Woe is the WNBA
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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Four days in a row recently, I'm riding in my car and tune in to various sports talk shows. Two of those days I was at home here in Los Angeles. Another day I was in New York. Another in South Carolina. Each time I wind up in the middle of one of these typical 3-hour yack cycles with two or three male hosts who yell on top of each other and rarely offer a unique or intelligent insight. I was looking for some post-NBA season breakdown, some Wimbledon prep, some baseball analysis. But all four, for more than a few minutes, mind you... in one case, for more than an hour, were engaged in loud, vitriolic, slam punches on the WNBA. "Come on" says one meat-head, "This is the worst league in the history of sports. It's an embarrassment. Tell you the truth, I'd rather pay good money to sit in front of a wall and watch paint dry!"
Two other guys scream at the top of their lungs back and forth about how the women can't shoot, they can't jump, there are only four decent athletes in the league, and their 8-year-old sons play a better brand of basketball than these professional women.
Well, there is something in the venom of these men's voices that hits me. Something along the lines of "methinks they do protest too much".
It's true that the WNBA, now in its tenth year, is struggling. Attendance has dropped off through the decade, last year teams averaging only just over 8,000 fans per game. But many leagues, such as Major League Soccer, even the NBA, have proven that it takes time to grow. But what is all this baloney mouthing off about the league being embarrassingly shallow? The cream of the college crop fills out the rosters of the 14 WNBA teams and they are nothing short of exceptional athletes. Why is it that the UConn and Tennessee and North Carolina women's teams can draw full capacity crowds, provide top-level entertainment, and command respect for their athletic abilities as well as their well-coached skills, but when the best of those players reach the WNBA, suddenly they're slow and unskilled and simply don't know how to play the game? Is it that the college game is all about team spirit and big effort but once you're a pro, you're now asking people to pay their hard-earned money to watch you so the standards jack up several levels?
Just what is it that gets these sports talk jocks so heated up and seemingly driven to bash the women's pro players?
I'm thinking it's the age-old locker-room mentality. There's something to male team sports being the very last bastion of masculinity in our society. Women have taken their rightful places elbow to elbow with the upper echelon of men in every other realm, from Universities to the Supreme Court. But the Big Three, football, basketball, and baseball are still The Male Domain. Women do play baseball, even football, but in very low profile leagues. The WNBA carries on its business in the NBA arenas and on television and the mere fact that women dare to streak across that same sacred hardwood seems to threaten and offend the hard-core male sports sensibility. We are flying fighter tomcats and using mega weapons side by side with men soldiers in Iraq, but God forbid we should dare to whip no-look passes under the hallowed hoops of what was once male-only territory.
Somewhat related to today's topic, I've just finished reading a new book called Best Seat in the House, written by USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. Here's a woman who grew up adoring her father... and adoring sports because of her father. They hunkered around the radio in Toledo, Ohio, to listen to baseball, basketball, football games together. They traveled to Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati to spend afternoons at ball parks together. It's a wonderful read and a reminder that there are indeed women who understand and even live the heart and soul of men's sports. Listen up, all you radio shock jocks: Women can write and talk about sports. They can coach and officiate sports. And they can play some darn good basketball.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
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