The Olympics are dwindling in the rear-view mirror but before they disappear over the horizon completely I want to address a topic brought up on one of the fine NBC telecasts. The studio hosts were speaking of Team USA Basketball, the women's side. They referenced the women's historical dominance of the sport and then threw to an interview where another host asked a theoretical question. He wanted to know why the women basketball players don't get credited for their achievements like women in other sports do. When Venus Williams wins gold (or a Grand Slam event) you don't hear people saying, "Yeah, but she's no Andy Roddick." The U.S. women's soccer and gymnastics teams are feted as national heroes. But let the USA basketball women win a half-dozen or so gold medals in a row and the chorus will begin. "They're not LeBron or Kobe."
Neither hosts nor guests were able to answer this question satisfactorily. Still, it stuck with me like an itch I couldn't quite reach. Sexism alone doesn't explain the phenomenon, else we'd be treating all female athletes this way. Granted, people do to some extent, but it seems more overt in basketball. What about this sport in particular engenders this response? After much thought, I've come up with a couple possibilities.
First, you have to remember that our responses are rooted in history. Changing any popular perception takes plenty of evidence and plenty of time. Historically we've seen a clear demarcation between the styles of women's basketball and men's. Women's ball has been rooted in fundamentals, perceived as ground-bound and slower. Men's basketball has been defined by the highlight reel. Visually it's hard to confuse the two. Issues of speed and size aside, women's soccer looks a lot like men's soccer. Women's tennis and men's are similar. But women's basketball just hasn't looked like men's. An analogy to baseball vs. softball is closer than comparing hoops to men's and women's soccer. If you blanked out the actual figures and just showed shadow outlines running, jumping, and shooting at speed, most people would immediately be able to identify which game was women and which was men.
The gap has gotten closer over the years, as anyone who watched this year's Olympics can attest. Those women play fast, fly high, whip the ball around. But you still don't see highlight reel dunks in the same quantity as the men's game. You're still not looking at 6'10" behemoths--some of the biggest human beings on the planet--running like gazelles. You're seeing great basketball, you're just not seeing the SportsCenter basketball we're fed on a nightly basis.
The remnants of that visual dissonance, combined with our reluctance to change our minds about stereotypes once they're made up, causes our first response to women's success in the sport to be, "Yeah, but..." instead of, "Yaaay!" The crack between the game styles is still wide enough to make us feel justified in differentiating them just like our instinct tells us to.
Second, basketball is distinct from every other major team sport in our society. It's far more accessible, far more solitary. You don't need space...no field, no big goal, no sheet of ice. All you need is a little patch of ground and something to stick a circular hoop on. More importantly you don't need anyone else to play with. Baseball requires a pitcher (or mechanical equivalent). Football requires one buddy at least. Enacting any kind of meaningful ritual while practicing either sport requires time, running and fetching, communication. Contrast this with backyard hoops. Anywhere, anytime any kid can take a basketball outside and loft up a dozen shots within a minute, getting immediate and tangible feedback on the success or failure of each, requiring no-one and nothing else in the world.
Immediacy, accessibility, and the potential for solitude make basketball the sport of dreams. Sure, football players probably pretend they're throwing the game-winning Superbowl touchdown and baseball players make like it's the bottom of the 9th in the 7th game of the World Series, but you have to work to make those experiences satisfying. If you're actually playing those sports with other people you're probably playing, not pretending. But how many of us have not yelled "3...2...1..." and lofted the last-second, game-winning shot while goofing around on the backyard hoop by ourselves? Unlike those other experiences, we need no machinations, no cooperation to validate the dream. We launch, it goes "SWISH!", and we did it. Imagination easily fills in the rest. The thrill is tangible and much more satisfying than watching a football drop on the ground or realizing we're now going to have to chase that baseball we just hit over the fence.
It's no accident that the most famous sports jingle in the history of the universe begins, "Sometimes I dream that he is me..." That concept resonated with everybody. And what sport was being referenced there? Would the song have worked nearly so well with Joe Montana or Mark McGuire?
Because basketball is the dream factory, lending itself so well to these isolated flights of imagination, in our secret minds and hearts we really are just one step away from being good enough to do it. After all, we've heard that "SWISH!" a thousand times, right? What did Skee-Lo say again? "I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller..." If only we were 7-feet tall. If only we had just a little more lateral quickness. If only some coach had recognized our greatness. If only we could do what we did on the best basketball day of our lives on every basketball day of our lives....we would have made it. Those sentiments reside in almost all of us. No, we're not pro players, but maybe we're close...if things had just bounced right.
Then you know what happens? Girls come to play. And these girls are good...dominating on the scale of decades and improving all the time. They're not 7-foot tall for the most part, but they're quick and stylish. They're playing the way we non-7-footers wish we could play. And they could kick our butts. This shatters the dream, right? Our fantasy only works if we're right next to those NBA players with a thin thread of "could have been" linking us. It doesn't work at all if we're somewhat worse than a bunch of women who are right next to those NBA players with a pretty clear gap between us and the girls. How do we pretend we're almost LeBron when we can't even be Tamika Catchings? "Sometimes I dream that she is m...no no no no!"
The (admittedly chauvinistic) gut response here is to slight whatever success the women find, to bring them back down to our level instead of granting them any ground between us and our NBA heroes. We can't claim that we're as good as they are while keeping a straight face, but at least we can keep this straight: "You're not THEM! You may have won something but you're no LeBron or Kobe! You didn't do it instead of me!" We pull them back, push them to the side, dismissing them and clearing them from our consciousness so we can get back to drinking Gatorade, shooting in the driveway and rapping with Skee.
I'm not sure we do this intentionally. But then again, who would ever call us on it? It's not like we're going to say, "3...2...1...Durant for the win!" and then somebody will yell, "Durant? You're not even as good as that chick from Connecticut!" Our emotional tyranny comes easily and unopposed.
And really, who would care if we just kept it to ourselves? I think we'd be perfectly justified forgetting about women's basketball in the comfort of our own driveway the same way we conveniently forget about Steve Blake and Ryan Hollins and all of the other NBA players and D-League players and college players and European players who actually stand between us and LeBron on the basketball scale. The problem is, we haven't kept this to ourselves. Instead we've raised the chorus every time the women do something. "You're not the men. You're not the men."
Should they have to be? And why are we so invested in pointing that out? Does it say more about those athletes or does it say more about us?
I tend to think it says more about us. The nature of basketball and what it's become opens the door for our base response and our impulses and dreams seal the deal. Too bad the women who put in all that hard work to be the best have to pay the price for it.
That these women aren't the men is a biological reality. There's nothing wrong with that. The sociological reality? That's a different story. I, for one, am swearing off the phrase, "It's not the men." So what? It's the women, and they're pretty dang good.