Monday, December 14, 2009

My Girls Syndrome

During the Maggie Dixon Classic, head coach Pat Summitt of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers and head coach C. Vivian Stringer of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights were asked their opinions regarding the troubles of the WNBA.
What you got were two very different answers.

First, Summitt:

"It's disturbing and hopefully we're not going to lose our league. I think we have to rally for the cause really bothered me when I heard it and it still does. I think that's why all of us in the women's game need a voice."

Then, Stringer:

"There was a time that we played for the love of the game. I am actually going to give you two answers on this. One is, I think that maybe parents will back off, and maybe kids will begin to play the game for the right reason. I say that because you also notice, coincidentally, during this time that we have had the WNBA success that there has been a whole lot of transferring. There is whole lot of kids that are coming in here thinking that they are all that, always looking for the program that allows them to have the mat and to let them do their thing. The one thing that has always been true about women's athletics is that it was always for the love of the game. You played and gave everything you possibly can just because you enjoyed playing team basketball together. And then it gets to the point that its "Where's mine?" because I got to make sure that I am in the draft, so you begin to lose this team thing and you begin to wonder what are you looking at? So, I am sad in a way because we need a lot of opportunities for young women....So if we are smart, the athlete will realize that at the end of the day you had better focus on academics, that's what it was always about before. And then I think the by-product is if you happen get an opportunity to play on the professional level, that's good, but the other side is what athletes in college don't realize is that there is two full teams of outstanding athletes that are floundering somewhere in the States because they don't have a job ...You shouldn't be in school to play this sport as a professional. I think that is the biggest mistake you can make. It should be for the reasons that we used to tell athletes all the time, but you begin to change your conversations, and you begin to say what everyone else says-you may have a chance to play in the WNBA."

I don't quite know what to make of Stringer's answer. Part of Stringer's complaint was her bemoaning that women's college basketball is no longer as "pure" as it supposedly was.

Of course, women's college basketball is still much purer than its male counterpart, in the sense that big-time men's basketball seems to be more about moving product and making cash for its participants than it does about honoring the student-athlete or glorifying the goal of the liberal arts to create a well-rounded enlightened person. Women's college basketball doesn't have the popularity to attract the big money. When it does, women's college basketball will lose its "purity" the same way that other college sports like college football lost their purity. (I think college football lost its purity so long ago that it doesn't even remember what purity is anymore. A team of honest student-athletes would be seen as something quaint, belonging perhaps to Division III.)

The only other definition of purity of sport comes (maybe) from second-wave feminism, which didn't want to ape patriarchal institutions if parallel female institutions would create the same kind of jerks that the male-dominated institutions created. Sport - at least as it existed in the 1970s - was highly suspect. Amateur, non-competitive communal sports were the ideal of second-wave feminism.

I don't think that C. Vivian Stringer is talking about this kind of purity - I believe that C. Vivian Stringer is about as competitive as you could possibly be, and if she could make Rutgers the #1 basketball school in the country she'll be just as nasty as Woody Hayes if she has to do it. (The same goes for Summitt - big-level women's basketball coaching is a dog-eat-dog world, where the mice nibble holes in iron.) Stringer can claim that the primary goal of the women's athletic program at Rutgers is to change her charges into enlightenment women, but repeating it doesn't make it so. If Stringer can't win games, she'll face the fate of every college coach. Winning might - and should not be - the number one priority of the players, but for coaches winning takes a much higher priority.

I suspect that a large part of Stringer's complaint comes from sour grapes. Epipphany Prince abandoned her senior year at Rutgers in hopes of making money for her impoverished family by playing in Europe - and perhaps, with an eye to making herself more viable as a WNBA propect. If the WNBA didn't exist, then Prince might have stuck around a bit longer in New Jersey. Stringer would like to have athletes that didn't have one foot out the door, so to speak, and that didn't make unspoken demands on her program because they needed enough minutes and enough playing time to satisfy WNBA scouts. Quite understandable.

(There are some who say that what Stringer was saying was that players should keep in mind that a professional career might not actually pan out and that they should spend more time seeking a degree. In which case, my response is "then she should have said that instead of what she actually did end up saying.")

My question: why wouldn't Stringer think that players wouldn't go to college for the primary goal of playing professsionally? (*) If a person - male or female - has skill in playing basketball, if a person loves playing this game more than doing anything else, and the opportunity comes for that player to be paid for that sport - then why wouldn't you expect getting paid to become a player's ultimate goal? Why wouldn't you expect players to seek careers playing the sport they loved? It sounds almost as if Stringer is asking her players to exchange power for purity, which has historically been a bad deal all around.

Part of this might be what Bob Corwin and others call "My Girls Syndrome". Girls' and women's basketball is not so much a continuum of sport as it seems to be a collection of fiefdoms, each one fiercely protective of its territorial prerogatives. "You can support pro basketball, but not if college basketball has to give something up." "You can support college basketball, but not if high school basketball has to give something up." "You can support high school basketball, but not if the AAU has to give something up." And so on, and so forth, forever. It's why it's called "My Girls Syndrome" - emphasis on 'MY'.

My belief is that there is only one thing that is going to kill My Girls Syndrome - greater mobility between the various levels of women's basketball. Most of the mobility goes in one direction - towards college basketball coaching. WNBA coaches and players want to be college coaches, but college coaches don't want to coach in the W - why give up job security and a nice, fat paycheck? Until the WNBA really starts to pay off, expect college basketball - and its coaches - to exert pressure to keep the college women's basketball pure...of any interference from competing interests.


(*) Insert rant about how there is no minor league system for basketball, about the paternalistic excuses used to tie the NCAA to professional sports, etc.

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