While I was sitting with a group of NFL reporters a few weeks ago, the WNBA came up. “Oh, I can’t watch the WNBA — it’s too slow,” said one reporter, with a tone that suggested her dislike of the league was simply a result of her more sophisticated taste in sports. All I could really say was that I found the product incredibly compelling, and was hopeful that it might begin to reach a wider audience. She shrugged, as if to say, “Sorry, this is just the way it is.”
Not long after, I was in conversation with a music publicist who had grown up in Kentucky rooting for Louisville men’s basketball. I asked if she’d ever followed the women’s team, and she said, “No — don’t like, the same two teams always win on the women’s side?” I told her that no, three different teams have actually won the past three women’s tournaments — and this year, the Louisville women were serious contenders to win the chip.
Also within the past month, there was an odd C-plot on the series Grown-ish (which yes, I realize I’m admitting that I watch) about women’s basketball. Two of the main characters are women who run track at their fictional Division I school. In this particular episode, they were lamenting the lack of attention and promotion their sport got from the athletics department compared to the women’s basketball team and its photogenic star. They agree to go to a game, to “sit through a few hours of some boring-ass layups and poorly-executed pick-and-rolls.” When the male characters in the scene look at them skeptically, one replies, “What, only guys are allowed to make fun of women’s basketball?” I waited all episode for the course correction or “teachable moment”, and none came.
A week ago, SNL decided to air a sketch transparently based on a viral tweet called “Gold Diggers of the WNBA”, ostensibly a parody of a Real Housewives franchise. The premise wasn’t completely off; for a minute, it seemed like they might be trying to spotlight the pay disparity between the NBA and the WNBA. But then the cliches started: some of SNL’s best-known women comedians, including Cecily Strong and Leslie Jones, played WNBA athletes by affecting cartoonish height and implausibly deep voices, and by rejecting the advances of the male “gold diggers” in favor of women.
It was absurdly regressive, and centered on all the stereotypes that every WNBA player has spent their entire life battling. Not that none of them are very tall, or that none of them have deep voices, or that none of them identify as LGBTQ — but none of those things have anything to do with their status as professional basketball players. It was the kind of carelessness that keeps women athletes in the margins — that reinforces the idea they are anomalies in sports, and their willingness to challenge the field’s heteronormative patriarchy justifies their outsider status.
These four examples are connected by their casualness. In 2019, publicly maligning women’s basketball still isn’t considered wrong by the vast majority of people — and to me, that’s disturbing. To have conversations with people who are nominally progressive and open-minded, yet still hear them espouse the same tired assumptions about women in sports. To watch shows whose primary selling point is at least moderately sharp cultural critique, only to see them punching down to women who have fought harder than anyone else can really imagine just to do the thing they love. Women continue to face these kinds of assumptions every single day and patiently ignore or rebut them, all while refining their craft at world-class levels.
They’re the reason I’m covering women’s sports. Their battle for respect is our battle for respect, too.
I was so pleased to see that sentiment reflected in a recent smart and thoughtful column by Springfield College student journalist Gabby Guerard. “Covering the women’s basketball team has single-handedly been the most empowering experience I’ve ever had,” she writes, after describing some of the sexism she’s confronted as an up-and-coming sportswriter. “They have respected me, for the woman I am, because they know, like I know, that women belong in sports too.”
There’s no question this is all bigger than basketball. But, ironically, the best way to “level the playing field”, as the trope goes, is to celebrate just how incredible these women are at ... playing basketball. The players’ goal is to put the ball through the hoop, or to snatch it away from an opponent, or elbow into the paint to grab a rebound. The sexism they face — which I find inconceivably daunting — doesn’t scare them; after all, they can’t spend too much time thinking about it when they’re busy thinking about winning.
It’s not the players’ responsibility to get people to respect their game — they’re already doing everything they possibly can on that front. It’s ours, collectively. For me, there’s no question covering women’s sports is partially about tackling larger issues around gender inequality; I know some other journalists feel similarly.
But that’s not why I watch. I watch because it’s thrilling and fun, because the players are passionate and talented. For you — the fan — the best way to advocate for women basketball players is, perversely, not to talk about sexism at all. Instead, just watch. Enjoy their play on its own terms. If the above examples are any indication, even in 2019, saying that you’re watching women play basketball because they’re great and you want to might just be the most progressive statement of all.