November 18, 2009

It’s time to get down to business

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , , , — wendyp @ 7:00 pm

I was feeling pretty good at a recent tipoff luncheon when a visible figure in the women’s game — not a coach — nearly spoiled my appetite and my attitude when she said:

“Women’s basketball is more than a sport. It’s a movement.”

This comment was uttered without elaboration, and it was meant primarily for attendees to support their favorite teams. Harmless enough. But a few moments later, I wanted to cringe.

Perhaps it’s just me reading something into remarks that were never intended. But for some of its most zealous backers, women’s basketball can never be just a sport. There must be social significance attached, a cause espoused, a watertight ideology relentlessly declared. The games can never be about the games. They must carry with them the heavy meaning that the flagship women’s sport truly is a movement, that in fact it should lead that movement.

If you think I’ve been surrounded by four walls too long, you are right. I admit to having some cabin fever in recent weeks writing previews and preparing for the season. But I didn’t pull these ideas out of the thin air. Or any place else. In the brief time between a sizzling WNBA finals and the start of the college season, there was enough eye-rolling lunacy coming from the Sisterhood to last for a whole year.

It began with the suggestion that lower ticket prices for women’s basketball are discriminatory. If you want to examine the data for yourself, however, you’ll have to pay to read the full report. The Sisterhood isn’t going to make it easy to be held accountable.

On the eve of the college season up popped a familiar bugaboo that activists simply cannot bear to contemplate: Female basketball players dressed up provocatively on the cover of their team’s media guide in . . . dresses.

The analyses ranged from the well-intended to the dreary to the downright depressing. Hoo boy, the folks at Texas A & M really have the agony aunts riled up something fierce. These young Aggies, we’re lead to believe, are contributing to their own marginalization. (Then they went out and marginalized Duke quite nicely.)

Don’t they know that there’s propaganda masquerading as “longitudinal research” (also available only behind a pay wall) that insists that this sort of thing just doesn’t work?

I’m not trying to be unfair to the activists and their media minions, because they do have some sympathetic guys who drink the same Kool-Aid. Indeed, they do very well to mimic the unhappy academic jargon that the outside world just doesn’t understand.

As their dog whistling lined up a fifth column to attack, they sincerely believed they were doing this on behalf of women athletes.

Yet the response from one player in particular, someone who’s struggled mightily to make it in the pro game, totally demolished these hardline notions. That a younger generation of players has moved beyond all this ought to be proof that the activism that has been necessary in the past has been an unqualified success:

“It’s not about sexuality at all. It’s a photo shoot. As women, we want to show both sides. I don’t understand why it has to be us trying to prove we’re not gay.”

Naturally, those sentiments have been ignored by their foremothers, intent on seeing women’s sports through a 1970s feminist prism that they’re either unable or unwilling to shake. Especially with so many “feminine archetypes” apparently still out there to destroy. (Why doesn’t Candace Parker realize she’s letting herself become marginalized too?)

This is just the problem: The development of women’s sports, and especially basketball, has largely outgrown these social critiques. Now the primary challenge they all face is their viability as business entities. What’s been created and nurtured over several decades, and after plenty of struggle, is on some thin ice.

The LPGA, which has been around for more than 50 years, has been reeling from a loss of corporate sponsorships and will stage only 24 tournaments next season. Women’s Professional Soccer is fighting some tough odds and the WNBA’s financial issues include the move of the Detroit Shock to Tulsa and a last-ditch sale of the Atlanta Dream to keep that franchise alive.

In addition to all that, perhaps the best women’s hoops team assembled on the planet — Spartak Moscow — is reeling from the assassination of owner Shabtai Kalmanovitch while another top Russian team, CSKA, ceased operations this season because of the global recession.

Now there’s marginalization. Media representations pale in comparison to the cold reality that for all the gains women have made in basketball, the pro game — the highest level of all — remains in a very fragile state. It ought to be flattering that concrete ideas on strengthening it are coming from most unlikely places.

As we’ve entered the period of Women’s Basketball 3.0, we’ve got to shed the notion that this sport is a movement. I agree that it is more than a sport in this respect — it has become a business, a very substantial one, that doesn’t need howling over a James Bond pose in a “virtual guide” to overshadow the real world that most female basketball players know.

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