June 23, 2010

Why it’s time to get beyond Title IX

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , — wendyp @ 6:58 am

There isn’t a young girl or grown woman in America who’s taken up playing basketball — or any other sport — and who hasn’t received a constant reminder of the hard-won privilege she enjoys to be able to play the game she loves.

The activists who fought the necessary battles to open up the courts, fields, pools and coaching and administrative ranks for females in sports have influenced a generation of women who know that they owe their opportunities largely to the passage of a federal education law 38 years ago today.

Title IX is properly credited with ushering in the explosion of participation in sports for females across the board, and most notably basketball, the so-called “flagship” women’s sport at the high school and college levels.

But there’s another side to its legacy that threatens to tarnish the positive effects and cloud the challenges facing a more globalized women’s athletics landscape. Ever since the mid-1990s, when Title IX activists began pushing for proportionality — something they deny, of course — the women’s sports movement has veered away from the noble intent of the law, and away from embracing any reasonable definition of fairness for young athletes of both genders.

I’m not alone in this assertion, and those of us who are critical of what has happened do not oppose Title IX, but rather the claims, tactics and objectives of its most dogmatic defenders. In my mind, these activists have badly damaged the embrace of women’s sports as much as any rank misogynist.

Best example of that: The Brown University saga illustrating the fanatical obsession with playing the “numbers game” that has become a life-and-death ritual for many Title IX activists.

This is absurd, of course, almost as much as Division I women’s basketball teams getting 15 full-ride scholarships under NCAA mandates, to just 12 for men, when few programs play even 10 players on a regular basis. This prevents some badly needed parity in women’s hoops, all for the mere sake of increasing the female participation head-count.

I got another eye-opener in this regard in 2003, at a federal Title IX commission hearing in Atlanta. By then, advocates for embattled men’s sports like wresting, gymnastics and swimming had mobilized, and lined up a bevy of speakers to emotionally describe how they had lost their teams — and their chance to play — because their schools had to play the numbers game. Women’s teams weren’t being added in some cases as much as the number of men were being reduced to avoid legal action.

Conversely, the speakers in favor of maintaining the Title IX status quo were equally dramatic. A hoops coach was nearly in tears talking about what the law meant to her as a former player, and to those she was coaching. Young girls too young to have heard the word “proportionality” before stepping into the auditorium were spouting similar sentiments, likely scripted, hardly convincing.

If sports make you stronger, I thought to myself, why are individuals on both sides reducing themselves to puddles?

Most recently, the Obama Administration earned its bona fides with the Title IX establishment by reversing a Bush-era policy that was rarely used and that few people outside a tiny cluster of activists, lawyers and athletics administrators even knew about. Yet media cheerleaders couldn’t contain their melodramatic glee.

Is this what Title IX has come to? Rigid postulating, staging photo-ops, browbeating critics, threatening and filing endless lawsuits and needlessly wasting time, energy and money haggling over numbers? Is this how petty Title IX activists — and to some degree their opponents — have become?

It’s time to scrap the three-part Title IX test for compliance — now 31 years old, dating back to the AIAW era, reflecting a very different campus environment for female students and athletes when I was in school — and start anew. The first thing to go should be the the noxious proportionality provision that is being used primarily as a bludgeon.

It’s also time for Title IX activists to make their peace with football, their convenient bête noire. Believe or not, their football antagonists have made some concessions over the years, such as reductions in scholarships. Some more cuts at the FBS level may be in order, and not just a loss in players. Do BCS schools really need all those assistants, and especially “quality control” coaches?

While football at the very top levels is going to get richer and more powerful with coming conference realignment, those wishing to take a hatchet to it need to be mindful that this is the funding source for most of the best women’s hoops teams in the land, and that also lose tons of money.

The NCAA needs to be more of an impartial entity on gender equity, instead of being part of the Title IX establishment. While the late NCAA president Myles Brand was indeed a champion of women’s athletics and should be commended for that, he also left athletics directors trying to balance Title IX and financial pressures to twist in the wind.

Brands’ successor, the newly appointed Mark Emmert, ought to do something like this: Call a gender equity summit inviting the Title IX advocacy and those wishing to reform the law, and demand that both sides bring to the table concrete, substantial recommendations for what they would give up in order to reach some kind of consensus. Along with input from athletics directors, coaches and athletes at member institutions, this could form the basis for taking to Washington an NCAA proposal to rework Title IX for the future.

Of course, all this would require learning the art of compromise, and the history of Title IX skirmishes indicates that nobody’s going to back down. What was I thinking? Smoking?

Yet the challenges facing women and sports now, and in the decades to come, will have very little to do with Title IX. The growth of women’s sports around the world — where Title IX does not apply — is increasing as greater legal and cultural freedoms for women are granted in countries that have long denied them. FIBA, the world basketball governing body, and FIFA, its soccer counterpart, are expanding youth world championships for girls, trying to encourage development of female sports in corners of the globe that have not been hospitable to that idea.

Here in America, ensuring the viability of women’s professional sports, and improving the grassroots development of young female athletes, should be of greater concern than whether State U should have started a women’s water polo team.

The futures of the WNBA, the LPGA and the Women’s Professional Soccer league are not guaranteed, and Title IX is powerless to save them. The ability of young girls to receive high-level training and competition before high school and college largely depends on a combination of volunteer parents and dedicated youth coaches in accelerated club programs that also fall outside the reach of Title IX.

Activists like to pay lip service to “Title IX babies” now in the pro basketball ranks, but they also have to go overseas to make some real money as the 13-year-old WNBA has been reduced to 12 teams and is struggling to create a presence in some of its existing markets.

The Title IX activists can’t be bothered with the cold realities of the business world that isn’t under any government mandate to even have a women’s pro hoops league.

At the same time, the Women’s Sports Foundation and similar organizations still expend far too many of their emotional energies and resources to sue the likes of Quinnipiac College — and get in a huff over whether cheerleading can be declared a sport.

This week, former WSF and Texas women’s athletics boss Donna Lopiano testified on behalf of the Quinnipiac plaintiffs. Naturally, she disdained the idea of cheerleading being counted as a varsity sport, although Maryland AD Deborah Yow — certainly no knuckle-dragger — has done exactly that to help with Title IX compliance at her school.

Moving beyond Title IX is obviously far outside the bounds of a coterie of women (and a few good men) who’ve become so enamored with political activism and pushing the levers of government bureaucracy and the federal judiciary that only the lawyers, to borrow a cliché, are getting enriched.

But moving beyond Title IX — or more specifically, the warped methods by which activists are demanding it be implemented — is absolutely necessary for women’s sports to grow and thrive.

Update: It seems like I’ve angered more than a few folks about what I wrote above, which is no surprise. Also not surprising is that they’ve chosen to repeat ideological talking points among themselves rather than respond directly here. Of course, there’s no way to comment on either of their blogs; commenting is disabled. They don’t want a dialogue with those who have a different point of view, accusing them instead of not being in possession of the facts.

The push for proportionality I referred to was not about the original regulatory implementation, as Erin Buzuvis at the Title IX blog contends, but by Bill Clinton’s civil rights officer in the Department of Education in 1996. Norma Cantù declared proportionality the only “safe harbor” for schools to comply with Title IX, which thrilled women’s sports activists. But athletics directors and university presidents rightly translated that to mean: Get the numbers right, or risk getting sued.

The compliance game changed irrevocably with Cantù’s clarification, and the Brown case unfolding around the same time. Title IX activists will never admit they don’t trust the other two tests, as they are written very nebulously, while proportionality is just the opposite. Those vast discrepancies alone are reason enough to revise the regulations.

Buzuvis finally states that anyone who cites the age of Title IX wants to repeal the law. That is patently false, she knows it, but she and her advocates carry on with such rhetoric. A hell of a lot of great things have happened for women in education and athletics in the past four decades, and it’s time that the law reflects where they are now, not in 1972. The activists are in a time warp, desperate to paint the plight of women in sports as a still-bleak one that requires their perpetual “mythbusting” efforts. As well as their perpetual indignance.

As for Helen at the Women’s Hoops Blog, well, bullet-spittin’ outrage is her stock-in-trade.

May 11, 2010

Embracing women’s hoops 3.0

Filed under: Wendy Parker — wendyp @ 8:39 am

Maybe there’s something about basketball’s shoulder seasons — before the college scene tips off in the fall, and the time between the Final Four and the start of the WNBA campaign in the spring — that rouses up “culture wars issues” in the women’s game.

A few months ago, the provocative but hardly edgy online media guide at Texas A & M and Web site at Florida State got the agony aunts worked up like it was 1979.

As I recall, both of those teams turned out rather impressive seasons despite the tyranny of having to pose in dresses.

Just after UConn carted off another NCAA title in San Antonio, new Missouri coach Robin Pingeton caused no small dust-up at her introductory press conference by citing her Christian faith and the all-married coaching staff she imported from Illinois State.

Among the instant responses Pingeton received was a nifty little primer about the Establishment Clause (with cameos from Mark Twain and Kristin Folkl, among other Show Me State dignitaries).

I understand why Pingeton’s comments would set off bells and whistles from those trying to combat one of the most troublesome issues in women’s sports.

It’s a real problem, but Pingeton didn’t even get the benefit of the doubt before she plunked down photos of her husband and children on her office desk in Columbia.

Matters like these tend to get a lot of press because they involve social conflict. Like the larger “culture wars” issues over abortion, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and immigration, there seemingly are no solutions, just endless rage from people tied to intractable positions, constantly shouting at, and past, one another.

I regard them as distractions because they take away time, energy, thought and action from matters that are just as important — if not more — but that don’t resonate with activists or journalists.

And I’m as guilty as taking the bait as anyone. To quote Oscar Wilde — one of the most perceptive analysts of the human condition — “I can resist everything except temptation.”

One of the main objectives I’ve had with this blog, and in part of my career as a women’s basketball journalist, is to focus on the business of women’s hoops at all levels.

By “business” I mean the wide-ranging term to include NCAA legislation and issues, the recruiting scene, media and marketing concerns, conference expansion and realignment and anything else that involves the livelihoods of those in the women’s game at all levels.

While those coaches, players, parents, publicists, administrators, corporate sponsors, executives, agents and media professionals involved in the women’s game certainly are aware of the prevalence of the “culture wars” — including the most recent news involving Title IX — the everyday, nuts-and-bolts innerworkings of the sport don’t get the same headlines.

That’s why I’m also referring to “business” in the strict sense of the word. The Obama Administration’s Title IX “tweak” that received virtually uncritical coverage won’t have nearly the effect on women’s sports as the commercial challenges currently faced by the WNBA, LPGA, the Women’s Professional Soccer league and other entities operating on the economic margins.

The business of women’s basketball pales in comparison to the men’s game, and the more dominant sports in North America. On Monday the estimable Sports Business Journal had two nice pieces on the WNBA season that tips off this weekend (sorry that they’re behind a paywall).

For the audience that publication reaches, that was a respectable amount of coverage.

But for those involved in the sport, there’s so much going on that isn’t getting out. The industry of women’s basketball is a rather large one compared to where it was 20 years ago, when I first started following the sport.

As I’ve tried to resist the temptation of flailing on about the “culture wars” — Oscar’s mantra still wins out every once in a while — I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how women’s sports are in what I regard as a 3.0 phase.

The 1.0 stage was, of course, the period leading up to and immediately after the passage of Title IX in 1972 and the unleashing of opportunities for girls and women to simply play the sport of their desire. I used to think that just knocking down the barriers to compete was the most difficult stage, but now I’m not so sure.

The 2.0 period, roughly from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, ushered in increased playing opportunities, the beginnings of Title IX compliance and the advent of the NCAA era, women coaches, administrators and other professionals with full-time sports careers and the growth of Olympic sports and greater media exposure.

Unfortunately, Women’s Sports 2.0 also featured occasionally hostile confrontations over sexuality, whether men should be hired to coach women’s teams and increasingly pitched battles over Title IX and the money to fund its compliance. The “gender wars” flared up rather badly at times, producing lingering distrust and resentment that threatens to infect the present phase, one that I think is the most vital of all.

We’ve been in the 3.0 stage of women’s sports for about a decade or so. In women’s hoops that’s been marked by the advent of the WNBA, six-figure salaries for big-time college coaches, professionalized Olympic and international competition, greater interest from ESPN and national media, the arrival of UConn on the college scene and more accelerated summer and travel team activities at the grassroots level.

The stakes are higher for everyone involved in the sport right now, yet so much of the discussion and buzz still involves 2.0 topics. That’s because we have too many attention-grabbing activists and too many journalists eager to do their bidding.

In a sense, 2.0 was the adolescent phase, and it’s been hard growing out of that.

At some point, some of the leaders in women’s basketball who like to talk about it being a movement — and they know who they are — have to get beyond employing that familiar social and cultural rhetoric.

Many of those same individuals preside over programs and organizations that are infused with quite a bit of operating cash. They’re business men and women, even though their outfits are ostensibly not-for-profit.

They run camps, get paid to speak to business organizations, some have endorsements and others have media deals and plenty of incentives worked into their contracts that net them extra income.

They aren’t the ones railing about the horrors of homophobia and the push for Title IX proportionality, although they’re not unconcerned. They know that young girls, in fact, are turning out to play in greater and greater numbers in basketball, and many other sports, despite the stigmas and bashers that will never go away entirely.

They also know that continual progress is not a guarantee.

One day, these girls will turn into grown women, with some of them talented enough to play professionally. Others will want to coach, publicize, administer, market, report or otherwise try to make a living in sports.

This sport, and others women play, needs to attract more fans and more corporate and media support in order to gain a more durable foothold in a sports world still feeling the effects of the recession. Those with a professional stake in the advancement of women’s basketball recognize that those gains are no longer possible through political and social activism alone.

The time in which we’re living now — with a concerted effort underway to ensure that women’s hoops, and women’s sports, will succeed as businesses — will help determine whether those young women will be able to live out their dreams.

That’s why embracing the 3.0 stage is so important.

Everything else is just a distraction. And a temptation.

April 23, 2010

New horizons for The Guru

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: — wendyp @ 12:58 pm

Many of you probably know by now that Mel Greenberg has retired from the Philadelphia Inquirer after a career of more than 40 years, including his creation of the first women’s college basketball poll. Here’s the farewell blog post he penned to the Inquirer staff. Very classy, just like the man.

There’s not a lot I can add about Mel that many of you don’t already know, since you’ve likely known him, and about him, for far longer. But I’ll try.

It’s been 21 years since I got that first late-night phone call — the first of hundreds — after I wrote him about wanting to cover women’s basketball.

He’s the only person I knew at a newspaper who was doing this, and I knew this only because his name was mentioned in the Street & Smiths annual, in its women’s preview pages.

Then, as now, there were only two or three pages among hundreds in that magazine, but to me this was heaven. For most of the 1980s, while I covered local news, government and politics, I knew I always wanted to get to writing about the sports I had played as a kid.

As absurd as it might have seemed then, I had it in the back of my mind, early in my career, that someday I could make something of a living writing about women’s hoops.

So before I sent letters to editors about freelancing, I made sure the first letter I typed up went to Mel. I enclosed my phone number if he cared to contact me, never expecting it would be returned so promptly.

Or so late in the evening.

At the time — in the spring of 1989 — I was working at a suburban Atlanta daily since closed, and had to report to the office around 9 a.m., which is rather early for me.

I’ve always proudly considered myself a night owl. Then I met Mel.

During that first phone conversation — and I really, really needed to get to bed — he urged me to join the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. With it came a subscription to Basketball Times. Many of you know the rest of that story, and the people I’ve met and friends I’ve made because of it I will treasure forever.

Another memorable late night call came a few months later. I was struggling to get any of those editors to let me freelance women’s hoops, and didn’t think I’d ever get my foot in the door anywhere.

He called me ’round midnight to tell me that his father had died. This wasn’t unexpected; the man had been in poor health. I can’t recall anything in particular Mel told me about his father, but I realized sometime during the conversation that he just wanted somebody to talk to.

Even someone he’d never even met. It wasn’t until a few months later, at the first Women’s Final Four I covered in Knoxville in 1990, that I first laid eyes on The Guru, and observed how he truly rolled.

The network of coaches, broadcasters, NCAA people, anybody associated with the women’s game who clamored around him, wherever he was — at the arena, the hotels, a restaurant — was amazing.

I knew Mel was plugged in, but the whole darn sport was radiating around this guy.

And not just because he paved the way for the media coverage that has come since, but also because of how thoroughly decent and generous he is.

I’ve never heard Mel utter an unkind word about anybody. I’ve never heard anyone do the same to him. He’s in truly rare company in that regard.

Even during my hiatus from the sport a few years ago, he always stayed in touch, always wanted to see how I was doing, what I was up to. Then he rattled off all kinds of insider intelligence about the game that only he could collect, taking — and making — all those late night phone calls.

Even after all of these years hanging around Mel, I was taken aback at the Final Four in San Antonio while watching him work the hotel lobbies. If you’ve seen him in action before, you know what I’m talking about.

Within a few minutes of arriving at the Grand Hyatt, he had buttonholed about a half-dozen people, including former UCLA assistant AD Judie Holland, who also was the NCAA women’s basketball committee chair in the years shortly after the move from the AIAW.

He did likewise at the main coaches hotel, where he stayed up late — 3 a.m. to Mel is like 7 p.m. to the rest of us — every single night. Call me a party pooper, but I’ve never been able to hang with the man like that. Not ever.

And he’s always, always plugged in. We were having dinner at a San Antonio restaurant with three other sportswriters when Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato came over to say hello. She noticed Mel on his Blackberry, and scolded him to put that thing down. He did for a time, only to pick it back up after she left.

When I first got involved with the U.S. Basketball Writers, helping organize the Final Four breakfasts and counting All-America ballots, Mel’s the guy I went to because he had done all this before.

And for those of you who don’t know, he’s the only journalist covering primarily women’s basketball who’s in the USBWA Hall of Fame. The WBCA has named its media award after him, and his efforts to get the game before the media is the reason he’s in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

All so richly deserved.

Mel’s not going away — he’s going to keep blogging on his own site and recently bought some domain names that he wants to do something with eventually.

Mel probably doesn’t want all this gushing, precisely because he’s not going away. But after making the move from newspapers a couple of years ago, I can attest to the mixed emotions that he might be having.

The Inquirer, like so many papers, is in dire trouble; next week it goes up for auction. Like thousands of refugees from the newspaper business, he knew the odds were long of staying for longer than he did.

But he gets to go out on his own terms, which given the layoffs in the business, is something of a bonus.

He called me last night rather early — just as my hometown Atlanta Falcons were drafting! — to describe the farewell party at the paper and the fact that he was penning his last Inquirer byline.

I’ve been telling him that all sorts of possibilities are out there, but first enjoy and feel proud of the work you’ve done, and then get on with it. I figure he’ll be lurking around a WNBA training camp next week.

I just wanted to say thanks to Mel for inviting me into his world, and into the world of women’s basketball, as crazy as it can be from time to time.

Most of all, thanks for being such a good friend.

Mazel Tov!

April 10, 2010

Some final thoughts on the Final Four

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: — wendyp @ 1:35 pm

Another college season is in the books, with a strange, and unexpected, bit of suspense in the national championship game, and right behind it another WNBA draft.

It’s taken me a few days since returning from San Antonio to sort out the Final Four that just transpired, some larger thoughts on the college game that is being gradually swallowed up by UConn and related topics that affect where the sport is headed, and how it is being perceived in the larger public.

It was exactly 20 years ago this year that I first attended a Women’s Final Four, in 1990 in Knoxville, when it was promising to break out into the mainstream. It did, to a degree, with more than 20,000 people watching Stanford win its first NCAA championship.

The Final Four needed a few more years to evolve into event status, complete with regular sellouts and dressed-up television coverage. While it is here to stay — more than 25,000 turned out for the national semifinals at the Alamodome — I see the women’s college game moving into a very important crossroads over the next few years.

• The first concern is the overall competitive balance at the top of the sport, which is not a new subject here. But increasingly it is being noticed by the mainstream media as it chronicled UConn’s drive for another NCAA title, and a second consecutive undefeated season in the process.

For weeks I’ve gotten a kick out of the “drive-by” writers and columnists who opine on a sport they never watch. But when it is unveiled on its biggest stage, and when the two best teams all season long manage only 100 points between them, that’s not a good showcase at all. ESPN might be happy with its ratings and the drama the game provided, but this is the one game casual fans are likely to watch.

The larger issue is, of course, whether anyone can reach the standard UConn has set in recent years. The Huskies are just one title away from tying Tennessee’s record of eight national championships, and with Maya Moore back for her senior season, who’s going to bet against that?

While Moore might have to carry UConn like Diana Taurasi did her last two seasons, the winning streak — now at 78 games — can’t possibly continue deep into next season. Can it? With Baylor, Duke, North Carolina, Stanford, Ohio State, Florida State and Oklahoma all on the schedule? You have to wonder if Geno Auriemma put this gauntlet together as much to end a streak he’s sick of talking about — and don’t even mention UCLA’s 88 wins in a row around him — as to challenge a team that will have a very different look:

“If we’re still undefeated next year at the end of December, then you know what? I’m not going to come back afterward. It will be pointless. I will just lose all respect for everybody coaching college basketball in this country.”

This is the surreal world he’s created, and it has become almost impenetrable for even his closest peers to crack. While UConn’s brilliance is to be admired, the fact that they can play so badly in the title game — with 12 first-half points, a school-record low — and still win going away reveals the extension of the gap (mostly psychological) between the Huskies and everyone else.

Those opponents that I listed above — plus the likes of Tennessee — have every chance next season to make this sport very competitive, instead of letting UConn continue to make a mockery of the sport.

Because that is what is happening here. With so many schools doing well on the recruiting trail and attaching serious ambitions to their women’s hoops programs, the game should not be this one-sided. I go back and forth on this topic, at times realizing that parity may take more years to develop, then I get impatient when I see so much talent being squandered at other places.

Right now I’m in the latter camp, especially as I see what should be a wide-open season next year and wonder if UConn will slam the door shut again. And if not next year, as Clay Kallam points out, when?

“But the truth is this burst of brilliance is not reproducible just by hard work or slavish imitation. It is the product of a particular landscape occupied by a particular school and run by a particular individual – and the only way the Huskies will fall from their place atop the pedestal is when Auriemma loses interest and/or retires.

“Consider that UConn is bringing in another elite recruiting class. Consider that the girl who many consider to be the best player in the country, Mater Dei (California) junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, has already committed to Auriemma. And consider that the girls out there who want to win national championships know where they want to go, even if it’s 3,000 miles away.”

• The non-sports media’s fascination with Brittney Griner took a bizarre turn during the Final Four when The New York Times’ fashion writer hailed the 6-foot-8 Baylor freshman as the ideal of a new kind of feminine beauty. While some fashion experts were asked their thoughts, the gender studies tribe also was given the floor to chime in with its absurd ideology. Such as:

“Brittney Griner is such an athlete, and so gifted, you almost don’t notice that she is part of a slowly unfolding, civilized response in this country to the slightly androgynous female. She calls our attention to the unnecessary rigidity of sex roles and makes a number of feminist points along the way.”

I’m sure Griner — and Baylor — would have preferred it if she had made a few more basketball points in their Final Four game against UConn.

Civilized response? Slightly androgynous? Does anybody truly think that Griner’s even begun to confront the scrutiny that’s bound to come her way? Are they reading what the male-dominated, hot dog-chomping sports press is saying about UConn’s dominance and the joke they assert is women’s basketball?

This one piece about a mere teenager as a symbol of a certain kind of a human being might be just the beginning of a litany of rather grotesque treatment headed Griner’s way. Just ask Caster Semenya.

But Griner is not walking down runways in New York, Paris and Milan. For the next three years she’ll be walking across a socially conservative campus in Waco, Texas. I hope she and those who surround her are prepared for the attention to come. It will make the media’s reaction to her punching out an opponent seem like kids’ play.

As Slate’s Hanna Rosin observed while watching the Final Four with her daughter, Griner will not help women’s hoops with what she calls its “feminine dilemma:”

“As a star, she registers less as the perfection of the norm than as totally aberrant. Around the other women players she looks like a different species, with her endless limbs and her high center of gravity. This might be because she’s a freshman and not yet in total control of her body, or it might be because she is just unusual. The NCAA, and later the WNBA, may succeed in bringing fans out to see her. What they will never know is if it’s amazing skill the fans are coming to see, or a freakish one-off.”

• Here are my quickie Top 10 2010-11 preseason picks, not that anybody asked: 1. Baylor; 2. Tennessee; 3. UConn; 4. Stanford; 5. Xavier; 6. Ohio State; 7. Texas A & M; 8. Duke; 9. Kentucky; 10. Oklahoma. Michelle Smith of FanHouse has her own list, with a lot of the same names but in a different order. Call ‘em wish lists, if you will, wishin’ and hopin’ and prayin’ that there might be some more real suspense involved on the road to Indianapolis and Conseco Fieldhouse, the site of next year’s Final Four.

It’s a shame that the doors of “parity” might be opened only by UConn dropping down a notch or two. If the Huskies don’t slip, then I have no idea what the hell to write this time next year.

April 3, 2010

The women’s hoops bubble

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: — wendyp @ 8:17 pm

SAN ANTONIO — The celebratory nature of the Final Four has been hard to ignore as hundreds of coaches have descended into town, many of them participating in Saturday’s 4Kay Run in honor of the late N.C. State coach to start the day.

At the Alamodome, several thousand fans gathered for the open practices, the announcement of the State Farm All-America team and Wade Trophy winner and to watch the WBCA High-School All-American Game.

It’s a great move by the NCAA to finally relent and let non-NCAA events at the Final Four venue, both for media access and for fans. The assembled UConn fans gave a rousing cheer to Maya Moore when she was announced as the Wade Trophy winner, although most were expecting her teammate, Tina Charles, to win that honor. (Charles later was named the AP player of the year.)

After all, this is the signature event in women’s collegiate athletics, which is something that it was not when I first attended in Knoxville 20 years ago. Nearly 25,000 fans turned out at Thompson-Boling Arena, and so many of the game’s promoters were certain that the women’s game was about ready to burst into the mainstream.

It would take a few more years until the Final Four became a sellout, and it that has been the case just about every year since. UConn hit the scene in mid-decade, bringing national media and ESPN along for what has been a 15-year ride.

As I have said many times to a sports media critic who’s fond of neither UConn nor ESPN, I don’t want to go back to the days before 1995. I get annoyed by the belief that there was something charming and quaint about the days when teams played for a national championship in front of 7,000 fans. That was the case in New Orleans in 1991, UConn’s first Final Four trip.

The sheer explosion of interest in women’s basketball, along with the funding and emphasis on building big-time programs since then, has been phenomenal. But at the same time, the questions of whether it’s grown too fast, and whether it’s grown for the right reasons (to mimic what’s on the men’s side) haven’t been fully addressed.

Even in the wake of a major recession, and with spending on women’s basketball programs at an all-time high, there hasn’t been much raised about the subject.

It took another disappointing season at Texas for the Austin American-Statesman to turn in this fascinating piece today on all the red ink that’s being run up by women’s basketball programs.

A total of 28 women’s programs lost in excess of $2 million or more in the 2008-09 reporting period, topped by Kansas, one of three schools reporting deficits of $3 million or more last season.

The other $3M-plus schools are Arkansas and South Carolina, which struggle in the SEC, but these staggering figures aren’t limited to low-profile schools.

Big 12 Tournament champion Texas A & M is close with $2.9 million in losses, and Oklahoma, which plays Stanford in the national semifinals on Sunday, lost $2.6 million last season.

Says Texas women’s AD Chris Plonsky, whose Longhorns reported $2.9 million in the hole last year:

“It’s the same for men’s track and field, and volleyball. I don’t think women’s basketball ought to be singled out more than baseball. . . . Football pays for everything.”

These numbers have absolutely skyrocketed since I first reported in this in 2003 for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the Final Four hit my town. Back then, we were just into seven-figure losses for only a handful of schools.

The Austin newspaper story includes a long list of prescriptions from Plonsky about concerted attempts to improve attendance. Among them is one that both the NCAA and ESPN would fight tooth and nail — going back to letting top seeds play host to first- and second-round games at the NCAA Tournament:

“There’s a lot of us who are concerned about it. You don’t need to turn it into a Cecil B. DeMille production…There has been a mistake in trying to mirror what the men get. Are we there yet? I don’t think so.”

Plonsky goes where few other women’s sports administrators and advocates have dared to suggest. We’re not talking about a recalcitrant old Southern football coach here, but a women’s sports leader who also has overseen men’s sports and like many in her position is grappling with budget and funding issues.

While Texas is hardly a charity case in the world of college sports — Plonsky was the one who made Gail Goestenkors the latest million dollar coach in the women’s game — her concerns are valid.

What she’s talking about is the women’s basketball bubble that’s showing no signs of receding. She says it’s not fair to single out this sport, but frankly its losses are so much bigger than baseball and other so-called Olympic sports.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s excitement about the Final Four. But as this event is to be played out in a domed environment for the last time for the immediate future, I don’t think there’s a better time to examine why this bubble persists, and why there seems to be a disconnect inside the sport.

While I agree with Plonsky that the push for “equality” in women’s sports on certain levels has not always made sense, I also think what she’s getting at here is so politically unfeasible as to be a non-starter.

In reality, can schools, under the threat of Title IX, not pour so much money into women’s basketball?

They’d be accused of not being fully committed to women’s basketball.

What we’ve been hearing in recent weeks from within the women’s coaching community — including Geno Auriemma — is that there aren’t enough resources, that enough ADs don’t care. They might throw some money around, but there’s little in the way of emotional support to make it work.

In my last post, I wrote that Auriemma is only partially right and questioned whether there’s enough coaching talent for more programs to have a serious shot at UConn-like dominance.

There’s a fair argument to be made that too many schools don’t provide the right kind of resources, especially in promoting and marketing the women’s game. Some programs that have been nationally prominent have been starved of that kind of support for years.

Former Florida and Purdue coach Carolyn Peck, now with ESPN, told me this morning that what she’s noticed is schools throwing a lot of salary money to get a women’s coach, but that’s just about it:

“Just because you pay a coach, doesn’t mean a good recruit is going to come You can attract a lot of candidates if you can show the partnership potential [between the athletics administration and the women’s basketball program.”

It’s incumbent upon the women’s coaching community and Title IX forces to make this distinction, rather than get upset if the dollar figures don’t grow bigger. Commitment isn’t just about how much money is spent, but how wisely it is allocated.

It’s ironic that Oklahoma is back here, 20 years after the program was dropped, and Sherri Coale and the Sooners lack for nothing when it comes to support. But the sobering fact of their financial situation ought to cause some to wonder if women’s basketball will ever be close to turning a profit at more than just a handful of schools.

Sometimes all the marketing and promotions in the world don’t mean that the intended audience is ever going to buy the product. You don’t have to be a women’s hoops basher to feel that way.

While I also want to enjoy a great event with plenty of fantastic storylines, I also can’t get past the sobering reality of the women’s hoops bubble, now on display in a building whose size symbolizes some of that excess.

I’m not saying the sport is too big, but that sometimes its biggest boosters don’t want to acknowledge that it’s not as big as they think it ought to be.

April 1, 2010

Geno’s broadside is only half-right

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: , — wendyp @ 5:58 pm

The Steve Spurrier of women’s basketball is at it again.

I’m not referring to Geno Auriemma’s comments last Sunday expressing relief that there won’t be a UConn-Tennessee matchup in the Final Four, since it would be all about his bitter feud with Pat Summitt.

What’s slipped beyond the attention of most mainstream pundits — still obsessed over whether UConn is good for the women’s game — is Auriemma’s indictment last week of whom he believes are holding back the sport.

Athletic directors who don’t fully support women’s basketball, either in providing resources, or by hiring good coaches, have long been a convenient target for the wrath of The Sisterhood.

For a moment, at least, Geno and the Old Girls Network can agree:

“What has to happen is that enough athletic directors and university presidents need to make more of a commitment to the women’s game so they will put more pressure on their coaches to coach better. They don’t put enough money into the programs to demand from their coaches that they play at that level.”

Hell, even Summitt must be privately cheering, although with her usual sense of diplomacy she would not imagine uttering something so caustic.

The Ol’ Roundbawl Coach didn’t need to stir the pot without provocation, although he’s never been shy about doing that.

In this instance, he was responding to a question asked at a press conference before the Huskies dismembered Temple, coached by Tonya Cardoza, his former assistant, in the NCAA second round in Norfolk. The question was this: What will it take for others to give UConn a serious challenge?

As is often the case with Spurrier, what Auriemma said may have sounded like he was popping off, but in reality was hardly that at all:

“All they are doing is fulfilling their obligation by having a women’s program and making sure the kids graduate. They tell [the women coaches] they have enough trouble dealing with men’s basketball and football, so don’t bother me. So [administrators] would rather status quo remained. That would be unacceptable on the men’s side, but they let it happen on the women’s side.”

Surely some of Auriemma’s coaching peers may not have liked what they heard or read, and not just because he comes across as rather high and mighty from his lofty perch.

Certainly far too many ADs are derelict in truly supporting women’s hoops, and this deficit is just as much about emotional as financial support.

Ask those who felt that former Missouri coach Cindy Stein was starved of both as her contract ran out at the end of the season, and who don’t have much faith that AD Mike Alden will hire a successor to make the Tigers competitive in the rugged Big 12.

Elsewhere in that conference, Colorado AD Mike Bohn has fired Kathy McConnell-Miller, the coach he hired five years ago, after lackluster results. They are negotiating a settlement after Bohn extended her contract following McConnell-Miller’s only winning season.

At the same time, one of Bohn’s best hires at another school, Beth Burns of San Diego State, is openly wondering about the commitment of her school in the wake of taking the Aztecs to the Sweet 16.

But while Auriemma is correct to quite a large degree, and Burns’ concerns are real, what isn’t being examined is how well the resources women’s teams do get are used for the product that ends up on the court.

Put another way: Are there enough good coaches to give UConn (and Tennessee) a serious run for their supremacy? Is the women’s coaching community doing enough to groom a new generation of successors to handle the realities and rigors of running high-profile, large-budget programs?

It might be the perfect topic for the upcoming Women’s Basketball Coaches Association convention at the Final Four in San Antonio this weekend, although there’s no such session on the agenda. Auriemma, in fact, is the current president of the WBCA, although he won’t be able to preside with the Huskies still competing.

Auriemma’s rivals may not have a $2 million operating budget that’s at his disposal — with most of the revenues courtesy of UConn’s lucrative contract with Connecticut Public Television — but they’ve got enough resources to be better than they are.

It’s hard to find a BCS program that doesn’t appropriate in the range of $500,000 per season (and quite often more) on women’s basketball, exclusive of coaching salaries that run expenses into another mid-six-figure annual line item.

Most of that money is rarely converted into income, via ticket sales, licensed merchandise, television packages or other promotional and marketing efforts that remain paltry or half-hearted. You can blame administrators for some of that, but they’ve also got to have a product that can sell itself, even to a small degree.

Auriemma did point out that an ample supply of better players is going to more places to play college basketball, and for the last decade recruiting parity has grown substantially.

I’ve written before that the likes of Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, Baylor, Rutgers, Notre Dame, LSU, Oklahoma, Stanford, among others, have recruited well enough to join the ranks of UConn and Tennessee. Some have won NCAA titles or played for them; all have at least reached the Final Four with that talent in tow.

But I’d argue that there’s an overemphasis on recruiting — as important as it is — that’s as much a cause for stagnation in the sport as administrative indifference.

What Auriemma and Summitt and the elite coaches know is that despite a deepening talent pool, there are only so many truly elite female players to be had. That’s because they’re the ones who snap up most of them every year.

But while they and their closest pursuers reel in most of that blue-chip talent, some ADs and coaches outside that small cluster want to believe that with just a few recruits of their own like that, admission into such select company can be theirs too.

Instead of hiring coaches who know how to coach what they’ve got, or with what’s realistic for them, ambitious ADs in recent years have been busy purloining young, mostly female assistants who’ve worked their way into prominence as recruiters.

Many are “Title IX babies,” the first generation of women players that feminist sports advocates are proud to hoist as products of their handiwork.

But unlike the generation of coaches that came up during the AIAW period and early in the NCAA era, the Title IX babies — typically, they’re under 50 — are being dropped into a hypercompetitive atmosphere from the day they’re hired.

With standard five-year contracts meaning you better win by year three or start facing the heat — which certainly hurts recruiting — these young coaches pour their energies into getting players first. Learning how to manage coaching, administrative and public outreach duties comes later, if at all.

Summitt, Auriemma and Tara VanDerveer had more time to grow into their roles, and they did so before recruiting ramped up in the 1980s. They learned to coach with what they had before they received the resources from their administrations that they now enjoy.

By the time they started bringing in the players who won them national championships, their coaching skill set was complete. Now, the pyramid for that job description is laid out in reverse order, with recruiting at the top, and more paramount than ever.

Two of the few exceptions to this trend are the other two coaches joining Auriemma and VanDerveer at the Final Four. Kim Mulkey of Baylor played and learned the coaching ropes at Louisiana Tech under Leon Barmore, who’s now at her side with the Lady Bears.

She didn’t spend a day in the high school ranks, like many of her peers, and it took a few years of gradual improvement before she cobbled together the 2005 NCAA title team. The star of that team, Sophia Young, was an overlooked high school prospect who’s enjoying a solid WNBA and international career. That paved the way for the arrival of Brittney Griner and some of the best recruits in the nation the last couple of years.

Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale came right from Norman High, and like her older colleagues, she gradually nurtured a Sooners program that 20 years ago this week was left for dead. It was only after she had crafted a steady progression of success that she attracted the big-time recruits that have pushed them into repeat Final Four appearances.

If Auriemma wants to complete his argument — and he should, at some point — he might want to remind his peers that it’s not about how much money they have to work with, or how many recruits they can stockpile.

It’s about how well they’re preparing their players to compete, and their assistants to succeed them someday.

Because it is his own coaching community — one he jabs at, if not disparages outright at times — that is responsible for this task, and he knows it.

It’s not just about getting players, but knowing what to do with them. It’s also about hiring a stable and effective coaching staff, working with the media relations staff and the press that covers the team, and working up boosters, alumni, potential donors and community groups.

ADs may be banking too much on hiring great recruiters for quick success, and their decisions at times are complicated by the desire to hire a minority, or at least a female.

But they can only hire the best of what they think is available.

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.

February 17, 2010

The NCAA women’s tourney dilemma

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: — wendyp @ 6:12 pm

It has taken me a while to sort out my thoughts about the state of the NCAA tournament after I returned from the women’s mock bracket exercise in Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago.

The women’s basketball staff and several committee members in attendance were very organized, thoughtful and diligent in explaining how they do what they do, trying to demystify to a panel of journalists and coaches what happens when they meet behind closed doors in mid-March.

In my first draft, I remarked at how difficult the process is to put together a fair and equitable bracket, given the hosting issues in the first and second rounds, as well as other peculiarities of the women’s draw. I don’t envy the job the NCAA women’s basketball committee has in rounding out this year’s field of 64. Some power conferences aren’t as strong as in years past and some ambitious mid-major programs haven’t been able to take advantage.

Yet I came away with the impression that for all of the time, data and effort that goes into the tournament selection process, this is the least vexing issue facing Division I women’s basketball. While I appreciate the NCAA’s invitation to look under the hood, gauging where this vehicle is headed after leaving the committee assembly line is a much harder proposition.

NCAA Division I women’s vice president Sue Donohoe says that maintaining the integrity of the bracket — seeding all 64 teams nationally along the S-curve line — can be achieved while boosting grassroots fan support up to the Final Four level.

But the attendance figures don’t suggest this, and they haven’t suggested this, since the women’s tourney went to predetermined first- and second-round sites for the 2003 NCAA tourney. The average attendance at first- and second-round sites peaked at 6,697 in 2004, but those numbers had been cresting for several years. They dropped to 3,770 in 2006, the lowest since 1991, before there was a 64-team tournament.

Before that, the top 16 seeds were subregional hosts, and although that was a decidedly unfair advantage, you could bank on a fairly decent draw.

That’s not at all the case now. For example, in the second round of last year’s tournament, the eight lowest crowds were all in venues where a home team wasn’t playing. While more than 10,000 Maryland fans watched the Terrapins advance to the Sweet 16 out of College Park, a mere 686 souls took in the Virginia-California contest in Los Angeles.

I won’t fully rehash the history of how previous committees desired this change, which was prompted in part to create some parity, but also because there was the belief that this sport needed to be showcased in a more national way. When I first discussed the possibility with then-committee chairwoman Bernadette McGlade in 1998, she was adamant that major steps had to be taken. Then I posed to her a question that persists today:

“And who’s going to go watch the games if the home team isn’t there?”

What I did find interesting while researching this topic is that the NCAA wasn’t ready to move on the predetermined sites until it was certain that there would be funding for it.

Indeed, various NCAA committees delayed implementing the predetermined format for five years, citing budgetary reasons, until extending its contract with ESPN to show all 63 women’s tournament games, starting in 2003. That network’s desire for more advanced logistical planning is understandable, and it probably cemented the predetermined fate. It’s a change that the NCAA and women’s basketball is stuck with, for better or for worse.

From 2005 to 2008, the women’s tourney went to an eight-subregional format, which the men have had for years, but in some cases that made attendance even worse. Too many teams were playing too far away from home. Now we’re back where we were in 2003, and there aren’t any easy answers about improving the situation.

When there’s an “open” subregional, or one without a home team, the committee is under no compunction to place a nearby team there, if doing so undermines its bracketing principles. It won’t move a team up or down more than one “true seed” line (i.e., a No. 7 seed could be a 6 or an 8, but not a 5 or a 9), And it won’t displace several teams  just to create something of a local draw. For the moment I’m seeing seven of the 16 sites not having the host school making this year’s tournament, so how empty might these arenas be? It likely depends on having a team playing there that’s relatively close by, or will bring a lot of fans.

Some critics believe the NCAA has sold out any reasonable hope of getting good crowds for the sake of television ratings and its lucrative association with ESPN. While I disagree with those who assert the ESPN deal has been detrimental to women’s basketball,  I wonder what NCAA staff and committee members think when they see a smattering of fans in some venues that prompt very creative work by ESPN camera crews? Is that a good showcase for the sport?

The NCAA has handcuffed itself into accommodating two competing, and nearly impossible, objectives: Staging a truly national tournament with a fan base that is parochial at best. Fans of the game are really fans of their team, whether it’s Connecticut or anyone else.

To be fair, the NCAA is in the second phase of a three-year grant program awarding $750,000 each year to various schools and conferences to boost attendance and market and promote women’s basketball. Started at the behest of the late NCAA executive Myles Brand, this is a positive step that illustrates the NCAA’s concern about building fan support.

Basketball is the only Division I sport for women with a nationally seeded tournament. The women’s volleyball, soccer and softball tourneys have all grown in popularity in the last decade, but not to the point where they’re ready to move teams around en masse. The NCAA doesn’t seed those tournaments nationally for the same financial reasons it held off doing so for basketball until it came into some ample television money. All these sports are rolled up into the same ESPN package, but women’s hoops is the queen of this hop, and both the NCAA and the sports cable giant have been very happy with the arrangement.

But put yourself in the position of the players and coaches who get shipped far from home and ask them if it feels like they’re playing in the NCAA tournament, or just another non-descript regular season game.

It’s unlikely the NCAA and proponents of women’s basketball will admit that they might have jumped the gun about where they thought fan support actually was. While I don’t begrudge the NCAA wanting to try new formats, there’s also a stubborn insistence at work.

I doubt there will ever be any calls to step back and build an authentic grassroots base of support, instead of through television. That can only happen school by school, and it’s a slow, grinding process that will take years and decades to accomplish. Too many schools lack the emotional support to get behind women’s hoops, and there’s nothing that Title IX can do about that.

If you’re promoting the flagship women’s sport, you can’t want to wait for that to happen. You can’t go back to regional seeding, even if it might make perfect sense. It’s the build-it-down-from-the-top mantra that has pervaded women’s sports advocacy, one impatient with gender equity foot-dragging. Except that bringing along fans — ticket-paying customers — requires a bottom-up approach.

The NCAA may just be following the money here, but that doesn’t mean fans will be sure to follow. Because not enough fans have been doing so in the Predetermined Era.

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.

October 26, 2009

Fanning the flames of a faux flap

Filed under: Wendy Parker — wendyp @ 12:22 pm

I thought this was a bogus story when I first heard about it, and can’t believe The New York Times made such a big deal about it over the weekend: President Obama’s all-guys hoops games, and what that might say about the true influence and “place” for women in his administration:

“Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer.

Ms. Myers said women have high expectations of the president. “Obama has a personal style that appeals to women,” she said. “He is seen as a consensus builder; he is not a towel snapper and does not tell crude jokes.”

But wait, the hectoring gets sillier still, from NOW president Terry O’Neill. Then again, Obama was remiss in filling out an NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket last season. What a Neanderthal!

So if he ditched Reggie Love and put Alana Beard on the White House halfcourt, would this make the Sisterhood happy? I doubt it.

At least Obama is playing golf with a woman! Oh joy! Nip that Martha Burk problem in the bud before it sprouts.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in the realm of high political circles, but I do cover sports for a living, and have devoted much of my work to covering women’s sports. Dee Dee, you don’t know towel-snapping like I do! If only I could give you a post-game tour of football locker rooms.

I know what it’s like to operate in a mostly male environment, and to push for more media coverage of women athletes who aren’t in the so-called “Bambi” sports (tennis, gymnastics, figure skating, etc.). If you’re not dubbed an “advocate” for a sport instead of a supposedly “objective” reporter, then you’re called far worse than that. So, why are you really interested in women’s sports? Heh, heh.

But I find this whining from very privileged women — the products of elite educations and powerful political, corporate and social connections I have never enjoyed — absolutely bamboozling. Former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor Joane Lipman, also writing in the NYT over the weekend, sounds as though we’re still in the 1970s.

Perhaps this is the mid-life crisis issue for women of my generation. I understand their frustration, but I don’t appreciate the implication that their experiences speak for all of us.

Neither do I have a problem with guys wanting to be with the guys. Even males I know who are deeply involved in women’s sports do this. If guys desire the release best provided by drinking buddies, cigar companions and steamroom pals, so what? It’s a deeply human, and not just male, urge. Women have their outlets too, and not just at shopping malls.

This complaining resonates of the gender wars in women’s college sports dating back to the early 1990s. It was a contentious and unhappy time, especially in women’s basketball, where the push to hire women above all for top coaching jobs rankled some men who had devoted their careers to the sport. I won’t recount all of that here, except to make this point:

The young women who are coaching now, and who are playing the game, will go through their own frustrations and obstacles, especially if they remain in a largely male endeavor. Some of it will come about because there is blatant sex discrimination that will always continue to exist.

But some of the shortcomings can’t be struck up to gender issues. They’re the products of family matters, unrealized career ambitions and unexpected developments that occur to men and women in the course of daily life. Learning to make the distinction could be the key to avoiding the kind of sour mid-life mood that some Baby Boomer women, the first true inheritors of the feminist legacy, are starting to feel.

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