“If the WNBA had the gumption to take a more progressive stand…”

. Tuesday, June 16, 2009
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When I first watched the All American Red Heads video montage that has been floating around WNBA circles, it was hard to ignore the political impact they might have had in addition to the historical legacy of women’s basketball.

For women to not only get paid to play professional basketball, but also show off and outplay men as they were doing it had to be considered radical for the time. From John Molina’s All American Red Heads website:
When the Red Heads set out on the road, they weren't just playing basketball. They were pioneers to break down all of these stereotypes....and didn't even know it at the time. They were just women that had a great passion to play basketball…

They would only play against men and by mens rules. During that time, women were playing 6 on 6 with only 3 players being allowed to cross the court.

There was still much concern at the time, that women shouldn't play the game like a man because they weren't as physical and could hurt their chances to have children.
As Molina implies, even if the Red Heads' players did not consider themselves “activists” or “feminists” but “just passionate athletes”, they were undeniably involved in a highly politicized activity, even if only by challenging stereotypes. And as we know, those stereotypes of gender (or race) have concrete social consequences.

Based upon the type of public statements made about women today, we can probably infer that the concept of women (a) being paid to (b) travel around and play basketball (c) against men (d) with men’s rules and (e) beating them was met with some sort of resistance, if not outright hostility. I would assume that it took quite a bit of courage and strength to even make the decision to participate in such an activity.

As I try to imagine the mainstream response to the Red Heads, I also wonder about their reception by feminist/women’s rights activists of their time – how did representations of women as athletes either fit or deviate from broader feminist agendas of that time?

If movement building is fundamentally about reframing various norms, values, or roles to overcome injustices or social problems, then images of women breaking the stereotypes that perpetuate inequality would seem potentially valuable to a movement.

Even now, in 2009 (*gasp*!!), the repeated statements made about female athletes – specifically those who play “men’s team sports”, like basketball – illustrate that the notion of “female” and “athlete” still creates a measure of cognitive dissonance in the collective consciousness of mainstream society.

So the idea that a women’s professional basketball league is not somehow political strikes me as a complete fiction.

Which means I have to wonder a similar question about the WNBA – how does the league fit or deviate from broader feminist agendas? And if there is a fit, should the league openly embrace those broader agendas?

A former high school sports reporter raised a related issue in the comments of a recent blog on Bitch Magazine. While the story he tells does not necessarily have to be considered a call to action, it’s worth considering as we think about the place of the WNBA in a broader socio-political context.

“…if the WNBA had the gumption to take a more progressive stand toward homosexuality, would it have helped this girl?”

The comment came in response to an article entitled “We Got Lame” in which Bitch Magazine writer Jonanna Widner wrote about how the early marketing of the WNBA turned her off from the game. At the end of the article, she made three recommendations for the WNBA:

1. “embrace the dykes” (referring to fans, not necessarily players)
2. “embrace the rebels”, and
3. “let go of the mommy fetish”

Many of the comments to that post focused on the use of the word “lame” and whether it was appropriate on a feminist website that takes an anti-oppression stance (a subject for another blog post that I believe Widner will address). So Luke, the sports reporter, responded to the article on Widner’s next post about female dunkers:
I covered high school athletics for a community newspaper the past two years, and during this past basketball season there was a scandal on the girls basketball team that absolutely sickened me. To make a long story short, our star player (a dynamite sophomore 5 guard and one of the most exciting athletes in our school, IMO) was forced to quit the team because of a homosexual relationship.

Her own mother forced her to quit two weeks before the end of the season, apparently because someone had seen her kissing another player.

There wee only about 7 girls on the team to start with, and 90% of what the team did was based on feeding her the ball. They lost the last 4-5 straight games of the season, finished outside of the playoffs and cut short a very entertaining season. To make the whole thing worse, she will likely not be allowed to participate in any sport whatsoever next year, since she quit the team before the end of the season.

There is no doubt in my mind that this kid has the potential to be a Division I, perhaps even professional athlete, but it seems as if her own parent's homophobia is going to prevent it. As I was reading your earlier post, I couldn't help but wonder to myself, if the WNBA had the gumption to take a more progressive stand toward homosexuality, would it have helped this girl? Would having openly gay professional athletes featured on television have made her mother more accepting?
First of all, we could easily dismiss Luke's story as trivial; this situation could very easily be reduced to a matter of a family decision outside the reach of a massive corporate sponsored basketball league with a “feminist” agenda. However, I think that’s beside the point.

The point here is that our limited notions of what girls should and could be has significant limiting effects on the daily lives of individuals. It’s not some abstract ranting of a radical feminist who wishes that all men would just drop dead. It’s a matter of honoring the humanity of women.

The WNBA presents an opportunity to contribute to the process of breaking down stereotypes and provide a challenge to dominant culture. And yet the league seems to straddle the fence trying to cram these images of female athletes into the box of existing notions of womanhood rather than challenging the limits of the box altogether.

So Luke’s questions also implicitly beg the broader question of the potential of the WNBA to actively shift the public consciousness around specific feminist agendas. What would it mean for the league to actually serve as a political friend to the girl that Luke describes not just by passively existing, but by actively sending a social justice oriented message?

What is to be done?

The Expect Great campaign is certainly an attempt to challenge dominant narratives. But as has been described ad nausea at this point, the campaign is somewhat ineffective. The problem seems to be that the league wants to challenge the dominant narratives but can’t decide how. Widner opines the following:
This week, the league began its 11th season the same way it has since its first one: In trouble. The league doesn’t make money. Television viewership continues to fade, as does attendance. Several teams have folded. It’s bad—in fact, every season since that first one, the NBA has subsidized the WNBA’s existence, because the latter can’t sustain itself (hmmm…the men supporting the women, because they can’t make it on their own…for all its queerness, I guess there are some things in the league that remain entrenched in hetero tradition). Clearly, the family-oriented marketing, the insistence on tamping down any dyke-ynesss or alternative-ness—these strategies aren’t working.

And yet, still…that insistence continues. The league can’t stop pushing its superstar, Candace Parker (who can dunk too), not because of her strength, smarts, and skills on the court, but because she just had a baby. And the media won’t STFU about it either. Parker landed a coveted “5 Good Minutes” interview spot on the popular ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption” to talk about her baby. How come she didn’t get it when she first dunked in a pro game?

And then there’s this:

Yet another fashion spread featuring 6-foot lady ballers from the New York Liberty—the so-called “Glamazons”—couture-clad, posing awkwardly with basketballs.

It’s not working. No one is buying it, WNBA, and you’re bleeding money to boot. You are a laughingstock.

And that makes me so, so sad.
If nobody is buying the current line and those that are will show up regardless, why NOT just embrace a more political orientation?

“But it’s just entertainment!”

Of course, the counter-argument is obvious: if the WNBA promoted itself as an advocate for women instead of “just a bunch of passionate basketball players” there is the risk of losing fans. But do we really believe that?

Who is it exactly that would stop paying attention to the league if it took a specifically political orientation?

I’m not suggesting policy advocacy – the fact is, there is not even agreement among feminists or activists about what policy course should be taken. There is not one singular feminist agenda and the idea that there could be seems profoundly anti-feminist. It doesn’t mean showing up at abortion rallies or choosing a health-care platform for the league to sponsor.

There are of course many different ways to serve as an advocate for women. But I agree with Widner -- athletes concerned with makeup, pushing fashion and talking babies just doesn’t seem to be the way to go and in fact, it may even perpetuate the kind of narrow notion of womanhood that Luke is concerned about.

Furthermore, even if the league doesn’t want to frame itself as a political or “feminist” entity, other people seem to enjoy doing so. Take the following statements from a renowned WNBA critic about the WNBA and recently nominated Justice Sonia Sotomayor (I refuse to link to that person’s site, but you can get the text of the piece from the DailyKos):
I called a spade a spade. I correctly pointed out that Sonia Sotomayor a/k/a So-So a/k/a Sonia From the Block a/k/a Justice J-Lo a/k/a Red Sonia has done nothing remarkable, that she got every single place she got for one reason: that she's a female Latina and got affirmative action for it. That she has the same background and life story as J-Lo a/k/a Jennifer Lopez.
But you can't tell the truth in America. Or, at least, you can't tell it without being attacked and savaged by the left in America. So, predictably, the Nazi-funded Media Matters folks, the reconquista illegal alien schlubs at the National Council of La Raza and their friends at the Washington Post, and the WNBA season ticket holding brush-cutted "women" at various feminist groups are all upset about my truth-telling on Justice J-Lo. They say it's prejudiced. Uh-huh.
The WNBA can try to remain neutral and separate from those “rabid feminists”…but in the end, it can really escape its political identity.

“I finally understand what feminism is about”

Rethinking Basketball was sort of established on the premise that the WNBA is a legitimate lens through which to explore the intersection of pop culture representations and gender inequality in the U.S.

And yes, there have been similar posts about the WNBA and politics in the past on this blog.

Yet, it still seems worthwhile to ponder Luke's questions.

That does not necessarily mean there is one answer, but it does seem like there is value in thinking more deeply about the convergence of gender politics and women’s sport.

In that spirit, a post on the Pleasant Dreams blog responding to a post about criticisms of the WNBA from the “13 Teams, 1 Journey” blog comes to mind.
What I will say is this: after following the WNBA for a year and reading the comments that sportswriters and so called "experts" write about it: I finally understand what feminism was all about. I understood it on an intellectual basis, but never on a visceral one. Jesus, nobody should have to put up with that kind of shit on a daily basis. As men, we should all thank the first women we meet - not because of their contributions to history, but in sheer gratitude to the female gender for not killing every man within 15 miles.
While I may not agree that women have reason to kill every man within 15 miles to begin with, I think petrel’s comment does point out that there is some political value to the WNBA regardless of whether it chooses to embrace it.

Certainly the very existence of pioneering women like the All American Red Heads could be considered vital to the creation of the WNBA. And when you consider the Red Heads and the WNBA as part of an extended progression of women’s professional basketball rather than two distinct phenomena, it seems problematic to claim that the political element of the women’s basketball suddenly fell to the wayside.

So given the political legacy of women’s professional basketball that the WNBA is immersed in, you have to wonder what its political legacy could be. After 70+ years of women playing professional basketball, it would be rather surprising to hear a player claim that she was unaware of the political nature of the activity.

If we assume that a large number of women involved in the WNBA – from players to coaches to league officials – are aware of its political nature, then that begs a follow-up question: should the WNBA take on a more overtly political image? And what influence could a women’s sports league have on broader society if it did take a political stand on issues of concern to women?