The March Madness of Women in Sports

It's that time of the year of again: the time for basketball fans to go completely crazy for an entire month (or so) of pure, unadulterated joy.  Not to mention their right of control on any and all remotes which exist for the television and its accoutrements.  I freely confess that the world of professional men's basketball is completely uninteresting to me: the "team" concept seems to have gone out the window long ago, and replaced by one, if not two, players capable of beginning a dunk leap from beyond the 3-point arc. However, I did catch part of the Slam Dunk Contest during the all-star week this year, and was quite impressed by Nate Robinson's winning dunk. And his sneakers.  Truly.

My love of basketball is of the college variety, and in particular, the women's college variety.  I already know that some of you out there are UConn faithful, and perhaps I'll get something of a backlash for what I'm about to say, but: the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers and Pat Summitt are my team and my coach.  For me, March Madness ended (UConn fans, stop your gloating and grins of glee) Sunday when my Lady Vols lost to Ball State (?!; admittedly, they played a fantastic game and all season, Tennessee needed to get their act together and was unable to do so) in the first round of the NCAA tournament, something that has never happened in the history of the program. A sad day for all in Rocky Top.

So while I've hung my orange UT hat up til November, I can't help but hope this year's women's tournament develops good story lines so more people pay attention to the value and necessity of women's sports.  In spite of Title IX for girls and young women in school athletics, I feel that female athletes don't get nearly enough attention, and certainly in their professional lives, don't get nearly enough parity with men.  I was happy to read the New York Times profile piece on Oklahoma's Courtney Paris, who has vowed that should the Sooners not win the NCAA championship this year, Paris will repay Oklahoma the entire amount of her athletic scholarship.  Why?  Because Courtney Paris feels that the only validation of Oklahoma spending that much money on her would be a national title, and anything less than that is unacceptable.

And then there's last year's story about Central Washington and Western Oregon's softball game, which you can read about and watch the ESPN clip of the story here, courtesy of the Well blog on The New York Times.  I still can't describe the feeling I get watching this particular story.  Too often, we hear stories of athletes who test positive for doping violations, see them physically transform before our eyes from their playing days to testimonies before Congress, or marvel at the amount of salary paid just for playing a game.  What's sad is that not only do we hear these stories too much, but when the stories about a Courtney Paris or the women of both the Central Washington and Western Oregon softball teams do surface we express genuine surprise at players who do the right thing, simply because it's the right thing to do.

I'm not suggesting that such stories aren't possible in the world of men's athletics; they're out there, I'm sure.  It's just too bad that we don't hear about them more often.  Similarly, in a way, it's too bad that we usually only hear of what I'll call such "warm, fuzzy" stories from the world of women's sports. While we shouldn't take away anything from these genuine displays of sports(wo)manship, something which may or may not be becoming a foreign concept, but you have to wonder: will we ever be able to see an athletic contest between two women's basketball teams, or softball teams, of lacrosse teams, etc., as a good and glued-to-the-tv worthy type of game to watch?

As a final bit of food for thought, consider the March cover of ESPN magazine with Candace Parker, an image you can see here courtesy of the WNBA.  Parker, during her college days, played for the University of Tennessee, and is, perhaps arguably, the greatest female basketball player we've ever seen.  In some ways, the cover is remarkable: her appearance marks the first time a pregnant female athlete has graced the cover of any magazine.  This, ostensibly, should be a good thing: we can celebrate not only Parker's greatness as an athlete, but also appreciate her ability to not lose sight of her own personal desires and wishes, namely, motherhood.  Yet, the cover and article, which you can find here, are slightly problematic.  First, the headline: in asking how "big" Parker can get, we're not just talking about her basketball game. Second, the first paragraph of the article in relation to the title of the article.  What comparing Parker to men's great Michael Jordan has to do either with Parker's skin, legs, or breasts (and whether or not she chooses to "flaunt" them), is still a mystery to me, and I pride myself most days on having adequate critical reading skills.

What frustrates me, at least, about ESPN magazine's portrayal of Parker is that first paragraph, which makes Parker the athlete nothing more than Parker the attractive woman, and, for emphasis, we'll make a reference to her breasts not once but twice just so we get the point across.  I doubt there exists an article comparing the greatness of Michael Jordan to the size of... Well, you get the idea. Why can't we see a female athlete for her athleticism?  Why do have to insist that she's attractive, and truly belabor the point if she is?  Is it too incongruous to accept the Marla Hooches of the world (yes, I adore the film A League of Their Own as well) who are just really good athletes and not care so much if they are aesthetically, as well as athletically, pleasing to watch?

If you are in the midst of your madness this March, I encourage you, even if it's only for five minutes, to switch the channel to a women's game.  I don't think you'll be disappointed by the athleticism you'll see.

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