March 19, 2010

Asking the wrong questions

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , — wendyp @ 1:18 pm

For far too long now, roughly three weeks and running, denizens of the women’s hoops world have been embroiled in a couple of so-called controversies that stubbornly persist in raising the wrong questions about two of the biggest issues in the sport:

– Does Brittney Griner’s meltdown signify a greater physicality in the women’s game, even one that can lead to violence?

– Is UConn’s record winning streak and dominance good for the game?

I’ll dispense with the first matter first since it’s largely died down. When Griner punched Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle in the nose during a March 3 game, it became a quite different YouTube must-see for the Baylor freshman. Her mandatory one-game NCAA suspension was doubled by Baylor, meaning Griner also sat out the the Lady Bears’ first game in the Big 12 tournament.

The breathless questions batted around over and over were: Was her suspension long enough? Was what she did “the latest edition of ‘Girls Gone Wild?’ “ What should we learn from all this?

Most egregiously, the worst kind of revanchist feminism was trotted out in making a connection between the behavior of Griner and Elizabeth Lambert, the University of New Mexico soccer player whose rough play against an opponent also became a YouTube sensation and generated mainstream media coverage:

“It seems that we are moving on a line that equates female athletes with male athletes in the both behavior and performance . . . that if they can’t dunk or pitch a perfect game or run the perfect race, problems arise. NAGWS has long been an advocate of Title IX and gender equity, but that does not mean that female athletes should act like male athletes. It seems that these behavior blips on the sports screen for women are warning signs for us that we should all be more vocal in setting standards of behavior that are appropriate and enforcing good decision-making in our athletes.”

Not only is this schoolmarmish scolding offensive to most male athletes, who are not violent, but there are no “warning signs” of any kind here. Nor is there anything to “learn” from one incident. As for the Girls Gone Wild reference, that kind of stupidity deserves no response.

Griner is a human being who just snapped, as people do every day. Just ask Andrea Riley, who’s having to pay the price for her mistake two years later.

While Griner did break Barncastle’s nose with a single slug, she didn’t go postal.

Her actions will always be heavily scrutinized because of the figure she was before this incident, and what she did was chilling to watch. But it needs to be placed in the proper context.

Any sense of perspective has been lost as the national media — especially the so-called “drive-by” writers who barely cover the sport at all — continue to perpetuate the subject of UConn’s dominance on the eve of the NCAA tournament.

Those saying the Huskies are hurting the game did give them props for their hunger and their dedication, when not pointing out that in spite of it, most male sports fans don’t care.

Even The Stenographer of the Sisterhood proclaims that UConn’s streak isn’t helping the game.

On the other hand, those who disagree, while making some salient points when not sounding defensive, still miss the point.

The question is not whether UConn’s streak is good for the game. Without a doubt, it is. However, this is not a new subject.

In 1998, after Tennessee had won its third consecutive title, the last one to the tune of a 39-0 record, the same fuss was made. Chamique Holdsclaw was asked how her team could top what it just did, given that she and most of her teammates would be back the following year. She said:

“Next year, we’ll be better than ever.”

The Lady Vols didn’t even get to the Final Four.

Then, as now, the question is this:

What are others in the sport going to do to meet the challenge?

When the Lady Vols won their sixth title, UConn still had only one. Then the Huskies rattled off five more in the next decade.

At the same time, recruiting parity was taking off. As I wrote on this blog last May, the UConn-Tennessee Party of Two should have had some more company by now:

“More resources, better facilities and higher expectations are being handed to BCS-level women’s programs than ever before. Yet in that same decade, UConn and Tennessee have won seven national championships.

“Even as powerhouse programs have been built, maintained or revived at places like Maryland, Baylor, North Carolina, Duke, Rutgers, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Stanford, LSU and Ohio State, they all remain firmly in a tier below The Big Two.

“Instead of complaining only about how the sport is the domain of two programs, wouldn’t it be better to ask this: Why are they still in a league of their own?”

To be fair, The Stenographer does raise this same issue — 10 months later. This time last year, she was busy chiding the Commander-in-Chief for not filling out a women’s bracket, and I guess it worked. He is the father of daughters, after all.

Not surprisingly, only ESPN’s Doris Burke, who along with Debbie Antonelli is the sharpest analyst in the game, asks the right question. Or, rather, she makes the right point about the state of the game:

“Did anyone ask John Wooden when he was in midst of the 88-game streak, ‘Is this good for men’s college basketball?’ It didn’t happen. If they are beating your ass on a nightly basis, then get better.”

To women’s hoops advocates riled by the drive-by treatment, this issue doesn’t seem all that important. Some would rather vent their spleens about how terrible the media regards the women’s game, rather than look at their favorite sport and examine how it needs to improve.

The women’s game has plenty of talented recruiters who are assembling fabulous rosters that quite often contain more high school All-Americans than UConn.

What it needs are more coaches who can combine talent and coach up a storm to better compete with Geno and Pat. Don’t get me wrong; there are some excellent coaches out there who aren’t that far away from jumping into the top tier.

For a variety of reasons, that just hasn’t happened, and given the talent UConn and Tennessee have lined up for the next few years, this may not change for quite a while. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is.

The mainstream media and reflexive defenders of the women’s game can rail about the UConn question all they want, and they probably will as the tournament rolls on.

But they’re arguing over all the wrong questions, while remaining oblivious to why true parity in the sport remains elusive.