A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

UConn’s Streak and Gender in Spectator Sports

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The Connecticut Huskies of women’s college basketball just broke a record that has garnered some crossover attention:  They’ve won 89 games in a row, which breaks the streak of 88 wins that John Wooden‘s UCLA Bruins achieved in men’s college basketball way back when.  Perhaps what’s getting most attention of all though is UConn‘s coach Geno Auriemma taking issue with the attention his team is getting for this accomplishment.

Now there are some layers here:

Yup, Sports Fans are kinda Sexist

People are reacting as if Auriemma is saying that people are expressing ill will toward his players, which leads to the response, “I haven’t heard anything like that, Geno needs to calm down”.  The sad truth is that from my experience, such ill will most likely IS being expressed quite a bit in the private conversations around the country.  No, I’m not alleging that the big name analysts are secretly doing this.  However, having been a veteran of the internet sports message board community, I can tell you I cringe whenever the WNBA comes up in discussion.  Not because I have anything against the WNBA being discussed, it’s just that I know that any discussion along those lines will get much more than its fair share of horribly sexist comments.  As someone tasked to moderate message boards, the moment I see such a thread, I know I’m going to have to watch it like a hawk, and that without help from someone like me, the conversation probably gets completely derailed.  Seeing such sexism, and such immaturity, is easily the time when being a sports fan embarrasses me the most.

So no, if Geno is afraid of ill will, he’s not paranoid at all unfortunately.

Yup, Focusing on the Men’s Record is pretty Sexist

So far as I can tell though, Geno’s big issue is more precise than that.  He points out quite logically that making such a big deal about a women’s team breaking a men’s record, when the media’s never given the same kind of attention to breaking the actual women’s records, makes quite plain that people aren’t giving women’s basketball the same attention in general as men’s basketball.

He’s absolutely right.  At the same time, he’s not really stating anything but the obvious.  Obviously men’s basketball is much more popular than women’s – everyone knows this.  So why bring it up?  Why not just enjoy the moment?

Well, maybe Geno’s doing strategic politicking here, maybe not.  As someone who has made his name in women’s basketball, he’s probably just frustrated at the ghetto that that version of the sport gets placed in, and the specifics of the situation just brought that irritation to the surface.  I’m not going to crucify the guy for that, but the bitter truth is that that ghetto is never going to totally disappear from sports, and there are simple, logical reasons for this.

No, No Sport is Entitled to a Big Spectator Audience

One can pretty accurately describe women’s sports as a type of minor league sport along with junior sporting leagues (like college football) or all but the very best national sports leagues.  Women’s leagues by definition put constraints on the participants that mean that there are superior players of the sport out there not eligible to participate.  This certainly doesn’t mean it’s impossible to achieve great popularity – college football certainly has.  However, that constraint obviously is something that can get in the way of achieving great popularity.

As such, perhaps it’s just as relevant to ask, “Why would we expect more people like women’s basketball than a men’s league with comparable ability?” as it is to ask, “Why don’t more people like women’s basketball?”.  As it happens, the UConn’s women team is more popular than most men’s college basketball teams despite the fact they could not beat those men’s teams in a game.  So from that perspective, women’s basketball is indeed getting a popularity boost compared to one would expect from ability alone – and yet still Geno is irritated.

From a purist’s stand point of course, one who doesn’t care about popularity at all, there’s every reason to be irritated.  Whatever activity you’re putting your heart into, who wants the main commentary about it to be a comparison with something you know you can’t compete with?  Women basketball players absolutely should get the opportunity to play without having that negative spotlight on them at all times.

From a realist’s perspective though, Geno’s a millionaire because of the popularity of his sport so he doesn’t get to claim sure purity.  And if you want your sport popular, you’ve got to expect there to be aspects of selling the sport you don’t like.  So, while I’ve got a ton of sympathy for women here generally, I shed no tears anyone trying involved with this who is trying to make a buck.  Those who are fortunate enough to make a good living through their involvement in athletics are able to do so only because a good chunk general populace, for whatever reason, have decided they want to send money in the sport’s direction.  There isn’t any rationale saying these people “deserve” more money than the vast majority of other citizens except capitalism – so it’s simply irrational to look for answers beyond capitalism when other athletes don’t get to bask in the same glory.

Written by Matt Johnson

December 25, 2010 at 9:43 pm

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