Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Q at Rethinking Basketball has written one of the best articles I've read from him about gender and marketing in the WNBA.
The title is "What Difference a Year Makes: Why Ahistorical Analyses of Sport Perpetuate Misrepresentations of the WNBA". He writes about the recent placement of Candace Parker on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine, about all of the brouhaha about the first paragraph of the article about her discussing her cup size (of all things), and delves into an analysis of basketball and gender narratives.
1. From a paragraph:
"However, the big difference this time around is that given all the media attention given to Parker and the Olympics last year, speaking from a place self-imposed ignorance about the WNBA no longer carries much credibility. Parker's arrival on the national (and international) sports scene last summer was one of those special moments in sports history that even the below-average lunkhead male would have had a hard time just ignoring. This does not mean we suddenly have a whole lot of enlightened, gender-conscious WNBA commentary...it's just a new sort of ignorance I guess..."
I concur. I don't think a person can pass themselves off as a sportswriter anymore without at least a basic knowledge of the WNBA. Part of the task of being a sportswriter these days is that you have to know a little bit about everything...or at least, you have to be able to fake it. In the old days, sportswriters were assigned one beat (baseball, or whatever) and rarely wrote about other manners. With the rise of television, with the power of syndicated columns and with cutbacks in press coverage, sportwriters are expected to be a bit more ranging in their knowledge. Even if they're called upon to comment upon golf or tennis, they had better know at least the names of the major names in those sports.
Q believes the days of calling yourself a sportswriter and bleating "I don't know anything about the WNBA" are pretty much over. The W might not make the news that much, but it makes it enough. You'd better know something about the league other than the same old tired arguments before you pontificate about its success or failure, not just "I watched one game and I didn't like it."
2. The back half of the blog post elaborates on two different subjects that aren't so much contradictory as that they have a tenuous connection: first, the idea of women as athletes. Second, the idea that other sports have greater gravitas and therefore deserve more attention.
With regard to the first, Q writes that the problem is not so much that men's basketball is inherently exciting because men can do more with a basketball, but the problem is that for many people - even some females - the concept of "female" somehow does not include "athlete". When some people try to put the two together, you can almost hear the computer in their head smoke and belch, with an electronic voice shouting "Does not compute! Does not compute!"
For those unenlightened (and I choose the word deliberately) persons, female athletic achievement can only be understood in comparison to male athletic achievement. Even when outsiders write about the sports and how to improve the WNBA, they either a) make suggestions so that it becomes a version of the male game played by smaller people - lower the rims, etc., or b) fall back on the baseline definition of female as "someone attractive to men" - wear unitards, etc.
(On most threads filled with comments by the red-bellied-woodpeckers (RBWs) among us, one of the suggestions - term defined loosely - for the WNBA is that everyone should be dressing like the women's volleyball players, bikinis and all. At first, I thought this was just gender-bashing, but with the announcement of an actual season of the Lingerie Football League, I'm not so sure...I'm coming to believe that these RBWs thought they were actually giving rational advice!)
The second part - the part about the legitimacy of a league in the public eye - I've written about before. Particularly, in the first two decades of baseball, basketball and football the new-born leagues were racked with franchise relocations, collapses, and other embarassing failures.
I believe that the acceptance of the WNBA is closely linked to Kubler-Rosses Five Stages of terminal illness - in this case, not so much as an illness as a paradigm shift and the death of an idea that Women Are Supposed To Be In This Box and Never Come Out of It. It's about being forced to expand one's perception not just about athletes and athletics, but about gender roles:
1. Denial: "The WNBA? What's that? Who cares?"
2. Anger: "God, that league sucks! It's nothing but a bunch of lesbians! David Stern should do something about that league! I swear, if ESPN reports one more time about the WNBA, I'll go to CBS Sports!"
3. Bargaining: "You know the WNBA is inferior. Therefore, you should go along with me and no one should follow it." "You can't win. The interests against the WNBA are too entrenched. Give up."
And when that doesn't work, "I'd like the WNBA, but why do they have to shove it down my throat? Why does ESPN have to report on its front page? Why does ESPN have to show this on TV when they could show (soccer, more baseball, D-league)? If the WNBA just wouldn't do (X) I could put up with it."
I expect in the next 20 years, we'll hit the Depression stage.
"What ever happened to women at least trying to be attractive? Who could it hurt?"
"Women have completely destroyed sports. It used to be that a man had a refuge."
"Remember the days when you didn't have to put the word 'men's' in front of a sport?"
However, don't lose hope. I suspect a few have moved on to Acceptance. "Acceptance" doesn't mean watching the WNBA, it just means not getting your underwear all wound up about it. In the same way that I "accept" NASCAR. (Sorry, it's just not my thing.)
But I digress. Good blog post. Go read it.