Mr. Streeter is to be congratulated for taking the time (in the middle of March Madness) to think carefully about the long term ramifications of short term biases and underinvestment in women’s tournament basketball competition. His thoughtfulness goes a long way toward educating his readership about the issues on both sides of the debate surrounding the question, "Why is it that the elite of women’s basketball still play to empty arenas in their playoffs?" Until we take the time to look at the problem of equal opportunity in sport, as in life, we will never have enough of an understanding to actually to solve it. You asked a dozen powerful questions.
1.Will my daughter, the athlete, and her teammates at college level NCAA competition still be second-class citizens in the battle for the hearts and minds of fans?
2. Why are women "lost" in the tall shadows of their male counterparts? Do we have to compare the women to the men?
3. Why is there "paltry buzz" and "far more empty seats than fans" at women’s basketball playoffs?
4. Are the explanations (or excuses) valid, such as the statement that "the women’s game" is too weak to be interesting?
5. Should women settle for the slow growth that has occurred? (Is that a hackneyed statement?)
6. Is "the problem" the fact that women go head-to-head for eyeballs during the peak male basketball playoffs?
7. Should women’s playoffs be held at the favored team’s home court?
8. Are men and women unwilling "to accept strong, aggressive women playing sports?"
9. Are we unwilling to change our stereotypes of women: unable to accept women as team-builders, only capable of accepting women who are male-pleasers?
10. Are we particularly biased against "dark skinned" women?
11. Do we require that our female sports stars be sexually-attractive crowd pleasers?
12. What have we learned from the major tennis competitions, principally Wimbledon?
It would be interesting and educational if you could sit down with other intelligent people such as Donna Brazile or Gwenn Ifill who have tremendous insight into what it’s been like to challenge ancient racist cum misogynist bias and discrimination. I believe that we will experience change only when we challenge the old beliefs as directly as possible.
If I may, I would like to offer a few thoughts for your consideration. I do not agree that it's hackneyed to say that we have come far. From my perspective, as someone who grew up playing basketball in the late 1960s in high school and college, I can tell you we HAVE come a very, very, long, long way from those days. The first woman’s slam-dunk was only 24 years ago (1984): just 100 people watched West Virginia University player Georgeann Wells in a game against the University of Charleston (WV).
I think we need to look at why and where we have made progress in order to continue to do so.
Wimbledon is a benchmark of success as is women’s professional tennis competition in general. But, we had to go through the Billie Jean King victory over Bobby Riggs in order to see, up close and personal, what our bias and prejudice looked like on that game day three decades ago. And Billie had to whip Bobby’s pants off in front of a spectacular audience for us to see the ugliness of the women-haters in the crowd. Billie Jean also had to fight like hell to win equal compensation for the women, threatening to boycott major tennis tournaments if the women were not to be given the same dollar amounts as the men. History has taught us that women must be willing to fight for their victories off the court as well as on the court.
Women always will be compared to men on the men’s playing field because men are the ones who created the sport. Women have yet to put their unique spin on the sport by creating their own history and tradition. In tennis, we had women excelling with the long, deep game. Now we have women with the power game. It just takes time for women to develop interesting variety in their performance.
Venice and Serena Williams certainly demonstrate the required capability to be strong, aggressive competitors and to win the hearts and attention of the lily white Wimbledon audience. The excellence of their performance and superb execution of their game won them the respect and admiration of fans everywhere. The color of their skin somehow gets lost in watching their winning ways. Fans value their game differently from Anna Kournakova –- the latter is fashionista more than a professional tennis competitor. Most people who take the game seriously would rather watch the more serious player. Guys who just want "hot" are not serious fans.
I don’t like the idea of giving women some "easy path" to the championships, such as favorite home court advantages. Would women have benefited from a Marathon that was "just 18 miles"? I think not. We cannot underestimate the value of a Cinderella team, a come-from-behind-long-shot, and their ability to build attention and interest. The fact that the UConn Huskies and the Tennessee Lady Vols have repeatedly made it to the final four has perhaps diminished the excitement in the past. The greater depth of talent among the playoff teams, over time, will produce greater interest.
The men in my life watch women’s basketball, volleyball, softball, gymnastics, soccer, and tennis because they are connoisseurs of competitive sport. They like the different pace of women’s games. They like to focus on the execution, delivery, strategy, and individual talent, much as they also appreciate watching the up and coming teams, the minor league games, and other examples of sport in its purest form. The sheer brawn of men’s sports has become predictable and thus not as interesting.
One big difference between men and women’s sports is the announcement at the end of the game. In the men’s games, you will ALWAYS hear the announcer saying, "Today’s $1000 scholarship donated in the name of the most valuable player goes to both teams." Multiply that amount by the 100s of men’s games each and every weekend, and pretty soon you will start to see a sizable scholarship pool attracting talented male competitors into the sport.
For the women’s game, we won’t hear it, but the reality is: "Today’s most valuable player will be working later tonight on her second job as a waitress in order to pay her tuition, stay in school and compete next week."
In conclusion, Mr. Streeter, I expect that your daughter will grow up thinking of herself as a talented, capable, healthy individual who can play whatever sport she chooses to excel at. I expect that the sport of women’s basketball, over the next two decades, will become more receptive to supporting and encouraging her natural talents. I expect that a primary reason that the enthusiasm for the sport will increase is that good people like you, your family (and hopefully mine) will continue to value talent and competence over our differences. I hope that the bright light of your writing focuses our continuing discussion, laser-like, burning into the backsides of those who would keep us in the dark ages of discrimination and hate.
As an addendum to this post:
"The NCAA awarded educational grants to 58 student-athletes through the NCAA postgraduate scholarship program. The winners (29 men and 29 women) represent winter sports participants who will receive one-time, nonrenewable grants of $7,500. The NCAA will name postgraduate scholars for spring sports later this year. The Association awards up to 174 postgraduate scholarships annually, 87 for men and 87 for women."
Nobody can tell me we have not made substantive, impressive progress.
Read more about Wingate University's Anna Atkinson at: http://sports.wingate.edu/basketballwomens/newsdetails.asp?ID=4920