Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
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October: Should She or Shouldn’t She?
No, not Sarah Palin. (Where do you think you are? U.S. News & World Report?) Jasmin Ouschan.
It sure didn’t take long — nothing on the Internet ever does — to get the fur flying. The thread dedicated to “Should she be allowed to compete with men?” on a popular message board was onto its fifth page last time I checked. And it was apparently begun shortly after the last ball fell at the recent Predator World 14.1 Championship, where she was one of five women who received wild-card exemptions to play, had a long run of 90, and finished a spectacular third. Her run is the best ever for any woman in any competition, and her finish is the best ever for a woman playing in a men’s world championship event.
If your pool history takes you back at least 20 years, of course, this is all déjà vu. The staple of most major pool tournaments back in the late ’80s was still straight pool. Without getting into personalities, the women’s fields that the great Jean Balukas faced largely comprised competitors who could run 15 to 20 balls, and every one of those women understood that they were all playing for second place. A fantastic athlete with two full-scholarship offers to college (in basketball and tennis), she got bored, and announced she intended to begin competing with the men.
There was a semblance of a men’s playing organization then called the PPPA (Professional Pool Players of America). It was formed in opposition to the BCA, specifically the prize-fund distribution for that body’s one annual major tournament, the U.S. Open (not to be confused with the 9-ball meet that Barry Behrman still runs today). The players’ group hired a good public-relations guy, Barry Dubow of New York, and then ignored all his ideas. They were founded mainly by Peter Margo of New Jersey, who at one time was probably one of the five best straight-pool players in America and the late, great Steve Mizerak’s brother-in-law. But once founded, the organization proved to be both leaderless and rudderless. Well-intentioned as the PPPA might have been, Moses and his followers in the 40 years they spent meandering in the desert had far better direction. The one thing that those pool-playing greats could agree upon was that they did not want Jean Balukas in their midst.
So they told her no, you can’t play. And just about everyone in the micro-mini-universe that follows such things, including me, screeched to the heavens. The PPPA reversed itself and decided they would grant her “honorary status,” citing golf’s Mildred “Babe” Didrikson as a precedent. (Briefly, Didrikson was far too good at golf for the women, and sought the same status as Balukas did decades later; she was allowed to play in three non-major tournaments in the mid-’40s and made the cut twice.) The reference to Didrikson turned out to be ironic; despite her athletic magnificence in a bevy of sports, the poor woman took some incredible grief in her day. One imbecile of a sportswriter opined that she was that good an athlete because she, quote, “… couldn’t get any dates.” And Balukas, too, was to catch some mighty nasty flak for her independence, up to and including physical threats.
The rest is anti-climactic. Balukas’ best showing was a ninth-place tie, and she left the game shortly thereafter. She has not been enthusiastically followed. Jeanette Lee and a few of her contemporaries have appeared at Derby City; Karen Corr has done well and even won in regional men’s 9-ball events. And that’s about it.
And now there’s the debate over Ouschan. One argument runs that no other pro sport places women alongside men (obviously poker does, but I hope you’re not going to try and sell me on that being sport). And in answer to that, I would hearken you back to what I wrote a few years ago: Pool is not legally a sport. That was determined — and by lawyers, although without going to court — when Steve Mizerak was chosen for inclusion in the Miller Lite ad campaign. The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees all network advertising, expressly forbids any active athlete from endorsing any form of alcoholic product. Lawyers for Miller Brewing Co. and its ad agency, Backer & Spielvogel, simply wrote a “position paper” informing the FTC, in effect, “While we’re certainly cognizant of the ‘no active athletes’ policy, this is a pool player. Pool is no sport, and he’s no athlete.” The FTC agreed; case closed. So comparisons to other sports are really not relevant. If you must have one, Annika Sorenstam, one of the finest woman golfers of all time, announced a few years back she was thinking of joining men’s tournaments; even though she hasn’t, nobody seemed to care much. Golfing phenom Michelle Wie has received a few exemptions for men’s events and mostly has struggled.
I personally do not feel pool has earned the right to bar Ouschan from playing among men. But beyond that, I’ve been watching those infrequent male/female match-ups ever since Balukas’ era — and I have yet to see the male competitor who looked even remotely comfortable playing against a woman, no matter which one. Little ironic grins may twitch at the corners of the gents’ mouths, transparently attempting to pass for good sportsmanship, but their body language says something far, far different. Such a match inevitably draws extra attention. Losing one seems to carry a stigma all its own. And some men, for better or worse (usually the latter), simply cannot get past the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality, if it can fairly be called that.
Rumors (in which I set no stock whatsoever) have the recent World 14.1 Championship field alternately grumbling about Ouschan being amongst them or avidly anticipating playing “the girl.” Guys, the balls neither know nor care who strikes them. She’s as good as just about all of you; nothing else counts. Put your cues together and say, “Hush.”