In my Comparative Literature class, we are discussing the experience of watching sports. We recently read two articles that debate why the WNBA is not as popular as the NBA, both focused on the entertainment that comes with watching a women’s basketball game. The first, written by Stacey Pressman, explained how she believed that the lack of popularity of the league was due to the minimal entertainment value that the play provides. The other was Graham Hays’ response to Pressman, in which Hays said that the claim was ridiculous, and asserted that the lack of popularity comes down to the trivial fact that the women are not as athletic and can’t dunk.
I recently attended both the men’s and women’s basketball games against the University of Detroit. To get a good seat for the men’s game, you would need to show up at least an hour in advance, while for the women’s game, arriving at tipoff guaranteed you a seat in the lower bowl. Of course, the women’s team has not had the same success that the men’s team has had and this can contribute to the attendance discrepancy, but it is more about the lack of great athleticism in the women’s games.
As a manager for the women’s team, I hate seeing small crowds for their games. It frustrates me when so few students take the time to watch the women’s team play, but I understand why they don’t. At a women’s game, you are not going to see a player throw dunk a huge dunk that will get the crowd on its feet like the men can. The athletic ability in the men’s game remains unmatched, and even I will admit that the men’s games are much more fun to watch.
When Pressman wrote her article in 2003, Lisa Leslie had just recorded the first ever dunk in WNBA history. One simple dunk was the headline of the year, when in men’s basketball, dunks are so common that they aren’t mentioned unless they’re especially great. She breaks down women’s basketball in a brutally simple manner – “When the physical differences are so large as to render a basic—yet thrilling—aspect of the men’s game practically nonexistent in the women’s game, it is clear why it is not as compelling.”
This previous statement is exactly what makes Hays so frustrated. “Pardon me,” she responds, “but when did the dunk become the definition of elite basketball? The dunk is thrilling… but it’s worth two freaking points.” She understands that a dunk is exciting, but she is right; it’s worth just as much as a woman’s lay up.
Pressman’s and Hays’s articles made me think of the “Either/Or” piece we read in class about Caster Semenya, an Olympic track runner from South Africa, and made me wonder why someone that is as gifted as some males is not being celebrated for bridging the gap between the two genders. She is doing the running equivalent of dunking, but her “dunks” are met with cries that she is actually a man. The reason why is the clear double standard that exists in the crossover between men’s and women’s sports.
Semenyas’s rapid success should have been praised, but instead, it was met with criticism and allegations that she was lying about her gender to race against the slower, female competition. She had to undergo extensive DNA testing, and it was found that she while she does have “external female genitalia”, she also has undeveloped male genitalia that give her three times as much testosterone as other women.
It’s commonly thought that the worst male athlete is still better than the best female athlete. Semenya proves that this is no longer the case, but this sexist belief still runs rampant in women’s sports, especially in the WNBA. Fans of the league, like “MysticsFan1” of Swish Appeal, have to deal with jokes (how the WNBA has a “lay-up contest” instead of one for dunking) that degrade the league’s players. Once a woman is so strong that she starts to look too masculine, much like Semenya did, she becomes a target for people like Elisa Cusma, a runner from Italy, who, when asked about Semenya, explained, “for me, she is not a woman. She is a man.”
All Olympic athletes live by the motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” or “Faster, Higher Stronger,” but it is possible that we are focusing on those three characteristics to too high of a level, and this is what is holding female athletes back. Semenya is “faster, higher, [and] stronger” than most female runners, and this inevitably lead to the extensive criticism. We want female athletes to be more athletic so more people will watch their games, but once a female athlete is “too athletic,” they’ll face harsh scrutiny.
When Brittney Griner, one of the best female basketball players in the world, makes a public appearance or dunks during a game, Twitter is filled with a barrage of ignorant jokes about how she’s actually a man. Griner is the exact kind of athlete people want to see play, but because she’s a woman, her masculine features come with intense mocking.
We want female athletes to provide the same entertainment value as males so people like Pressman aren’t more interested in the halftime show than they are in the actual play. But when they finally are able to give us that entertainment, like Semenya can, their skills are met with questioning, and it is assumed that the only way they can be as good as a man is by cheating. This double standard sets women up for failure. We need to accept that if a woman is one day able to do the things that only men usually can, she is not cheating, but is just gifted. Until this is done, a woman’s dunk, or fast race time, will be unfairly met with skepticism and scrutiny, when really they are just trying to make the plays that will make their games seem more “entertaining.”