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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 1999/ 4 Tishrei, 5760

Cathy Young

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Women Who Play Sports and the People Who Hate Them --
I AM A WOMEN'S basketball fan.

This simple statement puts me, a libertarian-conservative and a frequent critic of orthodox feminism, in the unaccustomed position of being a suspected dupe of "political correctness."

While the Women's National Basketball Association, which has just completed its third season, has a devoted and not-so-small following, it also elicits an unparalleled hostility. Expressions of this animus range from hate mail posted on women's basketball fan sites on the Internet to occasional potshots by conservative commentators to a few full-length diatribes -- most recently by a Web-based columnist who uses the moniker "Boston Sports Guy" and by Detroit attorney and sports/entertainment agent Debbie Schlussel in the Jewish World Review.

The critics, whose scathing judgments are often based on a single game or 10-minute snippets of two or three, seem to know little about the target of their derision. "Sports Guy" asserts that talk show host Rosie O'Donnell is a WNBA spokeswoman (wrong) and that the atmosphere at the Madison Square Garden during New York Liberty games lacks electricity (laughable).

The writers' vitriol may seem puzzling. They gripe about having the WNBA "foisted" on them; yet no is being dragged to the arena or tied in front of a TV set by some feminist posse. What seems to rankle them is that something they don't consider a real pro sport is being treated as one -- in the name, they believe, of the dogma that women can do anything men can do and must be equal in every area. They deride the league as an "affirmative action program." Some compare it to the hiring of female firefighters who can't meet the physical standards for the job -- though surely, even if the games are horrible, no one ever died from watching bad basketball.

Unlike unqualified female firefighters, the WNBA is not the result of a government mandate or a court order. WNBA-bashers hint at some feminist conspiracy that strong-armed professional team owners into bankrolling women's sports. In reality, the NBA had been considering a women's league for some time due to the growing popularity of women's basketball, with attendance at college games jumping by 240% from 1985 to 1995. The final decision in 1996 was prompted by the launch of the American Basketball League (which made the NBA worry that if there was money in the women's game, it would be made by someone else) and the high interest in the women's national team that went on to win the Olympic gold in Atlanta. Far from cheering the WNBA, many hard-core feminists -- such as ex-athlete/author Mariah Burton Nelson -- viewed it as a compromise that relegated women to second-class status and undercut the ABL, more "feminist" because it wasn't an appendage to a men's league.

Meanwhile, fan response surpassed expectations. Schlussel writes that only five of the twelve WNBA teams this season had attendance over 10,000 per game and some averaged "about 5,000," which "probably included people buried in the cemetery down the street." Actually, the lowest official attendance, in Charlotte, was just over 7,000 and the league-wide average was over 10,200, down slightly from last year's 10,800 (and while the numbers are padded -- for instance, with season ticket holders who don't go to every game -- that's not unique to the WNBA). It is also worth noting that the league went into its inaugural season expecting an average turnout of 4,500 per game.

The WNBA's TV ratings hold up respectably against many other sports, including the National Hockey League. In Houston, over a third of the TV sets that were on during the final championship game between the Houston Comets and the New York Liberty were tuned in to that game.

It may be too early to declare the league a success. But it has expanded by two teams a year since its birth, and is adding four next year. While the naysayers gloat over rumors that the Charlotte and Los Angeles franchises could be moved because of poor attendance, L.A. Sparks president Jerry Buss says that the team would have made money this year if not for the league's restrictions on local corporate sponsorship and local advertising during game telecasts.

But what about the essence of the case against the WNBA -- that women's basketball is "boring" and "unwatchable," a pathetic parody of the men's game? If you think that basketball without dunking is not the real thing, you'll agree. (While several WNBA players dunk in practice, none has yet performed the feat in a game -- though the Charlotte Sting's Charlotte Smith once did in the NCAA.) However, for many fans, dazzling no-look passes, graceful hook shots, running jumpers or explosive driving layups slicing through a tough defense make up for the lack of dunks.

Have some WNBA games been awful? Sure. (Unluckily for the league, among them was the 1997 inaugural game between Los Angeles and New York, which drew a record TV audience but was a sorry display of bad shots and turnovers.) And others have been excellent. WNBA-bashers may guffaw at the first-round playoff game between the Detroit Shock and the Charlotte Sting in which both teams missed 26 of their first 29 shots. They forget to mention that in the Eastern conference finals, the Sting shot over 52% in Game 1 and the Liberty almost 55% in Games 2 and 3.

Interestingly, when jeering at the quality of play, the WNBA hate club mostly limits itself to clever but nonspecific putdowns ("more turnovers than a roller-coaster ride"). Maybe that's because, if actual numbers were cited, the argument about the wretchedness of the women's game would turn out to be an airball. While the women's overall stats are somewhat worse, the gap is hardly a gulf. This season they shot 42% from the floor, a mere two points below the NBA. They also committed 25% more turnovers -- on average, one every 156 seconds of play, compared to one in 192 seconds for the men -- though nearly half of those extra turnovers came from steals.

The majority of people I've met in women's basketball chat rooms and forums are serious sports fans. Many are male (as are about 30% of fans at the games), and not milksoppy feminist wannabes either. There's a jazz musician who is a longtime Pittsburgh Steelers fan. There's a conservative construction manager, an ex-Houston Rockets season ticket holder who is now far more enthusiastic about the Comets and about the women's game, in which he sees an intensity rarely found in the NBA today. There's a young man who agrees that at present the men's game overall is indisputably superior and bristles at the knee-jerk dismissal of such assertions as sexist -- but does not hesitate to say that two-time Most Valuable Player Cynthia Cooper is probably the best basketball player he has ever seen next to Michael Jordan, or to bestow epithets like "awesome" on other players such as current MVP Yolanda Griffith.

Most WNBA fans aren't blind to its flaws, including the fact that the play often leaves much to be desired. Many want changes in the rules that WNBA-bashers gleefully point out as marks of inferiority: the longer shot clock, the higher limit of team fouls allowed without penalty. They realize that the league's goal of maximum exposure -- which dictates the short summer season when it's not up against the NBA, college basketball, hockey and football -- is often at odds with the goal of a better product: back-to-back games can leave the players little time to re-energize. (In the championship final, both teams were visibly exhausted, playing their third game in four days.) They wish the management spent a little less on "We got game" commercials and a little more on preseason training. They also know the league is still young. While many fans worry that too-rapid expansion will spread the talent too thin, most are optimistic about further improvement in quality. Remember, the NBA took 16 years to reach 40% shooting.

But do the attacks on the WNBA have much to do with quality, anyway? I'm not saying that anyone who doesn't care for women's basketball is a male chauvinist. Yet somehow, people who protest that their dislike is based on facts rather than prejudice tend to get the facts wrong -- such as the writer of a recent letter to the online magazine Salon claiming that the games are boring because "more often than not, they're 20-point blowouts." This is easily refuted by the game scores at (Four of the Liberty's 32 regular-season games this year went into overtime.)

Then there are all the snide cracks about lesbians in the stands and ugly viragos on the court. One conservative columnist snickers that while the "babes" of soccer had sellout crowds, "the WNBA, with its Janet Reno look, is crestfallen." It's ironic that she writes for The Arizona Republic, since the Phoenix Mercury drew crowds of over 12,000 this season -- only about 4,000 less than the NBA average -- and has a player, Maria Stepanova, who towers at 6'8" but looks like a runway model, not Janet Reno. L.A. Sparks center Lisa Leslie is a part-time model. Yes, three or four women in the WNBA could probably walk into a men's room without turning head; but the vast majority look, well, like women, and quite a few could hold their own against soccer's Brandi Chastain or tennis glamour queen Anna Kournikova when it comes to babeness. Indeed, some feminists have (idiotically) assailed the WNBA for highlighting attractive and feminine players.

Some of the anti-WNBA sniping may be a rebellion against the real and pernicious excesses of feminist political correctness. Some of it is good old-fashioned sexism -- rarely as frankly expressed as in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that begged the paper to put women's sports in a separate section and preserve "one last, tiny corner of the world where the female presence doesn't intrude and annoy." Schlussel is candid about her belief that real women look pretty and leave competitive sports to men.

True, the women's sports phenomenon has some objectionable elements of what one might call female chauvinism, epitomized by the "Girls rule, boys drool, soccer's cool" chant taken up by some preteen female fans at the Women's World Cup. Some women's basketball fans jeer at the "testosterone-driven," "alpha-male" attitudes in the NBA, unfairly reducing men's basketball to a caricature of buzzer-to-buzzer dunks with no finesse, team play, or defense. And there are valid complaints about the current application of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which has been interpreted as requiring rigid numerical parity of men and women in college sports regardless of their interest in playing -- with the effect of limiting athletic opportunities for men rather than expanding them for women.

But on the whole, the growth of women's and girls' sports is a success story for feminism at its best: not victimology or gender warfare but female strength and achievement. The naysayers crow that men are naturally able to run faster, jump higher and throw the ball more powerfully than women. Well, that's obvious to everyone (except perhaps for a few fanatics who still believe the steroid-bloated freaks the Communist countries used to trout out for international competitions represent the full potential of womanhood).

But it hardly makes women athletes inferior, any more than a middleweight boxer is inferior to a heavyweight.

Look at the incredible success of the Women's World Cup this year. Better yet, look at tennis, where the women players today get higher TV ratings and draw bigger crowds than the men, get more coverage, and are almost universally viewed as more exciting and talented than the men. (While most women's basketball skeptics cite tennis as a venue for female excellence, Schlussel allows no exceptions to her loathing of women's sports: she makes the mind-boggling claim that the only things in women's tennis to attract public interest of late are Anna Kournikova's looks and Alexandra Stevenson's parentage as the love child of basketball great Julius Irving.)

At the U.S. Open last week, when a men's quarterfinal between Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Richard Krajicek ran longer than expected and overlapped with a Monica Seles-Serena Williams quarterfinal, most fans fled to see the women. No one gives a hoot that Williams, who went on to win the tournament, wouldn't have a chance against Kafelnikov, or probably any man in the top fifty.

Could the same thing happen in basketball? Today, when the WNBA's fan base as measured by TV ratings is less than a fifth of the NBA's, that seems inconceivable. But who knows?

The critics see the growth of women's basketball, and maybe of women's sports in general, as a noxious exercise in sexual politics. While most fans give little thought to such matters, the mainstreaming of women's athletics, especially team sports like soccer and basketball, does have fascinating implications for our view of what it means to be female. The image of a womanhood that includes strength and aggression, competitiveness and even ferocity (as well as beauty and sexuality) is not a feminist invention; it has always existed in Western culture, expressed in the ancient myths of Amazons and Valkyries and in the fascination with real-life heroines from Joan of Arc to Annie Oakley. Today, this once-peripheral ideal is increasingly dominant, and this offends some sensibilities.

People who respond with sweeping and unfair putdowns of women's sports are practicing a brand of sexual politics of their own.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©1999, Cathy Young