That last month's inaugural WNBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden was attended by Tipper Gore and several members of the victorious women's World Cup soccer team was particularly fitting, and not just because the WNBA has a reputation for marketing savvy. In the last few years, women's sports have become inextricably entwined with politics. And as the WNBA championship series between the Houston Comets and the New York Liberty gets under way, the basketball court is the latest battleground in the gender wars.
The issue: dunking. Or, rather, the absence of dunking.
In the three years the WNBA has been playing (and the two and a half years of its now-defunct rival, the ABL), no woman has ever dunked in a game, and only one has even tried to -- although about 10 current WNBA players have enough "ups" (jumping ability) to successfully jam in practice sessions.
This isn't much of an issue for the women in the league. But men just can't leave it alone.
During the week of the All-Star Game, the mostly male sports media became "almost obsessed," in the words of Comets All-Star guard Sheryl Swoopes, with this singular physical act. The New York Times' William C. Rhoden wrote a column the day of the game titled "A League In Search of a Moment," the moment being the dunk. Never mind the fact that even in the men's game the dunk is almost entirely a style over substance move -- not to mention that by all appearances women journalists, the players and their approximately 10,000 rabidly loyal fans a game (70 percent of whom are women) couldn't care less about seeing it, at least for the time being.
The players' feelings were made obvious during some tense exchanges in the locker room following the somewhat lopsided West team victory.
"I don't know why you guys are so overly concerned with women dunking," two-time MVP Cynthia Cooper of the Comets snapped at me when I became the umpteenth male member of the press core to approach her about the topic. "People need to realize that we play a different kind of game. If a woman dunks, great, more power to her -- but it's not what determines whether our game is exciting or not."
The issue's sexual overtones took on comical proportions in the response of another player, the Phoenix Mercury's Jen Gillom, who told me, "It's just different for us. For us to do it, everything has to be just right."
Thanks to her towering stature, the Utah Starzz's 7-foot-2-inch Margot Dydek can dunk with ease -- as she, and a few other women, have done in European leagues, to little fanfare. But she prefers to lay the ball quietly off the backboard. "Why should we care about the dunk?" she said in a phone interview. "Two points is two points. When dunking is worth five points, then I'll think more about dunking."
Of course, women pros also know that a major appeal of sports is aesthetic, and they're the first to admit that no woman now has the kind of leaping ability that would enable them to dunk with the kind of grace worthy of slow-motion replay. They know they look a lot better, and are equally, if not more, effective, banking the ball off the glass than attempting a stilted and risky jam.
It is precisely this all-too-obvious point -- along with the fact that, especially in the sports arena, men have always seemed a little too eager to point out that they have something they think that women want -- that makes me suspicious of pieces like Rhoden's or the one by the San Francisco Chronicle's Jonathan Curiel, who wrote last year that the dunk "could revolutionize the way women's basketball is perceived."
What the dunk really is is a marketing ploy. Take last year's dunk contest, staged by the now-defunct ABL. Hoping to increase its marketability, the ABL organized the event to coincide with its own All-Star Game in Orlando, Fla. Five players participated in the contest, which was won by the 6-5 Sylvia Crawley, who performed a somewhat awkward one-handed jam while wearing a blindfold. Sports Illustrated, not surprisingly, called her dunk the "poster-perfect moment" for the league. ABL commissioner Gary Cavalli likened Crawley, who was not a standout player, to a pied piper, saying that because of her dunking ability it was "apparent that [the league] needed to keep her." But by year's end, the league had folded, few people had ever heard of Crawley, and when the WNBA held a special draft this year for teams to snap up the best former ABL players, Crawley wasn't among those chosen.
Even in the NBA, players dunked for years before anyone cared about the move. Not until the acrobatic, high-flying Julius Erving arrived on the scene in the '70s did the dunk pique fans' interest. True, the first woman to do it will make headlines for a couple of days and probably a nice chunk of change from some sponsor. (Why else would the male agent of Los Angeles Sparks star Lisa Leslie, whose miss in the WNBA's first-ever game three years ago was the only time anyone has tried to dunk in a game, needle her to make another attempt?) But to make the dunk out to be some kind of revolutionary benchmark, or the sine qua non of the sport, is a joke.
The real question is not what the dunk could do for women's basketball, but what it would do to men.
The dunk, in many ways, symbolizes the final frontier for women athletes to conquer, the co-opting of the single most macho act in all of sports. It can be viewed both as a sign of progress that women find themselves on the verge of achieving this once-unattainable goal, and an indication of how far we still have to go that men are reacting to the situation with such oafishness and insincerity.
In the three years since the gold-medal success of the U.S. women's basketball, soccer, softball and gymnastics teams at the Atlanta Olympics helped propel women's professional team sports to new heights, a majority of the dialogue on women's sports -- thanks to men's dominance of the sports media -- has focused on what won't work or what the women can't do. (That is, when the papers deign to cover women's sports at all.) Thus it is hardly surprising that in a summer when the Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better sentiment hit a new high thanks to the women's World Cup soccer team -- and Nike, which was there to cash in on it -- there has been a backlash. As soon as the World Cup ended, a spate of columns by male journalists appeared declaring that while the women's World Cup was a "marketing" victory, women's soccer would never succeed as a professional sport, a sentiment all-too-familiar to women athletes, feminists and female sportswriters.
"The thing that was recurrent in all those columns was the supposition that men won't watch, as if it couldn't exist without them," says one of the best women sportswriters, columnist Johnette Howard of Newsday. "If women waited for men's approval to do anything, they wouldn't be where they are now. And I think this thing with the dunk is another example of women being told what they do isn't good enough, no matter how good they are, because they don't dunk."
The WNBA players are reluctant to characterize their feelings in such starkly political terms, but it is obvious in talking to them that they are well aware of the sexual politics of the dunk.
"You hear it all the time," says Rebecca Lobo of the New York Liberty, one of the WNBA's biggest stars. "Guys on the street will be like, 'Hah, I can dunk on you,' or 'Can you dunk?' That's the question they always ask. Just because you can dunk doesn't mean you're a better basketball player. But in their minds it's: 'I'm more powerful. I can jump higher. I'm better than you.'"
It isn't that women players are averse to the dunk -- who doesn't like a good dunk now and then? But the taunting has rankled the women and their fans enough to cause an undeniably political reaction.
"I think a lot of women don't want us to do it now," says Lobo, "because I think they like seeing us separate and different from the guys. I want to keep the essence of what women's basketball is."
That essence, rooted in passing and defense, is a world away from the show-offy men's game, where the dunk is an exclamation point. The women, who are on average six to eight inches shorter than the men, play the game well below the rim. Some basketball purists, most notably legendary former UCLA men's coach John Wooden, say they actually prefer the teamwork- and fundamentals-oriented women's game to the increasingly selfish men's version. Either way, taste should be subjective. But a look at the gender breakdown of the commentary on women's basketball is enough to make you wonder if male sportswriters lack an enzyme that would enable them to properly digest it.
Take, for instance, the coverage of last month's All-Star Game. Lisa Olson of the New York Daily News wrote a column praising the event as a total success, saying, "It didn't matter that none of the players could do a tomahawk dunk."
But the Associated Press account, written by Hal Bock, that appeared in the majority of the country's papers included the line "But sorry, still no dunks." Jerry Brewster's gamer in the New York Times, while one of the few stories not to mention the dunk, included -- in the lead, no less -- the laughably alpha-male statement that the game was good "despite too much defense."
If men are so intent on using the men's game as a means for comparison, why don't we hear instead, for example, about the women's free-throw percentages, a significant measure of individual skill. This past season, the accuracy for the WNBA and NBA were almost identical: 73.3 for the WNBA; 74.4 for the NBA.
What really doesn't add up is that if the WNBA is as public-relations savvy as the media has always claimed (sometimes derisively), then shouldn't these same sportswriters trust that WNBA commissioner Val Ackerman knows what she's doing when she says she has no plans to stage a dunk contest and doesn't believe the dunk is a vital part of the women's game?
In fact, Ackerman and her players seem to know exactly what they're doing. By waiting for the right moment to do the dunk, they will be able to perform the act on their own terms, and therefore have more control of the outcome. Before the All-Star Game began and when no media were present, the players did discuss the possibility of dunking that night. The Liberty's Kym Hampton, who was playing for the East All-Stars, told Leslie, who was playing for the West, that if she wanted to try a dunk, she should signal to her and she would allow Leslie a clear path to the hoop. The situation never presented itself during the game -- though Leslie did throw down a well-thought-out two-handed dunk during the pre-game warmups before most fans had taken their seats.
During a telling sequence in the second half of the game, Sacramento Monarch Yolanda Griffith, who is also able to dunk, found herself alone on a breakaway, and as an entire row of male journalists in my section rose to their feet, she laid the ball gently off the glass.
When I caught Griffith alone in a corner of the locker room after the game and asked her why she didn't dunk, she told me, "I thought about it, but I'd been missing a lot of shots and I figured I better just lay it in. It wasn't meant to be a dunk tonight. Maybe one day."
But less than a minute later, a horde of men closed in on her asking the same question, and her answer and her mood quickly changed. "No," she now said testily. "I didn't even think about it. No."
The gender divide over the dunk ranks it right up there with masturbation as one of the most revealing symbols of the sexual and cultural differences between the sexes. (Should we even attempt to consider how long an NBA player could go without dunking?) For men, the point of the act is to assert dominance, and often, to degrade the opponent. With little other real value, it is among the most selfish acts in team sports. For women, on the other hand, the move must have purpose, requires forethought and will not (and perhaps cannot) happen without the support and assistance of teammates.
This paradigm may not be the most useful way for women to view the debate, however, since the limiting nature of gender stereotypes is exactly what they have been running from. But each time they seem to be making a big leap forward, men seem more inclined to trap them by clinging to their own traditional notions of gender roles and sexuality -- as in the recent reemergence of "guy" magazines, TV shows and movies.
Last year when Howard, who was then a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, turned in an assigned feature on 7-2 Starzz center Dydek, the (all male) editors made her rewrite the piece so that the dunk, which had been addressed in her original version, was the lead of the story. "That was all they cared about," she says. Then again, why else would Dydek be of interest to the magazine's largely male readership?
This current hue and cry for women to dunk, coming from men whom Lobo called the "beer-drinking, hot-dog eating fan who only gets out of his seat at an NBA game when he sees a monster Latrell Sprewell-type jam," makes one seriously wonder: Do men really want to see women dunk so badly, or just dunk badly?
As Comets coach Van Chancellor, who has spent his entire career coaching women, says, "The men who are bitching about women dunking are the same guys who if they were married to Vanna White would want her to cook too."
At least now, women have come far enough to know that they don't need men's approval to become, as they say, legit. Call them dunk teases, but they'll dunk when they're good and ready, and you better believe they're going to enjoy themselves when it happens. "I think everyone in here dreams of dunking," the Mercury's Gillom told me in the locker room after the All-Star Game. "But I don't think we should be in any rush. I think we're still maybe a year or two away. But when it does happen, I'll be there cheering my head off."