A brief apology to the NBA

. Saturday, May 2, 2009
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Dear NBA,

I recently made some dismissive comments about the 2009 playoffs on my blog, essentially describing this year’s playoffs as boring, predictable, and uncompetitive.

The playoffs are still predictable: we all know it’s going to come down to a LeBron-Kobe showdown in the end…and we all know that it would be the best thing for this league since Bird and Magic were center stage. It’s ok to admit it so we can dispense with the rest of these superficial storylines.

However, the other night I was in a bar watching Game 6 of the Chicago-Boston series and someone yelled, “THIS IS THE BEST BASKETBALL GAME EVER!”

At first, this man’s statement seemed like little more than alcohol-induced hyperbole rather than an informed observation. But this was before it got to the third overtime. Then I started to see his point.

This was one of those games where amazing meets fan-tastic and makes me wanna holler, “I LOVE THIS GAME!”

The game had everything you would want to see from a spectator sport: brilliant individual performances, game-changing plays, last second drama(s), an underdog taking it to the reigning champion, the emergence of young stars, and the solidification of a Hall of Famer who some refer to as “Jesus”.

Tell me how you could possibly outdo that…short of the Kobe-LeBron series (you’re planning).

So as a long-time NBA fan -- who has irrationally rooted for your Golden State Warriors for years -- I just want to apologize for my previous statements about the playoffs. I eagerly await Game 7 of the Bulls-Celtics series and am once again spellbound by your Kobe-LeBron showcase.

Thank you for your understanding,


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“The biggest problem holding back the game is the female athlete”

. Friday, May 1, 2009
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Brian McCormick, whose writing about coaching and training I have enjoyed and respect, posted an article yesterday exploring the training habits of some Division I female athletes.

I coach and train a lot of girls and have worked with many very good female players. Too often, the lack of progress in the women’s game is blamed on males or sexism. However, I think the biggest problem holding back the game is the female athlete.

Not every athlete. As I said, I have worked with great players and enjoyed every minute of my time working with them.

Instead, I mean the female athletes who are all too willing to allow their femaleness to be an excuse for a lack of ability.

I worked out with a Division I college player today who could not do a push-up. When I told her that her little elbow dips were not push-ups, she said that they were push-ups to her. She was unwilling to try a full push-up and preferred to give up.

I hate this mentality. “I’m a girl. I can’t do…” That’s crap. You’re an athlete. If you are a Division I player and you cannot do a push-up, it is not because you are a girl. It is because you are lazy and do not care. Have you ever seen former Sacramento Monarch Ruthie Bolton? She would take out 98% of guys in a push-up contest. It has nothing to do with being a girl. It has everything to do with being a selective athlete.
Certainly, I think we can all agree with McCormick’s conclusion:
If you’re an athlete, never use “but I’m a girl” as an excuse. It’s not. You’re an athlete and you should hope that your coaches treat you like an athlete, not like a little, helpless girl.
However, where I would diverge from McCormick is on the idea that this phenomenon is not due to some measure of sexism or at the very least, entrenched gender stereotypes. To argue that girls are playing out a mindset of inferiority but that sexism is not the problem seems like a difficult claim to support.
To argue that girls are making these excuses independent of their social context, one must assume that the girls are independently developing that line of deficit thinking about being female. And anyone who has been around children knows that no child is born assuming they cannot do things…they learn their limitations over time. It’s the beauty of childhood that adults contemptuously strip away from kids.

Instead, I would argue that those perceptions of what it means to be a girl are acquired from people with whom they interact, whether it is coaches, teachers, peers, or media representations. I would argue that it’s not as easy as sucking it up and demanding better. There has to be encouragement and support to do that. And while the support systems are there for some girls, far too many girls lack that.

So I would not dismiss McCormick’s argument, but I would likely take it in a different direction: we need to demand better of the coaches, parents, and other adult figures that interact with girls. That includes the teacher who will give the boys the football and the girls the pink hoola hoop for recess (and yes, that does happen). And we need to demand better of those in the public eye who demean, dismiss, and ignore the accomplishments of the female athletes.

While I won't deny the importance of individual responsibility, the problem in this case is not the person making the excuse, but the source of the excuses. It’s a stretch to claim that girls are individually responsible for creating those.

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Sir Charles takes a subtle dig at the WNBA...

. Thursday, April 30, 2009
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Last night I was at a bar with a friend casually watching the Hawks-Heat “game” and talking about random stuff when I thought I heard Charles Barkley say something about the WNBA during the halftime show…

…This ain’t the WNBA…

Of course the volume was low and people’s voices were high so I couldn’t really make out much more… but fortunately, the TNT half-time shows are available online at NBA.com. And sure enough, Sir Charles did take a subtle dig at the WNBA...

Here’s the clip…and the segment in question begins at 4:01…

(Transcript below)

(4:01) Ernie Johnson: “At any rate, it’s a 63-40 game and we’ll be talking about what happened last night with Dwight Howard also with Rajon Rondo and Brad Miller…”


Charles Barkley: I love it baby. It’s about time someone hit somebody. This ain’t the WNBA.

EJ: Why don’t you get physical with... Get physical with Kenny, Charles.

CB: I don’t wanna hurt her.

OK…so was this the worst thing going on in the world yesterday? Certainly not.

Worth raising hell over? Consider the source...he's a loud mouth and should be taken with a grain of salt.

But was it a necessary comment? No…and it’s unfortunate that he felt the need to degrade the WNBA in making his point about the NBA. Oh well…

…but C-Webb, you can't let that fly -- I thought you appreciated the WNBA!

Anyway, can we hurry up and get to the LeBron-Kobe showdown, please? The rest of this just seems like a waste of time...

Related Articles:

Obama And Women's UConn Basketball: Watch The Impromptu Game Of Their Lives (VIDEO)

Transition Points:

More praise for the Huskies: Renee Montgomery is getting a ton of attention. I thought it was cool that Congresswoman Shelly Capito commended Renee Montgomery on the House Floor...

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Kathleen Sebelius: A college athlete who went pro in something other than sports…

. Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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Newly confirmed Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius is yet another of those female athlete role models that President Barack Obama referred to in his comments about the University of Connecticut basketball team on Monday.

This may be an old story to some, but I didn’t realize she played college basketball and I think her own thoughts on sports exemplify the importance of encouraging girls to play sports.

Although she graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. in 1970 -- two years before Title IX was signed -- Sebelius has cited the opportunity to play sports as an important part of her personal development.

Ms. Sebelius, then senior Kathleen Gilligan, was the self-described "jock" who shined on the basketball court, where she was team captain, and in field hockey.

"There's a lot, I think, about sports overall, that can be used as an important life lesson," she says. "There's competition, it teaches a lot about endurance, not giving up, sportsmanship, basic overcoming adversity."
Sebelius’ dedication to public service manifested during her college years as she parlayed her athletic ability into an ongoing service project.
“I had several internships while at Trinity. I worked at a school on North Capitol Street and we used to do basketball clinics with the kids; I played basketball at Trinity, and that was an ongoing project. I think there was a sense at Trinity, living in northeast Washington, that you were very much a part of that community and to open your eyes and get involved was a message that a lot of people gave us.”
Trinity College is a small Division III Catholic school in Northeast Washington, so Sebelius was likely not a scholarship athlete. However, once again, I think the story is yet another plug for the value of sports for leadership development…and the importance of making sure we continue to encourage girls to play sports and provide them with more female athlete role models.

Related Links:

12 Facts About Kathleen Sebelius - Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen

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Obama, UConn, & the White House Council on Women and Girls

. Tuesday, April 28, 2009
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I'm guessing that by now you've already seen President Barack Obama's comments about the University of Connecticut women's basketball team that went 39-0 and won the NCAA national championship.

I found his statement touching and if you haven’t watched it, check out the video above (courtesy of Poltico).

Anyway, the reference to his daughters got me thinking about a post I read on the SmartLikeMe blog a while back that responded to a critique of Obama’s Council on Women and Girls.

At issue was the way in which a Washington Post blog by Chris Cillizza appeared to reduce Obama’s reasons for supporting the council to personal and posturing reasons rather than a genuine concern for gender equity.

From SmartLikeMe:
So Obama’s “personal” reasons for putting the council into place are that he has a wife and daughters. Yawn. How insulting to think that men are only concerned about women’s issues and the male-centric models of citizenship and public policy because they have daughters. I would hope that there might too be fathers of boys who are concerned about gender issues so their sons could have the socially-supported ability to be at-home dads if they choose, without their masculinity being denigrated and without threat to family finances because their female partner’s career is being stymied by gender discrimination (by pay or “mommy tracking”) or sexual harassment in the workplace.
There were other critiques as well, ranging from the idea that he did not give the office enough power to the idea that there should be a parallel effort to look after boys (see the blog Jezebel for more on the criticism of Obama’s Council).

Obama's Council has the power to influence women's sports...and beyond

Regardless of what we think about Obama’s motivation, Theresa Moore of Women’s eNews makes the point that Obama’s Council on Women and Girls has the potential to have a major impact on the enforcement of Title IX:

We need to push for an updated image and understanding of Title IX. Too often it is perceived as "the sports law." It is much more. Access to financial aid for women, scholarships and admissions to professional schools; all have been supported and enhanced by the Title IX legislation.

And today, Title IX can and will be pushed into play in some of the most contentious of contemporary issues: educational budget cuts, sexual harassment on campuses, availability of financial aid and single-gender classrooms.

In a hard-pressed economy, the access of students and families to financial aid is more important than ever to preserving educational opportunity.

At the same time, laid-off workers who are returning to school to sharpen up their skills or change fields will also need financial aid. Prior to Title IX, financial aid was withheld from women who were married, pregnant or had children.

The White House Council will have the power to ensure that these types of harmful limitations do not creep back into practice and that Title IX is used to promote the needs of girls and women so they have full access to and receive an equitable allocation of every type of financial aid.
In summary, what makes Obama’s comments about UConn and his daughters significant is that this is not just the routine acknowledgment of a championship women’s sports team that most every president is willing to follow through on. In this case, Obama’s words might actually have teeth if the Council on Women and Girls beefs up enforcement of Title IX in its full sense.

I will confess that it is difficult to "read" Obama's intentions in many cases. But in this case, I think we can come to the conclusion that Obama legitimately cares about the issue of gender equity and may even push the country forward in that regard. I will eagerly await results...

Transition Points:

Ok, maybe it’s not such a big deal.
It’s quite possible that I’m still just a little awestruck by the fact that we have a POTUS who can put together more than two sentences on the path to a narrative in public. It’s just nice.

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How might reductions in local newspaper coverage affect the WNBA?

. Monday, April 27, 2009
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It's becoming increasingly clear that nobody is safe from the current economic crisis and newspapers have been hit particularly hard.

Newspaper readership has been declining for years now and in the middle of an economic crisis, they are pretty much forced to make staff reductions.

As documented by Michael Arceneaux of theRoot.com, even recession writers (Lou Carlozo of the Chicago Tribune) are being cut in response to the recession. And in a climate where the people covering the recession become victims of he recession, you can bet sports writers will be equally -- if not more -- affected.

Bill Benner of the Indianapolis Business Journal
writes about the impact the current economic situation my have on sports journalism:

Nonetheless, I worry that the difficulties facing daily newspapers might force them, here and elsewhere, to use stringers or generic wire copy more often. I worry more that readers won’t notice or care.

Then again, we are transitioning into a new age of information dissemination, one cluttered by blogs, Web sites and 24-hour cable coverage. Sports, long considered the “toy department” of journalism, could be an easy target for cost-conscious accountants and editors.
If sports are considered the “toy department of journalism”, what on earth does that mean for coverage of the WNBA? In that framework, the WNBA would be like a “cereal box prize department of journalism”.

Thus, it stands to reason that what little professional coverage of the WNBA was out there will be cut. And in my one season of really paying attention to media coverage of women’s sports, wire coverage of the WNBA is almost not even worth reading.

So it is not unreasonable to believe that that the economic downturn could have an adverse affect on the WNBA in comparison to men’s sports. Of course, that problem is not new, as described in an AfterEllen.com post last week:
It has been a catch-22 for women's professional sports teams for decades: newspapers and magazines won't waste space on leagues with no fan base; leagues can't expand their fan base without media coverage.
So for a league that desperately needs to promote narratives about women in sports, how might a reduction in newspaper coverage hinder that process? How might blogs, twitter, and other Web 2.0 or social media make up for the lack of newspaper coverage?

I have a few thoughts…but it’s difficult to predict what the future might hold…

Lack of access is not helpful to the WNBA

Whatever you might think about the state of current WNBA coverage in newspapers, professional journalists have one massive advantage that even the most dedicated blogger might have a difficult time matching: a press credential.

Anyone – ahem, me? – can sit at home and spend time writing about watching WNBA games. What we don’t have is that behind the scenes perspective.

Access to press conferences, the locker room, and building relationships with players and coaches are vital to a sport’s ability to construct narratives that include character development as well as reports on the game action that we can all see from the stands, the television or a webcast.

To take a page from sports history, Howard Cosell’s relationship with Muhammad Ali is arguably as important as Ali’s greatness – while Ali performed, Cosell framed the narrative and presented it to the audience (reciprocally, one could argue that Ali is therefore among the most important figures to sports journalism because without him, Cosell would not be the legend he is today).

Cuts in professional journalists covering the teams means equal cuts in the amount of privileged information fans get about the WNBA. I would argue that the stories that we get beyond the action on the court are absolutely essential to building a sports brand. I happen to think print journalists are vital to establishing that. I also think there are alternatives that might help.

The Web 2.0 revolution…will not be televised…but might be on Twitter…

(Please do not forget the brilliant original song)

I have written a few pieces in the past about the role that Web 2.0 media plays in building the WNBA brand, engaging fan voice, and shaping the way we see the game. And the WNBA is definitely making strides in terms of how they use social media, as described by AfterEllen.com:
WNBA teams started their social media blitz earlier this year, offering tickets to people who joined team fan pages on Facebook. They brought it with a league Twitter. They asked each team to set up their own Twitters (see below). And, perhaps most importantly, they encouraged individual players to begin Tweeting about their teams, their lives, their training, their breakfast, anything to forge a connection with fans.
Yet I would argue the WNBA could still do some tiny things to better utilize the social media it is working with. Women’s Professional Soccer is still by far one the leaders in utilizing social media if you ask me.

It’s not just about having a Facebook/MySpace presence or having a YouTube page but making people aware of those things and, you know, actually making them seem like they are an integral part of what the organization does and how it builds community.

Case in point: from the front page of the WPS website, I can find 8 different ways to connect with the league on the main navigation bar. It’s a button even…that says connect.

The WNBA has both a YouTube and Facebook presence but you have to scroll down the page to find out about the Facebook link and after a few minutes of looking, I have yet to find a link to their YouTube page.

The issue here is not just about having these social media opportunities available, but somehow making them visible and easily accessible to consumers…ahem…fans. And to some extent they are doing that, in particular with ticket giveaways on Facebook.

Building a massive word-of-mouth campaign...

So I wholeheartedly agree with what Megan Hunter at Because I played sports wrote in her coverage of the WNBA draft about how bloggers could be instrumental in the growth of the game:
While I realize that there is much more research to be done, I know that the most important thing we need to do as ex-players, moms and female athletes is to get people to the games and start taking control of conversations.

We need to create one of the biggest word of mouth campaigns that has ever been created - one that will save WNBA and create opportunities for years to come.

With the economy shaving away at the future of the league, the time is now for us to step up to the plate. Now that the WNBA is open to feedback and willing to engage transparently with the public, I believe we can help turn this thing around.
But the key question for the WNBA is how do they take that energy and integrate it into what they do?

Furthermore, if the next move forward is for the web to become “invisibly present in everyday appliances” (see video below) how can the WNBA be sure to infiltrate the collective sports consciousness? (This by the way is a scary thought to me, but I caution that it’s not George Orwell that will be rolling over in his grave as much as Aldous Huxley – the control of society through learned desires…scary).

Among the many things WPS has done well in terms of its marketing, I would argue that its Fan Corner social media site is an excellent example of an attempt to encourage and formalize fan involvement in the game.

Of particular relevance to the issue of blogging, they have a section on their social media site specifically for fans to create blogs. Of course these blogs aren’t as customizable as your average Blogspot or Wordpress blog, but it provides a space for fan voice that is somewhat unique. Most importantly, it encourages fans to consolidate that voice in one place, without controlling the multitude of voices out there. (Note: the Phoenix Mercury already have a social media site for their team -- Cafe Merc -- with 247 members)

Idea – could the WNBA have a list of blogs they deem valuable listed in some sort of space on their website? Would it be that difficult to have a feed with recent fan blogs aside from the “approved” fan bloggers already there?

I would argue that WPS is leading the way in this social media blitz and the WNBA should follow despite its current progress.

“Nothing from nothing means nothing”

Ultimately, I suppose my message about the impact of reductions in newspaper coverage on the WNBA is as follows (and, yes, partially inspired by Billy Preston):

If newspapers were not widely or consistently covering the WNBA to begin with, then the WNBA does not have much to lose from reductions in newspaper coverage.

However, the increasing reductions just make it imperative that the WNBA does figure out how to use social media effectively and quickly. As “traditional” media becomes even less reliable, you can bet that leagues like the WNBA (and WPS) will get even less publicity.

Of course, this is all uncharted territory – nobody has the perfect solutions for how to use Web 2.0 for marketing a relatively young (niche?) sports league. And that is all the more reason for the WNBA to get as creative as possible with how it encourages and channels the energy of its fans.

Related Articles:

Women’s pro sports: Facebook awaits you

Interview With Peter Wilt: WPS Chicago’s CEO Takes One Step Backward For Two Giant Leaps Forward

The Machine is Us/ing Us

Transition Points:

If the WNBA needs coverage, then what of a new women’s league like Women’s Professional Soccer? I’m curious about their outlook given that they are starting up in the middle of a terrible economy. It would be terrible if the league’s ability to succeed was stifled by the unfortunate coincidence of launching when the economy is struggling…

The final “Recession Diaries” blog from Lou Carlozo that was cut from the Chicago Tribune is absolutely worth a read…because if you can figure out what about that blog post led the Chicago Tribune to pull the post, I’d like to know. I’m at a loss.

Fantasy job musings: I was musing with a friend this weekend about how my fantasy job before getting all tangled up in thinking about racial inequality in education was sports writing. And I would gladly drop everything and write for a WNBA team (*cough* ChicagoSky *cough*) this summer if they covered travel and basic living expenses (no nachos and beer, I promise). Yeah, ok, that’s presumptuous – there are probably hundreds of other folks who would “glad drop everything and write for a WNBA team this summer”. And why on earth would someone want a job that is likely unstable and cut more often than created? But hey, worth a try…right?

Response to fantasy job musings
: So the logical response from my friend about this fantasy job of being a sports writer was laughter – I mean seriously, leaving graduate school to cover a game? But honestly, my reasoning is simply that I enjoy basketball and as I’ve tried to demonstrate in the past, I do believe that the WNBA is valuable as a tool for challenging gender inequality simply by the way it could shape perceptions of women and what “womanhood” means. I realize that could be trivial – the father of a girl I dated in high school remarked to me the first time I had dinner at their house, “Back in my day we were protesting Vietnam and now the biggest thing you can write about is sports?” OK, fair enough – sports are not the biggest issue in the world. I know that…but everyone has to find their niche right? I like basketball…and think some good could come someday from writing about it…who know

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Co-ed recreational sports rules & other random weekend ramblings about female participation in sport

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Please forgive me: this post has little to do with the WNBA. I am subjecting you – my pseudo-anonymous (invisible?) readers -- to my random sports thoughts...in order to spare the friends in real space who already tolerate me daily. If you think this sucks, feel free to use the little star rating system below to tell me; that is much easier to swallow than nasty emails. ;)

This was the weekend I was supposed to not just get “back in shape” but also really get back to the level of a recreationally competitive athlete – I was supposed to play co-ed soccer, basketball with a female friend, and co-ed softball.

That never really happened. And I’m sort of disappointed.

But a lot of other sports-related thoughts entered my mind in the process and I thought I would share.

I did actually play soccer and that, I suppose, is what inspired this post. I was playing in one of those co-ed leagues in which the rules are tweaked a little as a way to correct for gender bias and perhaps gendered differentials in athleticism.

In basketball, the way that usually plays out is that women get three points for any shot they hit on the floor and there might be some limitation on what men are able to do in the key.

In soccer, women’s goals count for 2 points whereas men’s count for 1. That ended up being the difference in my game on Friday – a woman on my team scored midway through the second half, which made the score 3-0 and effectively put the game out of reach.

I usually hate these rules. I think they’re demeaning and completely disrupt the flow of the game. Then again sometimes I remember why they were instituted to begin with.

As ridiculous as the rules are, they do open opportunities for women on the field/court/diamond. And sometimes, that’s all that’s needed – an opportunity to show what you can do. Without those micro-opportunities, it’s sort of hard to break the entrenched notions of female athletic inferiority. To me, there is an analogy and there to the promotion of women’s sports… but first, the narrative…

Friday: Defense wins…but so do two-point goals

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon, perfect for either doing nothing or playing soccer. I did a bit of both.

I was laying out on the quad chatting with a friend about why the hell we’re in graduate school when my friend Mia walked by on her way to the game.

I had recruited Mia for the team because we were short a woman in the last game and had to play a woman down. Playing 7 on 7 soccer a person down is difficult because there are holes all over the field. We ended up losing 3-1, which is impressive considering that they should have run rough-shod all over us. We started looking for women – any women – to fill out our rotation.

Mia had played soccer in elementary school, but really hadn’t touched a ball for a while. She opened up her bag and started showing off some of her new gear that she got. Shin guards are required, but she skipped out on the cleats because they were too expensive. Soccer without cleats, I thought, is ok as long as we don’t have to play down again.

We eventually got up, changed, and headed to the field. Mia had some concerns that her gear wasn’t stylish enough, but I assured her the cuteness of one’s equipment really doesn’t make much of a difference. She disagreed – and I really couldn’t say much given my wanna-be intimidating all-black matching Adidas outfit. We settled that her knee socks gave her enough “pitch-cred”…despite the lack of cleats.

It was good that she came – we only had two women to start with: some undergrad I’d never met and another grad student who I had known for a while but had not realized she played sports. She played on a club team in the area and I made some silly (unfunny) comment about how she could probably show me a thing or two.

The game started and since we had twice the number of guys we needed, I sat out the first part of the game. Actually, the real reason I sat is because I had embarrassed myself in the previous game -- I got schooled one-on-one by some super fast guy who ended up beating me and scoring a goal. Demotion sucks, but I put the team first. Mia had to play and was scrambling around trying to figure out the rules and where to play. I told her not to worry – “just throw a few elbows and you’ll be fine”.

Game started and we were doing alright. Our women were hanging in there despite having no subs which I still find unbelievable – a five minute run for me and I’m done (someone used my asthma as an excuse, but that’s not valid…that’s why I have the inhaler). But by halftime we got two female subs – more undergrads who I didn’t know, but they looked like they were ready to play.

Ebony sat for a while quiet on our sideline, not really saying much or even telling us she was on our team. She was no taller than 5’ 3” with a slight frame and looked more like she was pleasantly enjoying the weather than preparing for a match…and really I looked the same way. By that point, I think I had even taken my cleats off and just reclined in the grass.

When the second half started, Mia came out and both Ebony and I went in. She asked where I wanted to play and I said I could play midfield or defense if she wanted to play striker. She paused for a moment and said, “I can play up” and headed to take the kick-off.

Once the whistle sounded, she sort of dropped the shy act. She was sort of everywhere. I was marking the other team’s “star” and just trying to keep him from scoring. We eventually scored to go up 1-0 and I just wanted to help hold the lead, especially after blowing it in the previous game. After chasing this dude for a bit, I was gassed. I called for a sub. Mia gave me a high five and I was just desperately searching for oxygen.

Ebony stayed out there a little longer and it just seemed like she was more and more aggressive with every passing moment. At some point I commented to one of my buddies that Ebony easily had the most shots on goal – she was getting the ball and scoring position and firing whereas the men on our team were playing with the ball as though they wanted to dribble past the goalie. But about half way through the second half Ebony actually scored a truly amazing goal.

One of our male players had a breakaway up the left side of the field and Ebony patiently ran with him, perfectly avoiding any chance of an off-sides call. The ball was crossed high across the box just over the goalie where Ebony was there waiting for the ball. Rather than trapping the ball and trying to make a move with it, Eboni volleyed the ball with a flick of her foot high over the goalie and it dropped perfectly over the goal line. The goalie stood there frozen with nothing to do but watch the two point ball roll into the net. We all jumped up on the sideline and someone yelled, “Whoa! She’s good!” Up 3-0, we were able to coast to a 3-1 win.

After the game, we all congratulated Ebony of course and she quietly stood there until she said, “Sorry I came late.” To which of course we all said whatever, we needed you. And apparently we needed her for more than just filling a spot.

Saturday: Basketball, masculinity, and foolishness

On Saturday I was slated to play basketball with my friend Kay, who is a 6’3” former NCAA Division I basketball player who played for a prominent women’s basketball program.

We texted in the morning and she agreed with one of my earlier texts: “I’m just feeling old and lazy today.” Besides just feeling old and lazy, Kay was not feeling the court she normally played at after getting into a little argument with some dude two days prior in which she left the court half-way through one game.

As I was on the bus down to the court, Kay texted to say that she was heading over early because she had plans later in the day. So when I got there, she was already playing. She was easily the tallest player on the court, which unfortunately just draws one of two reactions from men eager to assert their masculinity on the blacktop.

One, they will do the typical thing that men do with women on the court and just play her soft. But after experiencing one or two of her shoulder fakes and jump hooks low in the paint, it becomes clear that the “play gentle” strategy is just ineffective. Others will do the polar opposite and play her hyper aggressive, throwing elbows and trying to just physically overpower her – she once remarked, “It’s almost like they get some kind of sexual satisfaction out of dominating me.”

On this particular day, a guy was playing her rather soft and she got position on him a few times and got the hook shot going. He didn’t appear to be someone particularly inclined to play defense anyway and focused on offense. He was a guard and probably the best player on his team. As a forward, she had no business guarding him but she took him because none of the other guys on her team would. He burned her a few times since you don’t really expect help defense in a street ball game, he ended up scoring on her and her team lost.

They came off the court and we talked a bit. She had to go soon and probably wasn’t going to wait for another game. She broke down who was good and wasn’t and who I should think about guarding when I was on the court. “That guy is fast, you should take him.” Eventually she got to talking about an incident that occurred when she showed up to the court the previous week.

Apparently, she came on the court to play and some dude just flat out said, “No. She ain’t playin’.” She laughed at first but apparently he and his teammates are adamant – she was not going to play on the same court as them. One of the other guys she was just playing against looked over to our conversation and said, “For real? Here?” She said, “Yep. So I just said f--- it and left.” We all shook our heads and laughed.

A few moments later, the team who had next called over to the sideline to get another player. She spoke up quickly, “I’ll run!” No response. “You need one? I’ll run,” she yells again. Again no response. One of the guys who was just laughing with us glances over and walks onto the court. I was just slow getting ready – needed my standard inhaler puffs before playing – so I didn’t even bother saying I would play this game. Assertive as she is, she just popped up off the wall we were sitting on and jumped in. She did end up playing and continued her back and forth with Mr. Soft D.

Saturday Part II: Softball training

Kay left after that one game I watched…and then pretty much all but two of us left. So now I had this huge chunk of time left in my day and just decided to find something else to do.

It was a nice afternoon, so I didn’t want to be inside doing studenty stuff. That’s what nights are for.

So I texted another friend of mine, Jessica, who had a rough week and had wanted to walk and talk. We decided to go to a park with a little beach area by a lake. As we walked, we talked for a while about work, school, life, whatever and just sort of enjoyed the weather and the scenery. She wanted to knit and I just wanted to relax for a bit so we sat on the beach for a while.

I was supposed to play in a co-ed softball game the next day so I picked up a piece of driftwood and started swinging it like a bat. I never really have been a baseball player so I need all the practice I can get. She was a pretty talented high school softball player who decided not to play at the college level to focus on academics and has strong feelings about mechanics.

She gave me some advice on driftwood swing and noted a few small things I do wrong. I tend to open up my shoulders too quick. I tend to let go of the bat too early and take one of those major league baseball homerun swings rather than going for solid contact. “But that’s just what I see on TV,” I complained. Oh well.

She relayed a story about how she was at a baseball camp as a teenager one time and they got to swinging drills. Her dad was pretty hard on her in terms of mechanics, so she was always pretty confident about her ability to swing a bat. Of course, the coaches at the camp just saw her as one of two girls at the camp and when she first stepped up to bat they would pull the gentle babying thing on her – throw her a slower pitch and tell her not to worry if she didn’t hit the ball. They quickly realized that she indeed could swing a bat…and eventually had the other boys in camp watch her swing to teach to the proper mechanics.

Think there was a little resentment amongst the boys?

Of course, she eventually drew the ire of the other boys desperate for attention and sort of became the outcast of camp. We laughed and just sort of kept on talking about whatever we were talking about.

Sunday: Missed the softball game

After all my efforts to practice my swing, I ended up missing the softball game. There was a scheduling mix up – think it was my fault – but I didn’t get a reminder email because I was out at lunch. Oh well.

A friend of mine, Doug, is a huge Portland Trailblazers fan and wanted to watch the Portland-Houston game later in the evening. So I headed to a coffee shop near the bar to wait for game time.

We hadn’t seen each other for a few days so we spent some time catching up, laughing about relationship problems, and talking about some random academic stuff. We eventually got all the serious stuff out of the way and started talking about sports…then stats…then whipped out the laptops (the bar has wireless internet access, a perfect place indeed).

As we were independently perusing the web during halftime (over nachos and beer) he came across a New York Times article from Friday about how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had to cut eight sports teams. “Alpine skiing??” he said mockingly, “Who even competes in that? Who do they play against?”

Of course, I don’t really know but asked if the article mentioned anything about Title IX. “Good point,” he said nodding and continuing with a sarcastic tone. “But really, it’s not like women need to be playing sports anyway.” He and I laughed at the absurdity of his comment, having known each other for a while and knowing a number of talented female college athletes.

According to the Title IX blog, it appears that no Title IX issues have come up with regard to MIT's recent action.

Nevertheless, although he joked about it, we as a society are a long way away from truly accepting female athletes as legitimate. I’m really not even saying the stories of these three women I just highlighted are exceptional – women who do play sports are likely ignored, dismissed, and underestimated on a regular basis, whether it be at the interpersonal level or the larger societal level of how women’s sports are promoted and discussed.

But now that women do have opportunities to play, develop as athletes, and compete professionally, I wonder what it will take to make the next step of being respected as athletes.

It would be relatively easy for us in the U.S. to look at places like Saudi Arabia and say, well at least we aren’t preventing women from playing sports – everyone in the U.S. has equal opportunity to play sports! But it seems like it’s time to look past equal opportunity and look toward equitable participation – equal access to inequitable participation is not sufficient to consider ourselves a “just” society.

While we don’t all have the power to change the structures that maintain gender inequality, it seems like we can shift the way we interact with one another. So I won’t pat myself on the back for playing co-ed sports or taking instruction on my swing from a woman without feeling resentful. The real test, it would seem, is whether I as a man perpetuate sexism in athletics by subconsciously dismissing, remaining silent, or not “expecting great(ness)” from female athletes…or women in general.

And yet, acknowledging and reflecting upon my own shortcomings is probably a necessary but hardly sufficient condition of strengthening my own gender politics.

And the verdict on those crazy co-ed sports rules in the meantime? It’s hard to say as long as we remain surprised when a woman can have an impact on the pitch, the court, or the diamond.

Related Links:

First Saudi Women's Team Plays in Amman

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