Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Will Candace Parker save the WNBA?

This is the question asked by LA Times columnist Kurt Streeter this past weekend.

Before I go any further, I have to say I don't have an answer. Streeter doesn't really have one either so I don't feel that bad.

My first question from the column, though, is: does the WNBA need "saving"? We can trot out dismal statistics about attendance and television viewership but all those things do is put the responsibility firmly on the WNBA--and sometimes a little bit on the NBA--for failing to make the league popular. But the WNBA, over ten years ago, was established in a culture that 1) is not lacking in the number of professional sports; and 2) is pretty sexist and misogynist--especially when it comes to sports. Professional sport seasons seem to get longer and longer and no one is benefiting. Does the NHL really need to be playing in in April--especially given the downturn in popularity post-strike? When the WNBA began, the decision was made to have the women play in the summer. Playing the same season as the NBA made scheduling venues more difficult and there was also a fear that simultaneous seasons would not be wise in terms of building popularity.

But the summer? So instead of competing against men's basketball they have to contend with the baseball season and major events in both tennis and golf. Next year, of course, there will be the Olympics. And how many of us are sitting around in the summer watching television? I am actually out playing my own sports in the summer. The NBA has a more captive audience in the winter.

And even if the scheduling was better--as it is for collegiate basketball--there would still be the issue of sexist excuses: they just are not as good as the men; not as fast; too much outside shooting; no exciting dunks; no sweet moves.

Streeter seems to think that Parker, she does dunk and has some sweet moves and is generally thought of as an exciting player (and he makes sure to note that she's pretty), may be the person to change the minds of those excuse-makers. But this puts Parker in the unenviable position of having to be a huge draw when she goes pro after this season, her last. What Streeter does not understand is that there will always be more excuses. Maybe Parker will be one of the greatest players of all time, but in such a deeply patriarchal--yet purportedly liberal--society where we may, in theory, support equality in sport, we don't want to see women performing too well. So even if Parker is all that and then some don't be surprised to hear things like: she doesn't dunk hard enough; she doesn't get enough air; she is only one person--she can't compensate for the boring play of the rest of the league's players.

Because the thing is there are and have been great players in the WNBA all along: Taurasi, Sue Bird, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo; players who received significant press (relative to the era during which they played) when they were student-athletes. Every year exciting players emerge from the collegiate ranks, gain notice during March Madness and move on the WNBA (Ivory Latta, Lindsay Whalen, Shay Doran are a few who come to mind). But it's like they disappear when they get there. Streeter's right when he says that Parker's popularity, press coverage, attention will likely dissipate when she goes pro. That's a pretty sad comment on the state of women's professional sports in this country. And I don't think it's a state that Parker can change all by herself.

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