Professional Women’s Sports: Sexism and the WNBA

Authored by Kenneth Haskins

 

From the beginning of recorded history, sports have been seen as a male dominated arena. Only men were allowed to compete in the ancient Olympics, and it took until 1972 for women to be recognized by a national organization as deserving of equal opportunity in the athletic arena with the passing of Title IX. What is the cause of this? Quality of play? Systematic sexism in society? A maintenance of some sort of natural order? There are numerous theories and thoughts, but more importantly, why? Why is the quality of play looked at as less than? Why is there sexism in a progressive world in the most developed country? Why would there be any construct of strictly bound gender roles?

The Sport

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) are the three organizations at the forefront of professional athletics for female athletes. While many sports that women compete in (especially the Olympics) are also included in women’s professional sports, these three will be the focus, mainly the WNBA.

The WNBA was founded in 1996 as a counterpart to the NBA. At its infancy, all teams were owned, operated, and run out of NBA franchises and owners, and was the “little sister” of the NBA. Attendance has been declining for several years, and many are wondering what is at the root of this. From a quick observation, it seems that consumers aren’t interested in the style of basketball that women play. You hear that the games are boring, and no fun to watch. It is even commented on by prominent names in the sports industry. But what isn’t discussed is why. Why is basketball not seen as competitively equal between men and women? I believe it lies in the style of play. In men’s basketball, particularly the NBA, teams are bolstered by one super star athlete (think Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James) with a supporting cast that can feed the alpha. One player leaves a team, and that team can go from the NBA finals to the worst team in the league (RIP 2010 Cavs). Professional women’s basketball is different. It focuses on a strong team dynamic, with the ball quickly moving between players, finally sliding into a wide open three or a back door layup. These women are no less “skilled” of players; they just play a different game. And some argue it may be the same skill, but it’s slower. And my response is that no one faults NASCAR for being slower than Indy car racing, or women’s tennis not being as exciting because the serve is 10 mph less; everyone just accepts that it’s slightly different, and just as good. Where the why comes in for the WNBA is simple; they aren’t competing against the NBA, but instead the NCAA. NCAA men’s basketball is exactly what the WNBA is going for. Quick, team built basketball that reflects good coaching and values an assist. And to make matters worse, the WNBA then tries to market itself as an NBA team, focusing on single athletes and not the teams themselves. People rarely root for a specific college athlete, but instead the institution as a whole. If the WNBA wants to get off the ground, they need to realize where their value lies, and that is in the team aspect of what they bring to the table, and not superstar qualities. Whether or not the WNBA could steal away interest from college basketball is uncertain, but I know that they would have a better shot at being successful if they at least knew who their competition is.

Tennis and Golf are the counter-example to the WNBA. They have found a market where they have been successful. No tennis player alive right now is more famous than Serena Williams, and no golfer has taken up ESPN airtime than Michelle Wie (except maybe Tiger Woods). Both of these sports have maintained strong followings, and consistently garnered support and winnings. And while at times the pay gap seems large (because it is), the sports themselves are not criticized. Why is this? It’s because there is little benefit to being the strongest person on either the court or the course. Both of these sports require skill and finesse, not brawn and speed.

Society

But this brings up an interesting point: WHY DO WE THINK THAT BRAWN AND SPEED ARE NECESSARY FOR BASKETBALL. The sport isn’t built upon strength; the NBA is. And it is an indicator about the society we live in today that because a male dominated league has done something a certain way, that is the correct way. The sport is no less exciting, the action is no less, the threes of Elena Donne are just as spectacular as Stephen Curry, yet we continue to harass the WNBA. And maybe this is just an economics issue. The NBA and NCAA are already saturating the market, and there isn’t enough basketball to go around. Maybe if women want advancement in the professional sports arena they need to go to the sports that men haven’t already claimed. While there is a professional volleyball league, it doesn’t have nearly the backing that other women’s leagues have had in the past. And maybe the mediocrity of the MLS leaves the door open for professional women’s soccer to build to a point past that of men’s. But I think the real issue comes down to the fact that because women have been marginalized as long as sports have existed, we as a society think that this is the way that it is supposed to be, which is the farthest thing from the case. Women aren’t worse at sports than men, they are simply different, and in a lot of ways, quite a bit better. But until society can come to terms with the fact that what they already know isn’t what is actually true, there will continue to be a pay gap, continue to see women’s leagues fail, and continue to see women sports wholly be disregarded.

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