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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Benefits of the WNBA

Faith Wassmann

Although Title IX states than, "no person in the United States, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to any discrimination..." it does not guarantee that people will carry this out. After the issuing of Title IX, many women in sports wished to step forward and be recognized. Part of the recognition they wanted was to be included in National Sports Associations like the men's National Basketball Association. Eventually their cries were heard, and sports associations like the NBA agreed to merge and include women. Becoming included was an eye opening experience to many of these women and they have faced (and still do) doubts and discrimination from the public, but along the way they have also reaped benefits they would not have if the merger had never taken place.

Title IX was the stepping-stone for mergers and sports, but immediately after the merging took place, women were fully discriminated against. When men and women's sports combined, it opened new administrative positions for women, but what these women found were that they were constantly being pushed down to the bottom of the pile, to the least authoritative positions. Men were the head coaches, and the head of the physical education departments Men organized the teams schedule for the season and organized practice hours. Also, "male sexist attitudes ensured that male rather than female athletic directors and heads of physical education departments were almost automatically appointed to direct merged departments" (Hult p.96) This male over female preference continued right up to today. As of 1992 there are more men in administrative sports positions than women.

Women have been playing basketball for over a century before the Women's National Basketball Association came into existence. It was here at Smith College where many women got their first taste of the game. Women were described as having a "masculine performance style... rough and vicious play... worse than in men" (Hult 86). This aggressive playing style had to be modified because the violence and rough-housing that was going on were becoming intolerable. Eventually the Official Women's Basketball Rules were modified in that there was no dribbling allowed on the court at all, players were not allowed to make physical contact with each other and women were not allowed to grab the ball out of another women's hands.

Of course over the next century the game evolved, but women's basketball seemed to be submerged under men's basketball. Some of the original characteristics of the women's game were lost, women were no longer required to wear skirts while playing, which increased their range of motion and allowed for a quicker, faster paced game. It once again became more like the men's game where players dribbled the ball along the court. Even after the merger, there are still a few differences in the way men and women publicly play the game. Women have less playing time. Their game is shorter. One could argue that this comes from the stereotype that women are fragile and cannot withstand long periods of strenuous exercise. In reality this is ridiculous, think of the amount of strenuous physical activity that takes place in preparation for that "short" game! The size of the ball is also smaller for the women compared to the men's. While I cannot think of a stereotype that goes along with this difference, one must wonder if it is really necessary. I think that differences have kept women's basketball submerged beneath men's. By creating differences, it allows for the public to differentiate between the two instead of acknowledging them as equal.

The NBA hosts many men who are considered the "bad boys". Think of Dennis Rodman who gets just as much publicity for public violations as he does for his skill in handling the ball on the court. Society fills our heads with images of the African-American inner-city thug or gangster that would be selling drugs on the street corners if it were not for his basketball talent. The typical male player in the NBA embodies what it means to be a man. He is tough, strong, aggressive, and has an almost intimidating physical appearance that commands control. When the WNBA merged, it turned the sport into a male versus female battle, much of which was fueled by society's publicity. Because it is hard to convince the public that basketball can be a "girly" sport like figure skating, society has felt the need to create obvious differences between male and female players. The public is not satisfied with letting players be players who are all there just to play the game with the intention of winning, but they feel the need to differentiate playing styles. Publicity has turned female players into soft characters that have found the perfect balance between athleticism and femininity. "The players of the WNBA function as morally superior athletes in comparison to those of the NBA" (Banet-Weiser p. 405) In societies eyes, the Dennis Rodman's of the NBA simply do not exist in the WNBA. Female players use (and are expected to use) etiquette both on and off the court. Society has publicized these women's marriages, children and even the clothes that they choose to wear. While some people may feel that this is insulting to female athletes, it has saved them from some of the fates of other women who have tried to merge into male dominated sports.

Capitalizing on their femininity has saved players from having their sexuality questioned. Who questions the sexuality of a player who is seen wearing a dress and heels and pushing a stroller around when she is not on the court? By publicly showing pictures of a player with her boyfriend, or doing their hair and make-up, it dismisses all notions of homosexuality. Where as, women who participate in body building constantly have their sexuality challenged. I am sure that there are still people out there who feel the need to question players about sexual preference, but I feel that this happens to a lesser degree because of how society has portrayed the women. On the other hand, capitalizing on athlete's femininity is another way of keeping them in the shadow of men's basketball. The stereotypical soft-spoken woman does not attract the attention that an outspoken woman does. With the men being the "loud mouths" and "bad boys", it has shifted them into the public eye.

Right after the merge female players were forced to deal with some anger and frustration coming from the public and male players. There were of course a number of people who thought that professional basketball should be kept a male sport, but mostly they were faced with accusations that their game wouldn't be as exciting or even up to par compared to the men's. Although such accusations can be detrimental to self-esteem, and I am sure they were hurtful and insulting to the women, doubt from the public did have an advantage, with no expectations to live up to, these women had nothing to lose.

If anything, the merging of the NBA and the WNBA has been more beneficial than detrimental. For the players, they can continue to participate in the sport they love and make a living doing so. The WNBA also brings them publicity and notoriety, and along with publicity and notoriety, comes money, which for many of the players money means upward social mobility for themselves and their families. Besides benefits for the players themselves, the merge has given young girls across the country role models to look up to and goals to aspire to. It has opened the door for many talented women who play basketball in college, and would have had nowhere to go once they graduated. Also, the development of a new sports association creates more administrative positions for women to pursue. Women's basketball still has a long way to go before the public reacts to it as it does the NBA, but the merger was the first step in the right direction.




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