I Am Woman, Hear Me Score

I’m warning you, folks: my dander is up.

One week ago the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team set the Division I college basketball record for consecutive victories with their 89th win in a row.  89 straight wins!

Much was made in the media about whether the UConn women’s win streak can really compare to that which it broke: the 1971-1974 record set by the UCLA men’s basketball team under legendary coach John Wooden.  But I’m not all that interested in comparing apples (men’s college basketball in the 1970s) to oranges (women’s college basketball in the 2000s).  It seems to me that the facts are the facts: the UConn women’s team has won more consecutive games than any other in the history of Division I college basketball.

And that is that.

What really irks me, though, are the ignorant – and often offensive – responses that coverage of the record has sparked.

I’ve read many comments on sports blogs and websites questioning ESPN’s coverage of the streak.  Last weekend, ESPN promoted the record-breaking UConn-Florida State game from lowly ESPNU to ESPN2.  (Mind you, the game was still trumped on the flagship network by the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl featuring unranked college football teams Southern Miss and Louisville.)  ESPNU also featured an afternoon-long look back at some of the great UConn players from the past and some of the highlights from the streak.

Now I am not so naive as to forget that most men’s college sports make much more money than most women’s college sports do.  And I know that far more people are interested in men’s sports in general – and, yes, probably even the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s bowl and its match-up of not-quite-titans – than women’s sports.

But I was shocked by how many people seemed to suggest that the record-breaking game didn’t deserve any coverage at all. And this, on a network, which, last summer, offered a countdown clock until the start of Brett Favre’s news conference announcing whether or not he would unretire…again.  Earlier this week, a ticker ran across the bottom of the ESPN screen announcing in red the “Breaking News” that Donovan McNabb felt “disrespected” that his coach hadn’t told him sooner than he had lost his starting position.  And you don’t think this 24-hour sports network had time to cover this game?  Seriously?

USA Today‘s Christine Brennan wrote a thoughtful article on the relative lack of buzz over the UConn streak noting the way in which the media has the ability to create interest over a news story:

For decades now, those of us in the sports media have argued about which comes first: interest or coverage. There’s no doubt that college men’s basketball has more interest than the women’s game. TV ratings, attendance figures and revenue bear that out. But there’s also no doubt that the media’s lack of coverage of the UConn story, and many other stories in women’s sports, ensures that interest will remain static.

She goes on to cite the way in which the media helped launch the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer World Cup team to celebrity status.  How many of us had really heard of Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain before the media blitz that accompanied that remarkable team’s path to victory?  And might not an accomplishment like the UConn women’s deserve a little bit of buzz too?

But what made me even angrier than the complaints about the “over-exposure” the media provided to the UConn women were the comments on UConn’s record itself.

In response to the espn.com article on UConn’s record-setting victory, “thefakejon” suggested: “I think if the women dressed up in bikinis then I might watch… actually, I just googled NCAA women’s basketball and *rough* is all I have to say.”

“Payne91” chimed in with

“Boy these gals sure make it look difficult”
“But is having this minor skill worth being so unattractive?”
“That’s for the fan to decide”
“YAY!”

“The Cry Was No Surrender” helpfully added, “I’d rather poke my eyes out with a rusty nail than watch women sports.”

I’ve been hanging around the blogosphere long enough to know never to put much stake in the words of trolls.  But I was nevertheless disheartened by the comments on this article (over 3000 when I last checked) and others like it.

As I always do when I see such a vicious comment, I asked my computer screen: “Why read an article and take the time to comment on it if you have no interest in the topic?”  But, more than that, I was disturbed to see by the sheer number of negative comments – really a whole village worth – that we are still so very far away from a place where female athletes are not even lauded or respected, but simply tolerated.

We may have come a long way, baby.  But it seems to me that we have even farther to go.

Edited to add: Congratulations to the Stanford women’s basketball team, who defeated UConn on Thursday, December 30, 2010 to end UConn’s win streak at 90 consecutive wins.  (Incidentally, Stanford was the last team to beat the Huskies, in the national semi-finals in 2008.)

Do you think the response to UConn’s streak is an anomaly or is sexist thinking alive and well in North America?  What bee is buzzing around your bonnet today?

Image: Hoop Dreams II by DJG_The_Generalist via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.
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36 responses to “I Am Woman, Hear Me Score

  1. It is true that Mia Hamm (or was it Brandy?) got much more publicity when she stripped off her jersey to reveal a completely covering sports bra.

    See, it’s the boobs. From ludicrous comments by crusty golfers that women can’t play the game because their boobs get in the way, to the guys who suggest that the girls play in bikinis, it’s all about the boobs.

    Which makes you wonder who is the real boob, huh???

    • The densest concentration of boobs I’ve seen recently is in the comments section of any article on women’s sports on espn.com.

      And, yes, that was Brandi Chastain who tore off her soccer jersey in celebration after scoring the winning penalty kick in that year’s World Cup. And, yes, I do believe her individual star may have risen even higher after that particular moment.

      So, yeah, I’d have to agree: it’s all about the boobs.

  2. I am amazed at the comments left by most people on news sites and on sites such as ESPN. Once anonymity is basically guaranteed, it seems common sense and just plain courtesy go out the window.

    What UConn’s women’s basketball team has done is amazing! Why, many will ask? First, if you were not an athlete in college, think of what you were doing: partying, maybe studying, maybe an internship? These women are athletes. They do study and go to classes but do so around a rather rigorous schedule of practices – both on the court and in a fitness center. It is hard enough to get through college and play any level sport but do so and have such fantastic results is truly close to impossible.

    Second, this is a testament to the coaching staff as well as the team. 89 wins is several (I am unsure how many games are played in one season, including post-season tournaments) seasons or teams worth of work. This type of record – and that of Wooden’s team in the 70’s – is the type that has changing parts. It is not like the same women – or in Wooden’s case, men – were on the court the entire time the streak was in the making.

    Sexist attitudes are alive and well. They show up in many areas of our society – college sports just being the one most in the media at the moment.

    • You’re right, Nicki. The coaching staffs deserve a lot of credit. The current UConn streak encompasses 2+ seasons. I believe that the UCLA streak included parts of at least three seasons and three national championships. Incredible in both cases.

      I also think you make an important point about the lack of responsibility that seems to accompany anonymity for some people once they start surfing the Web. The only truly nasty comment I ever received on my blog was from an anonymous gentleman who provided a fake email address and no link to his own website. It makes me wonder about what motivates people. I’m all for heated, respectful debate, but when the only thing you have to say is an insult or a string of nonsense, why take the time to write it down?

  3. Yesterday before seeing a movie, I saw not one, but two previews for movies that objectify women in a comedic fashion. I can’t remember either one now, but I was incensed. I guess if racism is still rampant, sexism can be too. I will continue to flex my muscles in my classroom, reminding my students that women are strong too!

    • I always wonder who goes to those movies. And I guess the answer is the same people who waste their time writing nasty things about female athletes on ESPN message boards. (By the way, I think that Husband and I may see a movie this weekend, most likely “True Grit.” I think the only major female character in it is played by a hardcore 14-year old girl so hopefully that wasn’t one of the previews you saw.)

  4. Oh, this subject gets my dander up, too. As a collegiate athlete myself back in the day, I’m well aware of the unbalanced media coverage, financial backing, etc given to women’s sports. And I’ve never understood those comments about women’s basketball being ‘boring’ to watch either. I admit my own father and husband, both supporters of women in sports, have joked about it. And it always pisses me off. Congrats to UConn women! (I had NO idea…haven’t seen ANY coverage of it.) Grrr.

    • As a big-time UConn fan, I will accept your congratulations on the team’s behalf. 😉

      Their streak is in serious jeopardy on Thursday night, by the way, when they play a road game at Stanford. Not only was Stanford the last team to beat UConn (in the 2008 national semi-finals) and the team that UConn beat to win their national championship last season, but they also have a great team again this year. The game is being nationally televised on ESPN2 at 9 p.m. EST. (I know that’s a little early in your neck of the woods; maybe you can watch it with your boys over dinner – call it this week’s family movie night!)

  5. Sexism is alive and well in this country (and around the world). As a strong independent female, I sense it not only in women’s sports, but in broadcast journalism as well. And if there is no “spark” in the media coverage to ignite a flame of interest, as you said, the issue of lack of coverage (and respect) for women’s sports will continue. I feel this way and I’m NOT nor have I ever been an athlete in the least.

    • Hi Kimberly – Your comment made me think back to the coverage of the prominent female candidates in the 2008 presidential campaign. Say what you will about Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin – good, bad, or otherwise – but it boggled my mind how much attention was paid to things like their haircuts and wardrobes. Sure, attitudes toward women need to change and perhaps the media reflects the attitudes of the people, but, as you said, the media also has the power to change the way the story is being told. If female athletes and political candidates are handled in the same way as their male counterparts, who’s to say that public attitudes might not follow suit?

  6. I don’t know what to say. I love The Mother’s comment.
    But I thank you for your provacative words.
    I will add one tiny, perhaps unrelated tidbit: my 14-year old son plays basketball. His comment this year was, “The girl’s game is rougher. Their elbows are everywhere!”

  7. I think that women are part of the problem. The cattiness and infighting that I see blows me away. I posted this tweet yesterday:

    If women ruled the world there would be no wars. Just a bunch of jealous countries not talking to each other.

    I see that scenario acted out daily. With my daughter we never have playdates that involve odd numbers because invariably the girls gang up on each other. That is not to say that it doesn’t happen with boys, but it is less frequent.

    Let me clarify something, I am not saying that women are solely responsible here- not by a long shot.

    But women are just crazy sometimes the way that you all tear each other down and apart.

    As for the streak I respect it and think that is is very cool and noteworthy. But I still don’t find women’s basketball to be particularly entertaining. The women are fundamentally more sound than the men, but the game just doesn’t hold me.

    FWIW, I kind of enjoy watching women’s soccer.

    • Hi Jack – I think you make a valid point about women often being each other’s own worst enemies. I don’t think it applies as much in the case of the coverage of this streak, though. Of all the bone-headed things I’ve read by professional and amateur commentators, I would be shocked if at least 99% of them didn’t come from men.

      And don’t get me wrong: I don’t have a problem with anyone saying that he or she doesn’t care for women’s basketball. Fine by me. It just infuriates me when people – and, yes, in this case, I do think it’s mostly men – imply that women shouldn’t even bother playing a sport because they’re not attractive or less talented or not scantily clad enough.

      By the way, since I’m sure you were dying to know, my preference for basketball viewing these days ranks college basketball (women’s and men’s) way ahead of the NBA. I just can’t stand the lack of defense I see played by so many NBA teams. As for men’s college hoops, I’m getting more and more tired of all the recruiting scandals (including those by the UConn men, but John Calipari is the worst of the lot, it seems to me), alleged pay-for-play deals, etc.

  8. Kristen, I knew you would be talking about this eventually and I am very glad you raised awareness to this important issue. My husband was incensed when he read/heard the absolutely ludicrous, and sexist, remarks made about your UConn team. It’s one thing to not be interested in women’s basketball but another thing to discredit their talent and the talent of their coaching staff. Their record is impeccable and should receive all the accolades that are often reserved to the male sports teams.

    On another note, I don’t believe the disinterest in female college sports is sexism. Well, not entirely.

    I will readily admit that I don’t find women’s basketball or women’s soccer that entertaining. (OK, truthfully I don’t find soccer entertaining at all.) At the same time, I prefer women’s volleyball (without the bikinis), women’s gymnastics, and women’s dance over the male versions of these sports. As for track and field and swimming events, I have no preference as I enjoy both sides.

    Perhaps the issue is socialization. It is more aesthetically pleasing to watch a female dance than to watch a male dance. At the same time, it’s more thrilling to see men tackle each other than to see women tackle each other. Is this sexism? Probably. But it is age-old sexism that began centuries ago. I do know that I fight this image with myself and with my children constantly. I encourage Andrew to dance and Emily to tackle because I want them to know that there is no typical male or female sports even though they will be told that for most of their lives. They can do what they want and we (Ben and I) will be at their performances wildly cheering or demurely clapping. Whatever is appropriate.

    The problem is bringing sex into the sports. If men admit to enjoying female sports only if boobs are involved, then what does that suggest? The over-sexualized image of women. Sure we might think we’ve made headway in certain areas but our image is the same it has always been: to the broader public we are seen and treated as sexual icons.

    Perhaps this is the issue we should tackle first, huh?

    • I have a feeling that if every parent took the same approach as you and Ben – readily accepting and encouraging whatever sport or activity their children choose to do, regardless of gender stereotypes – this issue might be solved within a generation. So if you guys are on board and so are we, we’ve only got a few million more people to convince, right? No problem! 🙂

  9. We all know that sexism, and an assortment of other “isms” are alive and well. Perhaps diminished, but alive and well nonetheless.

    Must we fashion a college basketball version of the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King media event, in order to generate interest?

    As for chicken and the egg, wouldn’t additional coverage assist in generating additional interest?

    • I think that “Battle of the Sexes” sporting events are generally a no-win proposition. In the case of basketball, while the sport is the same, the physical differences between men and women (I’m thinking, for instance, of average height alone) weigh the odds heavily against a female victory – and therefore a media-staged event would probably just reinforce the conclusions already reached by many.

      What I dream of is a day when women’s sports and female athletes can be judged without comparison to their male equivalents. I don’t want women’s basketball to have to become more like men’s basketball to be taken seriously and to have its athletes be respected.

      Dream on, I know.

  10. Just like couch potatoes or Monday morning quarterbacks to rain on someone else’s parade. It is sad that the talent of so many is overshadowed by their sex.

    I wonder how many of those bozos actually have any other talent besides spouting out of their mouths the little that is in their heads….

  11. I was cutting wood with a saw last week when my daughter (MY DAUGHTER!!!) asked me, “you can do that, even though you’re a girl?”

    My jaw hit the floor. Yes, sexism is alive and well. Even in our own midst. We have our work cut out for us.

    And, being a complete sports nincompoop, I didn’t know anything about U Conns great record or the perverse reaction. Boo to the haters. Congrats to the team on an amazing string of victories.

  12. Before the most recent game with Stanford, I remember watching a documentary of sorts on the two teams, their previous match-up, interviews with star players, coverage of practices and games, etc. It was so interesting, more than anything I had seen about a men’s college team, where the story always seems to be the same (athletes supported by family, talent nurtured from a young age, dreams come true despite some kind of adversity, etc., etc., etc.). It is a sad testament to the disparity of coverage when the same old story trumps real news.

    • Especially at a time when big time men’s college sports are plagued by problems big and small (recruiting violations, athletes flunking out of school, “pay for play” schemes, etc.), it seems like a great time to highlight the comparatively high academic standing and graduation rates of female athletes.

      UConn’s Maya Moore, for instance, is not only a two-time national player of the year, but she’s also an Academic All-American. Funny how female athletes still have to focus on their studies without the promise of a big paycheck playing professional sports. (A men’s player of comparable talent would be a multi-millionaire by this time next year, whereas she will likely supplement her modest WNBA income by playing professionally in Europe or the Middle East where women’s players are paid quite a bit more.)

  13. Let’s give credit where credit is due! How frustrating! I think the word nincompoop is perfect to describe most of those commentators.

  14. Kristen, what a phenomenal post! And it’s absolutely ludicrous first what people say under the cloak of anonymity (how can they be so hateful?) and for the lack of coverage to fine athletes, of any gender.

    Watching my daughter start her sports experience this year has been truly breathtaking to me since I was born before Title IX. She’s a great little athlete and if she continues being one the idea that all this sexism exists in the world of sports is nauseating.

    • Hi Linda – I grew up playing basketball. I wasn’t great, but I was good enough, and it never occurred to me that someone would say that I shouldn’t bother playing because I wasn’t as tall or as strong as my brother or some other boy. So the good news is that I think many girls play sports without ever facing the ugliness that was so prevalent among the commentators I mentioned. I sincerely hope that your daughter, who is 20+ years younger than me, will have an experience that was even more positive than mine – one that taught me about respecting my body, hard work, teamwork, celebrating victory, and dealing with defeat.

  15. If people who feel good about themselves are generally kind (and I do hold this to be true), then perhaps a lot of male sports commentators are struggling with some underlying self-esteem issues.

    While I’m not a huge sports-fan, I do like watching women’s basketball (and soccer) and I like watching the men play too. What I found myself thinking about a lot last weekend when watching men’s pro basketball with my family… was about the high value of the mute button (given the truly startling level of inanity of the comments).

    I like to think (hope?) that the most vociferous anti-women comments around the blogosphere (and media personalities) may come from those who feel most threatened, but they may not represent the accurate sentiment of the group as a whole. Like any conservative organization under threat (not from women, but from alternate streams of media) mainstream media seems to be regressing ludicrously (as if there was room for downward slippage) in the wake of its own imminent slide into potential marginalization (when enough of us hit the mute button on the ignorance and they realize no one is listening).

    Either way—Go U-Conn!

    • I’m sure you’re right, Bruce. In my daily life I almost never hear sexist comments – and perhaps that is why I was so surprised by the number and vociferousness of the ones I saw online in the wake of UConn setting this record. I should mention, however belatedly, that there were a number of comments (fewer and less outrageously-phrased) saluting the women’s achievement – and I took most of these to be from men as well.

      Let’s hope we can move closer toward a place where all people feel supported and respected in whatever endeavors they choose so that one person’s lack of self-regard doesn’t have to degrade the well-being and accomplishments of another.

  16. Great post and discussion. Gets my blood boiling to read about the sexist comments regarding women basketball players and their appearance. Also, I have a really strong reaction to the idea that girls and women are “catty” and “crazy.” I think that women are socialized to use language and relationships as a way to jockey for power, whereas men are taught to use strength and physical contact. Girls are not encouraged to express anger in an overt way, and they are told to be “nice.” As a result, competition goes underground and comes out in passive-aggressive ways, such as gossiping. If we encouraged women to be authentic and to take care of themselves (rather than focusing on the needs of others and ignoring their own), then women might feel comfortable using more direct means of communication and interaction. And another thing–if we were comfortable with women being physically strong and powerful, then we wouldn’t have to sexualize and demean them (as our culture does to female athletes).

    Okay, I’m done now. Thanks for letting me vent, Kristen, and for calling attention to the amazing accomplishments of the UConn team.

    • Hi Dana – I think your comment is a great companion to Bruce’s. Both have me thinking about the ways in which our own reluctance and/or inability to be true to ourselves leads us to attack and degrade others. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could move toward a society where girls are taught to be strong (physically and emotionally) and to celebrate their strength – and where boys are accepted for being whatever or whoever they truly are? I imagine we wouldn’t be having this discussion if we were closer to that place.

  17. It’s a vicious circle. If there’s no coverage of women’s sports, it’s harder for the public to be interested, and of course that has a knock-on effect on the funding. In the UK it’s hard to find any coverage of women’s sporting events outside of the Olympics, which I think is pretty poor.

  18. I graduated from UConn and can say that with or without external media coverage, all the talk on campus was about the men’s team. There was no excitement or hype for the women even though they consistently had a better record than the men’s team. It’s sad – and a sad commentary on our society.

    I’ve also noted several discussions and articles by major media outlets regarding the media coverage (or lack thereof). I cannot speak to the comments by the ignorant lots, but the tone was very similar to your post: Why are women’s sports less valued than men’s?

    Go UCONN! I hope to see 90+ when we bring Stanford down.

    • I was hoping for the same thing, Cathy, but our wish did not come true. Oh well – I guess Geno & Co. will have to get started on a new streak. (They’ve already had streaks of 70 and 90 now. Should we shoot for 110 this time around?!) 🙂

  19. I was really disappointed that they lost to Stanford. Couldn’t help but wonder if they got caught up in the hype and the moment.

    I think that a lot of men don’t understand what kind of athletes these women are. I used to work a Division 1 university and spent a lot of hours playing basketball at the gym there. It wasn’t uncommon to have women play with us. Some of them were former players who were exceptionally good.

    I used to talk trash sometimes for the sole purpose of goading them into playing my game under the basket. I did it because they were better than I was, at least until they came down low where I was able to take advantage of my strength.

    But the truth is that those games are where I really learned about how good some of these women were. Prior to that I probably didn’t think much of them.

    • I was really disappointed too. They really didn’t play very well. Stanford’s defense was able to contain Maya Moore (UConn’s star) and no one else stepped up to pick up the slack. (What’s really amazing is that UConn went 90 games in a row without that happening – either Maya was on fire or someone else filled in the blanks if she couldn’t – so it was an odd thing to see as a UConn fan.) But all credit due to Stanford for sticking to their game plan. I predict these teams will meet again in the tournament this March.

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