Today is the day for the Final Four matchups between the University of Connecticut and Oregon State women’s basketball teams, as well as the University of Washington and Syracuse. There’s the usual talk about stars and standouts—UConn power forward Breanna Stewart is hands-down the dominant player, but she’s not the only great example, either on her own team or in this year’s tournament. Fans should expect some superb play in both games, as well as in the final on Tuesday.
However, that’s not what people are talking about this week. Instead, we are treated to a spate of articles debating the question, “is the dominance of the UConn team bad for women’s basketball?” We have Dan Shaunessy of the Boston Globe to thank, as he both tweeted and wrote an article to say that the lack of competitors for the UConn team makes women’s basketball (all of it, now!) no longer interesting to watch.
If you want the short version of my response, it’s this:
- It’s arguably false that UConn’s dominance will make people less likely to be interested in women’s basketball. Other sports teams (UCLA men’s basketball coached by John Wooden in the 60’s and 70’s, the New York Yankees baseball team in the 90’s) dominated play, and those sports didn’t wither away from fan inattention.
- Understanding the context of women’s collegiate sports can explain this developmental phase of one-team dominance, and pave the way for more opportunities and support for players and probably more parity among teams.
- Once again, we’re treated to a heaping helping of sports misogyny, setting up impossible and shifting demands on women’s teams—they’re damned if they’re too good, and they’re damned if they’re not good enough; right now “balance” is the word being used—they need to be “just right”…
For those readers who have forgotten (or didn’t get around to this story), my repeated references of “just right” are from a version of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In short, Goldilocks breaks into the house of a bear family while they’re out, eating porridge, breaking furniture, and then sleeping in one of their beds. (*SPOILER ALERT*) She is discovered and escapes.
But in the course of her destruction and consumption and use of property, she keeps looking for the thing that’s “just right”—not too hot, cold, big, small, soft, hard. This idea has even been codified into the Goldilocks Principle, which gets applied in a wide range of disciplines, from economics to climate science. Everyone, it seems, is searching for the elusive “just right”.
Okay, enough about Goldilocks—let’s get back to women’s sports.
Dominance in sports is not unheard-of, either in pro or amateur sports. This year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament was dominated by the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference). There are lots of others cases as well—UCLA men’s basketball, the New York Yankees, Tiger Woods—in which a star or star team garners most of the wins and all of our attention. In a National Public Radio interview this week, the issue came up (I edited this slightly):
(sound clip from UConn coach Geno Auriemma): When Tiger was winning every major, nobody said he was bad for golf. Actually, he did a lot for golf. He made everybody have to be a better golfer.
Interviewer: So what’s your answer to this?
David Ubben: It’s not a great argument. Tiger Woods isn’t recruiting the best golf balls and the best golf clubs to come play for him. Tiger Woods is the golfer. And when he plays, he’s not preventing anyone else from getting better. But Geno Auriemma has to recruit, every single year, the best women’s players in the country. So when he gets a good player, somebody else doesn’t get a good player. And so when you’re asking everyone to improve your game, well, you could start by handing off some of those good players to other programs. And that’s a ludicrous request, but UConn’s still going to be out in front as long as Geno keeps getting the best players and developing the best players. It’s a credit to them, but it’s still not helping the women’s game.
Really? This is an absurd claim, as it assumes that there’s a small but obvious pool of already-great high school players waiting out there to be scooped up. He discounts the value of good developmental coaching, peer motivation, mentoring by other players, social and academic support, training, and cultivation of an atmosphere in which women athletes are supported and lauded.
Big sports does tend towards a star culture (academia does this too), often ignoring the huge pool of great talent that supports those stars, making their superlative performances possible. And UConn did hit the jackpot with Breanna Stewart. But let us remember that, while media treatment of stars dominates sports news, sustaining the practice of sports requires the participation of thousands of players, parents, coaches and trainers, local press, school and facilities staff, etc.
Benjamin Norris of fivethirtyeight.com explains the current developmental state of women’s college basketball here. Below is a nice excerpt:
- There is a lot of talent: Women’s basketball has been the most-played women’s sport at the high school level for decades. Its upper echelon likely has the highest concentration of talent relative to sport participation of any women’s sport other than tennis.
- The top teams recruit well, but not abnormally well, relative to the top men’s teams.
- However, because many of the most talented male players skip college or go abroad or leave for the NBA, a much higher percentage of the best young female basketball players will be playing in college at any given point than the best young male players. Which is to say that if guys like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns stuck around campus for four years, there would be a lot less parity on the men’s side, too.
Norris (in true stats-geek fashion—I love these folks!) provides scads of graphs to show the current state of dominance of both Stewart and the UConn team. (For any of you teachers/professors out there who want examples for showing students how to read graphs, his article has some of the coolest ones ever). But his main point is that there are structural and historical reasons why this pattern of one-team dominance appeared, and, supposing continued development, the pattern will dissipate and more quality play (and parity, too) will ensue.
Finally, what about the “damned if they win, damned if they don’t” problem? Here’s another choice excerpt from that NPR interview:
Interviewer: What do you say to women, especially young women players, who hear this and may think that this kind of argument from Shaughnessy and others is essentially sexism passed off as sports opinion, right? I mean, the idea being that women – we don’t want to watch them. They’re not as good, until they’re really good, and then we say we don’t to watch them because they’re really good. I mean, this is – this is seeming very much like a catch-22.
David Ubben: Yeah, I think there’s certainly something to that. And I think it’s a tough line because I think that it’s hard to sort out. And a lot of times, it’s hard to have honest conversations about, how do we improve the women’s game? How do we fix these issues without sort of being drowned out by, well, you’re being a sexist.
Once again: Really? Instead of answering the question with informed discussion about the developmental state and support of women’s college sports, David Ubben tried to turn the tables and say that, by being challenged on his view, he is being attacked as a sexist. Well, that won’t do at all.
We all know from our experiences in sports (and life) and from reading this blog that women with extreme achievements make people nervous. We hit too hard, grunt too loudly, sweat too much, work out too long, and run too far. Our bodies are too muscular, too hard, too strong, too tall, too big, or too small.
Honestly, we’re all just right. And if you don’t believe me, listen to Skeletor.