When I wrote Lady Hoopsters: a History of Women’s Basketball, 20 years ago, I outlined the long struggle of women basketball players to go beyond limits placed on “ladies” – the practice of playing “girl ball”—to become the strong unfettered athletes they could be. In 1998 Sylvia Crawley, at the ABL (American Basketball League—now defunct) All-Star Game slam dunk contest, exploded to the hoop in a spectacular, blindfolded dunk. After that dunk, Atlanta Glory’s Teresa Edwards said little girls would see that dunk and say, “I could do that too.” She added that all the people who have said they don’t watch women’s basketball “’cause you can’t dunk’” would have no more excuse—no more girl ball. But 20 years later, girl ball lives in the NCAA.
At this year’s site for the women’s college basketball tournament in San Antonio, the disparity between the men and women’s status was made clear. Stanford coach Ali Kerschner and Oregon player Sedona Prince posted images of a lavish weight room provided to the men players while they got six or seven dumbbells on a rack. Featured pictures also showed the difference in amenities (“swag bags”) and the food provided. As I recall there were similar differences in NBA and WNBA bubbles last season. After a public outcry about the NCAA’s actions (greatly) helped along by the tweets from male pro players like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, the NCAA apologized and improved conditions. But that was after the outcry—it was not the NCAA’s “normal” attitude, which defined their original behavior.
Unfortunately the NCAA’s views of female athletes has been way too prevalent for a long time. There’s something about strong, capable women ballplayers that does not seem quite acceptable. Girl ball has survived to preserve femaleness and femininity—and to institute limitations to preserve them. So maybe just providing six dumbbells to the women athletes could help do that. In 1912 Dr. Dudley A. Sargent worried in the Ladies Home Journal that athletics were making girls masculine, while exhausting them, and straining their hearts and lungs. In 1969 Dr. Paul Weiss suggested in High School Sport that women athletes should be viewed as “truncated males.” And Sedona Prince tweeted in 2021—about those dumbbells—that people just don’t think women need weight training.
Women were among the first to try Dr. James Naismith’s sport—in the 1890s in trailing dresses and bustles. And Senda Berenson’s pioneering of college hoops at Smith College in 1893 was met enthusiastically by her players, but her “authorized” version always sought to keep “self-control” and being “feminine,” “even in the most exciting game of basketball.” As the game spread, many young women, especially in rural areas and in the West, played with men’s rules and in a “rough and tumble way.” Until 1970, colleges and high schools avoided competitive games, but in the 1930s through 1950, women played on AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and industrial league teams, often with men’s rules (not just one dribble and pass) and at a highly competitive level, producing stars like Babe Didrikson and the remarkable Philadelphia center Ora Washington. The professional All-American Red Heads toured the country bringing their wizardry—but also serious, very skilled basketball.
With the women’s movement and Title IX, women’s basketball exploded in the 1970s: going full court with the college game which showcased superstars like Cheryl Miller and Ann Meyers. The professional Women’s Basketball League was formed in 1978, lasting three years, and the American Basketball League, consciously not having “women” in their title, started in 1996, lasting two years and producing Crawley’s dunk. The Women’s NBA started in 1997—some thought relegating women to a summer game trivialized their game—but it’s still going, as is competitive high school and women’s college games. The problem is the symbol of those six dumbbells remains.
When I was a graduate student at Syracuse in the ‘80s, there was a bit of a contrast between the several hundred fans at Manley Field House for the women’s basketball games versus the many thousands at the Carrier Dome for the men. Still is a contrast there in attention, even though the women were ranked much higher than the men this season. The TV coverage is much better for women’s games than 20 years ago, especially for top teams like UConn; of course, having more sports channels helps. The women’s style is basically the same as the men’s. Years ago, women were more likely to favor a lot of passing; now they do long-range shots and crash the boards. But the male halftime commentator, during an SU—North Carolina game in December of last year, when SU was down quite a bit, asked, ”What does Coach Q tell his ladies?” So.
The goal for elite women basketball players is the women’s NBA. According to a 2016 piece in ESPN Magazine, and this situation still prevails, after college WNBA players “exist in a perpetual state of motion.” They play five months in the US during the summer, not the usual basketball season, making an average of $76,500 a year. About half the players go overseas for a second paycheck, one much bigger than their US one, in Europe, Turkey, China or Russia. They’ve done that for decades, but many hoped that was over with the WNBA. The WNBA will not make star college players more recognizable than they were in college. The ESPN article featured Brittany Griner, a Phoenix player who made $600,000 for four months playing in China, and Diana Taurasi, very well known at UConn, and also (still) with Phoenix, last playing in Russia in 2017, a place she really enjoyed and where she played with Griner (they were well-paid). But they would both rather just be home.
Twenty years ago I interviewed basketball greats Nancy Lieberman and Carol Blazejowski for Lady Hoopsters. Blazejowski broke the Madison Square Garden male and female scoring record in 1977 with her 52 points as her Montclair State team beat Queens College, 109-91. She played with the WBL’s New Jersey Gems before working for the WNBA. She said in the late 70s, “I can’t think about what I should have, which I could have if I was a guy.” Lieberman always wanted to play with the guys. And she did, playing in the men’s pro summer league in the 1980s. I also watched her happily coach retired pro guys in a summertime “3-Ball League.” They both seem to have eased into establishment NBA life now—with Lieberman marking women’s history month by celebrating establishment media stars Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid, and Blazejowski, who was talking a lot about the WNBA being a “good product” in 2000, still on board with that concept, a New York Liberty executive very much market-oriented.
There have been some female firsts of note in the NBA as well. There are currently five women referees, with Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder the first women to be a two-person team for a game. Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were the first women NBA refs hired in 1997 (with Kantner fired inexplicably with no warning a couple years later). There has been some questioning of their authority by players—but then the players question the men too. Very few women are NBA commentators, with the notable exception of Doris Burke for ESPN, although they are for the WNBA. The WNBA also allows them to do play-by-play, which the NBA never has. Few major sports believe women have an “authoritative” enough voice for such a role. Again, the one exception remains, Suzyn Waldman, doing Yankee play-by-play for 32 years. And then there’s Becky Hammon: first ever woman NBA assistant coach with Greg Popovich’s Spurs. When Pop was ejected at the end of last year, he turned to Hammon to take over: “You’ve got them.” On being the first woman to serve as head coach, she said “Obviously it’s a big deal.” Hammon played 16 years in the WNBA, a six-time all-star passed over for the US Olympic team, and so she played for (wait for it!) Russia in 2008 and 2012.
No woman has played in the NBA. Ann Meyers was drafted by the Pacers in 1979 and she took it seriously, although most did not, but was cut after a few days at rookie camp. She was disappointed, saying people keep saying attitudes about “women playing competitive sports with men will change in five to ten years, but they’ve been saying that for the last 50 years.” Yeah. The woman James Harden calls “the GOAT” (greatest woman player of all time), Cynthia Cooper, also hoped for better respect and acknowledgement. She led numerous teams to the Italian League championship in the 80s and 90s —her only playing option at the time. She was 34 when the WNBA was established and she became, as she put it, “a superstar with a team on her back.” She led the Houston Comets to four national championships (before it was dissolved because new ownership could not be found for it…), an absolutely incredible player. She wrote recently in The Players Tribune, that thinking back, she sometimes feels heartbroken because she could not have what Michael Jordan had. She wants that recognition, but she knows she was “a pretty good player.”
New challenges always arrive for athletes: most recently, the corona virus has played havoc with women’s basketball, as with men’s–cancellations, delays and serious illness. Asia Durr of the NY Liberty, a number two pick in the 2019 draft, was profiled on a recent Real Sports on HBO, as a “covid-19 long- hauler.” As the show made clear, people die from COVID, and some have mild cases, but there are also long-haulers who are horribly debilitated with no certain diagnoses, for Durr though, it’s a likelihood of never playing basketball again. She’s 23: she has fatigue, difficulty breathing, and “brain fog and vertigo.” She just wants to play again.
Another challenge for the WNBA, and high school and college players, is participating in the movement inspired by grotesque and very public police violence against blacks, particularly in the cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Some women kneeled for the national anthem, some wore signs, some said the name of Breonna Taylor, and some missed games. For pro players, it was clear the NBA is a corporate entity and so too then is the WNBA. The struggle soon devolved into a get-out-the-VOTE campaign. Even Maya Moore, of the Minnesota Lynx (and UConn), who is dedicating herself to criminal justice reform and who was instrumental, through prison ministry outreach, in freeing the innocent Jonathan Irons from prison, then marrying him, stopped to get out the VOTE—“the most important election ever!” Only thing is the candidates these people were touting—the co-opting Democrats Biden and Harris, were both very key figures in heightening the criminalization of black people, and in making the prison system much worse for them. All that “social justice” is reflected on the WNBA facebook page: “build community with educators and business leaders.” The corporate message is hard to overcome apparently.
And the patriarchy, the assumption of male-female difference, is also hard to overcome. Former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw tweeted that the outrage over the recent NCAA debacle was appreciated, but a “huge disparity between men’s and women’s sports is hardly breaking news.” And South Carolina coach Dawn Staley—long-time great in the ABL and WNBA—said there’s no answer to the NCAA’s actions. The issue is “that they did not think or do not think that the women players ‘deserve’ the same amenities of the men.” Women basketball players show their strength and athleticism and determination. Just watch them—they’re really good. And they can dunk. Teresa Edwards said in 1998, over 20 years ago, that little girls can see Sylvia Crawley’s dunk and say “I could do that too.” But UCLA coach Cori Close said what the NCAA did in March of 2021 reflects the present-day lives of women in this culture. And it shows boys how “women are valued versus men.” How Big Time sports is a male world. And how women are too often relegated to girl ball. But women players like Sedona Prince and the Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu—who tweeted “WTF is this?”–will fight against notions of femininity and limitations on them as athletes. No girl ball for them.