer’s then-boyfriend reportedly punched the official, before breaking up with her at the 13-mile mark. Switzer kept on putting one foot in front of the other, and without stopping to walk once, she became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon. Seven years later, in 1974, Switzer would go on to win the New York City Marathon.

Jackie Tonawanda
Often referred to as the "Female Ali," boxer Jackie Tonawanda became one of the leading advocates of female professional boxing and sued the New York State Athletic Commission (alongside two other women) in order to be issued a boxing license. As if fighting to strap on the gloves wasn’t tough enough, Tonawanda would not only go on to become the first female boxer to fight in Madison Square Garden, but she knocked out her male kick-boxing opponent, Larry Rodania, with a second-round TKO.

Kelly Kulick
In 2006, Kulick became the first female bowler to petition the Professional Bowling Association tour to allow her to compete in every PBA event. She went on to win the Women’s World Championship, but it was her 2010 PBA victory in the then all-male Tournament of Champions — when she trounced Chris Barnes 265-195 — that cemented her as one of professional bowling's greats. 

Michele Roberts
Michele Roberts had little to do with the world of professional sports when she was tapped to become the first female executive director of the NBA Player's Association, making her the first female head of any major pro sports union in America. Roberts, a D.C. trial attorney so famous that courtrooms would be packed full of people wanting to witness her talent, took on the position in 2014, and gave this badass quote when explaining to the NBAPA why she should be their executive director: "My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on." Unsurprisingly, the job was hers.

Above: Billie Jean King during the "Battle of the Sexes" match against Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome, September 20, 1973

Listen to Katherine Switzer talk about mid-marathon epiphanies in the video above and learn about how journey to becoming the first woman ever to compete in the Boston Marathon. 

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Photo Credit: Self