By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report/The Philadelphia Sunday Sun
When the University of Maryland Lady Terrapins defeated the Duke Lady Blue Devils in an overtime thriller for the NCAA’s women’s national basketball title in 2006, it was one of the greatest games of all time, not just in women’s hoops, but in the history of college basketball.
Freshman point guard Kristi Toliver’s miracle three-pointer over Duke’s 6-foot-7 forward Alison Bales in the final seconds to send the game to overtime enabled the Terrapins to come back from a 13-point deficit at halftime. Freshman Marissa Coleman would sink a pair of free-throws in overtime to pull off an improbable upset.
A day after the game, I was in the Sixers press dining room having dinner with some of the beat writers when I brought up what a great game that Maryland-Duke national championship game was last night.
“You actually watch women’s basketball,” one of the guys said.
I don’t know why I was surprised by the response. I’ve been a sports writer for a while so I shouldn’t have been.
I mean, hey, in a mostly white, mostly male sports journalism industry, why should women’s basketball get any notice? My guess is that the only reason that women’s tennis gets any notice is that it’s played in really, really short skirts.
But while sexism rears its ugly head most in the world of sports journalism, it’s not the only place it hangs out. In a country where great strides have been made in the area of gender equality,we still have quite a way to go.
Recently, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made headlines when he sent a Twitter message to 6-foot-8 Baylor All-American Brittney Griner offering a tryout with his team.
It was widely reported in the sports media that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt by Cuban, who is our modern-day Bill Veeck for his penchant for making himself the story.
Of course, you heard all the reasons why Griner couldn’t play with the fellas in the NBA. The athleticism, the speed, the size would be too much for the 6-foot-8 Griner. I can accept that because Griner is a back to the basket player in the low post and not just because she’s a woman.
Besides, 6-foot-8 forwards are a dime a dozen in the NBA and most of them are swing guards or small forwards. If Griner was a good ball-handler and had that kind of game, I might be inclined to say that she may have shot at possibly making a team.
But all that said, I agree with ESPN columnist Jemele Hill who says that she’d like to see Griner make an impact on the WNBA and become one of the best players in the women’s game while also boosting the profile of a league that’s trying to make a name for itself.
Recently, the WNBA and ESPN announced a huge television deal that runs through 2022. The league has revamped its logo and wants to market current college stars like Griner and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, and Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne as the future faces of the league.
Like Hill and her ESPN colleague Kate Fagan, I believe that the whole of idea Griner trying to play in the NBA is another way of marginalizing women as athletes.
Neither Griner nor the current stars of the WNBA like Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, or Candace Parker need men to validate them as great basketball players. But they are deserving of their respect.
As much as the WNBA and ESPN will do to market their sport, I think the real issue that there is still a huge resistance among men in sports media and society in general to take women’s sports seriously.
The only time you hear any serious discussion of women’s sports on sports talk radio is to hear the loud mouths justify why they don’t watch or to say something disparaging about one of the athletes.
That was the case in 2007 when Don Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes.”
What bothered me about that situation was that C. Vivian Stringer’s Scarlet Knight squad had completed a remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament and reached the national championship game when nobody expected them to be there.
But it’s not just media coverage. Women’s college basketball teams, even in some of the most successful programs, don’t draw the kind of crowds that their male counterparts do. Is it marketing on the part of the university? Or is it because the players don’t have that look that appeals to our male sexual fantasies like an Anna Kournikova?
To me, it’s not market forces or anything couched in some pseudo scientific survey done by a Harvard research team, it’s just that we men still can’t get past our sexism to appreciate the athleticism of female athletes. After all, sports are supposed to be the domain of men.
While I respect ESPN’s efforts for broadcasting the WNBA and women’s college basketball, we will not have true gender equity in sports until we can stand around the nation’s water coolers and rave about Brittney Griner’s exploits on the court in the same way we do LeBron James’s.