Female athletes can't win for winning

The University of Connecticut's women's basketball team is kicking butt, which somehow means girls can't play?

Published March 16, 2010 10:01PM (EDT)

This season, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team has won 72 games in a row -- breaking its own record, garnering excited new Huskies fans and national media attention. Van Chancellor, a former WNBA coach and current coach of Louisiana State's women's team told the New York Times it's "one of the greatest things ever to happen to women's basketball." Frank Deford recently said the team "may well be the most overwhelming power ever to dominate any major sport." This sounds like a happy story, right?

It depends on who you ask. Jeré Longman at The Times writes that the team's success has inspired a backlash: Instead of being praised for their talent and hard work,  "the UConn women are criticized for winning too often, by too many points." As I understand it, people are arguing that the Huskies' accomplishment is not, in fact, good news for the sport, because if one team is winning that much, others ostensibly at the same level must be terrible -- and once you believe that, you can circle back around and conclude that the UConn team isn't really as good as it seems. Ergo, the Huskies' terrific run actually proves that women are bad at basketball -- just like we've been telling you silly ladies all along!

Longman's having none of it. "At best, that growing suggestion is ignorant of college basketball history; at worst, it is a wearying, sexist attempt to diminish the achievement of women, who were too long excluded from sports and are still too often forced to apologize for sweating." Right on, dude. He goes on to point out that women's college basketball has only been around since 1982 -- which means it's had as much time to develop as the men's version had had in 1967, "as the U.C.L.A. dynasty kicked into full swing with Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, consummating a 30-0 season and winning the first of what would become seven consecutive titles for the Bruins."

So let me get this straight. You're saying that when men's college basketball was starting up, at first there were some killer teams and breakout stars -- which built excitement and attracted more people to the sport -- before things balanced out? Kind of like...?  Yeah. "Essentially, there is zero difference in the trajectory of men's and women's college basketball," writes Longman. So why are women "held to a different standard, derided as somehow lesser or undeserving"? Take a wild guess.

As Phil Taylor wrote recently in Sports Illustrated "Sexism isn't confined to any sport or country. It's a universal language, spoken not so much with words as with action, or the lack of it." He was talking about female ski jumpers being shut out of Olympic competition and "lopsided spending" that gives male athletes an advantage, among other things, but the common denominator is a general attitude that women's sports not only aren't but will never be as intense, thrilling or important as men's. And as the uproar over the Canadian women's hockey team's celebration of their gold medal illustrated, a lot of people don't want their lady athletes acting more like men -- whether that means chugging beer, smoking cigars or, you know, winning a lot.

How can we begin to turn these attitudes around? (I mean, besides dismantling the patriarchy.) One small effort even the non-athletically inclined can participate in has sprung up on Facebook: You can take a pledge to attend at least one women's sports event in 2010. Writes Deford,

There are a lot of reasons why girls from all over the country decide to go play their college basketball in a chilly little backwater called Storrs, Conn. -- but a prime one is simply that UConn women's basketball is popular.

The home games bang out. The glass grandstand has been smashed there. The players are celebrities. They are treated, well, like men.

If people were turning out like that to support women's teams all over the country, maybe the Huskies would soon have some real competition.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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