Saturday, August 14, 2010

Men's v. women's sports

Sports in the United States is almost uniquely driven by allegiance to the jersey. You are a Yankees fan regardless of who is wearing the uniform, even former adversaries (it cut Red Sox fans to the core to see Wade Boggs win his first World Series title in pinstripes).

In fact, our attitude toward national squads in any sport is almost totally contrarian to the rest of the world (which made the nation’s embracing of the U.S. World Cup soccer squad astonishing when U.S. pro leagues have suffered constantly with poor live stadium attendance). Thus how we approach athletics, in terms of support and viewers, cannot be properly compared to the rest of the world.
Yes, in Europe and Asia, women’s sports matter more (and the pay scale reflects that). In South Korea, 2010 figure skating gold medalist Kim Yu-na is a national hero, as is Cathy Freeman of Australia for her 2000 Olympic victory. In those nations, these people remain emblematic stars while in the U.S. (with rare exceptions), it’s a “15-minutes of fame” accomplishment. You’d be hard pressed to name most of the gold medalists from the Vancouver Winter Games, aside by Evan Lysacek, and that’s because he was seen by more people on “Dancing with the Stars” than his actual noteworthy accomplishment.
It is also unfair to compare men’s and women’s team sports leagues because of the physical challenges. The NBA is dominated by its size, foot speed and jumping prowess, the repetitiveness of slam dunks, fast breaks and high-rising rebounders. Women simply cannot do that but shouldn’t be penalized for it. But tenacity and skills should not be discounted when UConn and Tennessee play one another in a collegiate championship; it’s as good as it gets (and probably better than many NCAA men’s tournament contests).
In my 30 years of covering sports (along with news), the BEST overall basketball player I ever saw was a woman (playing among girls as it turned out). I witnessed the emergence of Tamika Catchings in her senior year at Duncanville (Texas) High School and knew she would revolutionize the sport. She was long, tall (6-2) and could outrun and outjump almost every student in her school (male or female). The daughter of a former NBA player, she was the best shooter in the school (period) and could handle the basketball better than the point guard on the boys team.
As a junior, she led her volleyball squad to a state title (just to prove she could do it) and then, in her senior year, went undefeated in winning the state 5A basketball title, placing her on the same level as the greatest players in state history (joining the likes of Sheryl Swoopes). She went to Tennessee and did exactly what I knew she would – changing the traditional college game as a frontcourt player of size who could double as a backcourt player.
Team sports are driven by tradition; you are a “fan” regardless of roster and a “die hard” fan regardless of record. In the realm, male tradition will always dominate. But in individual sports, female athletes can emerge as popular as any male star and, in some cases, go further. Billie Jean King changed the world’s attitude toward women and tennis; Mary Lou Retton changed the world’s attitude toward women and gymnastics; Annika Sorenstam changed the world’s attitude toward women and golf; Jennie Finch changed the world’s attitude toward women and softball.
The real sadness has been the lack of replacement for these icons. In basketball, Kobe Bryant has followed Michael Jordan who followed Magic Johnson who followed Wilt Chamberlain, etc. As I said, when both Williams sisters retire, there is no foreseeable replacement to excite the public about women’s tennis; it’s simply hard to watch interchangeable young blonde Russian girls hitting tennis balls back and forth every week.
Female athletic accomplishments should be allowed to be judged on their own merits; not compared to the male team/individual model. And, yes, if a league cannot sustain itself through adequate fan support, it should probably depart from the sporting scene (including men’s soccer and the WNBA).
But do not downgrade the ability or effort of women for the inability to properly market and promote. If it were up to me, I’d cancel ALL NFL games because of everlasting boredom. They ARE good at self-promotion and over-hype.
I guess women’s sports need a Jerry Jones to get everyone’s attention, and to quote the late great Jimmy Durante, “What a revoltin’ development.”

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