It's Time to Pass the Ball to Girls
Art by Kirsten Hemrich
I played basketball throughout high school and middle school, and before that I played on travel teams and in intramural leagues, and before that I played in my cul de sac with my two older brothers and dad. Basketball was a big part of my identity, something that shaped me and helped me grow.
Unfortunately, the sad fact in my life is that boy’s basketball is considered simply more interesting than girl’s basketball. Women are shorter, not as strong, slower... I’ve heard it all enough for it to sink in. On every level, from high school to professional, people prefer the male side of the sport to the female. In high school, there would be a student section filled with peers at the boy’s games while we, the girl’s team, were lucky if some of our friends came and sat with our parents. This was the case even in years when the girl’s team was undefeated, and the boy’s team barely came out even! Looking to college, each year the men’s college basketball NCAA March Madness tournament is an event of the season; one does not have to look further than UVA Grounds to realize the excitement surrounding men’s basketball and the tournament. But where are the ESPN college game days for the girls’ team? Why aren’t people collecting sabre points for tickets to their games?
We know that society has always been behind the curve in terms of inclusion and representation of women, whether it’s here at UVA (check out Devin’s piece about it!) or basically any other long-standing institution. In fact, the WNBA only was founded in 1996 and started to play in 1997 (to give you some perspective, that was the year I was born). Since then, the WNBA has struggled to achieve success. At the highest level--the professional leagues--the WNBA’s reputation, coverage, and viewership are so sad, it is pointless to compare them to those of the NBA.
In an episode of the comedy show Broad City, NBA player Blake Griffin guest stars as himself and has a line where he says he watches the pro women playing so that he can steal their moves. The humor comes across because of the “absurdity” that a famous men’s basketball player would ever have something to learn from his female counterparts. But this statement is also poignant. If an NBA superstar is watching “girls'’” basketball, why aren’t we all? When did we decide that girls' sports aren’t interesting?
Girls' sports are different, I will give you that. My teammates and I would come up with basketball themed lyrics to Ke$ha songs (like true middle schoolers); we would purposely not cut our nails before playing a team we hated; we would use our butts and our hips to box out; and we would share hair ties and tampons and sports bras when someone forgot one. If that’s different, I want different. But different isn’t always profitable.
Let’s look at the NBA: athletic players with experienced coaches and owners. They’re all rich, and they stay rich by winning games and bringing in a large viewership, thus selling tickets and selling merchandise. If you’re one of the best players, you can make even more money with brand deals and endorsements. The money can start even younger, with bribes for young male players starting with college recruiting.
This is not the case with WNBA players. The most successful men’s professionals are millionaires. The most successful women’s professionals have to play overseas in the off-season to make enough money.
There is a lot of money going into marketing and media for the NBA because the people in charge know they will get money back. And if there’s one thing old white guys love, it’s money. The same cannot be said for the WNBA. However, it’s not the money so much that bothers me, it’s people not appreciating how talented and self-sufficient female pro athletes are. They are courageous and they are tough because they have to be, because from the start they learned the hard way that they are never going to receive the same attention as the guys.
In high school, we made it so whoever was on the bench was our own student section (because the school didn’t even bother to put down the bleachers). We clapped and cheered and screamed so loud we lost our voices. I learned that if no one else is there to cheer you on, cheer on yourself.
While the women’s franchise may not be raking in money or views, they are still powerful. Players in the WNBA have been protesting and kneeling for a long time. Undeterred from a world that loves to put them down, the players used their voices to help stand up for their beliefs. And they did this long before the media sensationalism of the recent months, proving again that these independent women are acting without thought for ratings or coverage or press. They work hard, play hard, and support each other hard. Beyond any debates for reasons behind these gender disparities, it’s clear that these women deserve our respect and our support.