I spent a recent Saturday in a dive bar watching the Memphis Grizzlies hand the Golden State Warriors an ugly loss. During a commercial, I mentioned to my friends that the University of Connecticut’s top-ranked women’s basketball team had just beaten second-ranked Notre Dame to extend its win streak to 83 games — an unthinkable run, especially at the college level.
The guys I was with weren’t just unaware of this streak; they insisted I had to be wrong.
Their doubt had a whiff of sexism to it, but their ignorance bothered me more, probably because I couldn’t really blame them. A dramatic discrepancy exists between coverage of men’s and women’s sports, basketball chief among them. SportsCenter’s airtime dedicated to women’s sports has hovered at a dismal 2 percent for more than a decade.
Trying to figure out whether a lack of coverage or lack of interest came first leaves us chasing our tails in a pool of patriarchy. Around-the-clock sports coverage isn’t a response to demand, but the manufacturing of it. Things naturally become more interesting when you know the backstory, or when an outcome might prove a friend or pundit wrong. Our sports-obsessed culture is fueled by manufactured rivalries and controversies, with one-dimensional characters creating a common language for fans. Even predictable narratives are consistently missing from the women’s game and consistently overdone on the men’s side.
Mainstream sports media seems uninterested in devoting more time to the dominance of UConn coach Geno Auriemma and his mind-blowing 955-134 lifetime record, complete with six undefeated seasons. And, God forbid, we get anything resembling substantial coverage about the individual women who make up Auriemma’s dominant squads.
Instead, sports media would rather worry about how Draymond Green feels about a mediocre power forward on the mediocre New York Knicks. Some sports reporters are even beginning to get bored with the glut of stories written about the Warriors; a pre-season article in the San Francisco Chronicle opened with the line: “Reporters swarm Warriors practices and shootarounds, asking about stories that have already been written.”
Now, this is the part where some dude in an NBA jersey comes and tells me I’m comparing apples to oranges with the Warriors and the Huskies. It’s also the part where I remind him that, in the scheme of things, apples and oranges really aren’t that different. If you can’t see the talent on display during women’s games, you’re either not paying attention or you don’t understand basketball. (Also, if you’re a fan of golf or baseball, you’ve immediately lost the right to say you don’t watch women’s basketball because it’s “slow.”)
Last season, the most prominent “storyline” attached to the Huskies was born of a tweet from Dan Shaughnessy, a Boston Globe columnist, who said the team, in consistently crushing its competition, was “killing the women’s game.” Dave Caldwell commented on the theory in a column for The Guardian as well, agreeing their dominance “makes for lousy TV.” While these writers are seemingly aware that women’s basketball faces an uphill battle, they stop short of pointing out the sexism underpinning that reality … and apparently aren’t aware that their own commentary fuels the problem.
The difference in reactions to men’s basketball versus women’s is analogous to the most common double standard out there: An assertive man is called a leader, while an assertive woman gets called a bitch.
As last year’s 73-win season for the Warriors shows, people tend to be quite interested in seeing history made, often paying good money for the mere proximity to greatness (even if it makes for less competitive matches). Of course, it helps when fans are being regularly reminded of said greatness, of said history in the making. Bias often manifests itself in the things we choose not to say and the stories we choose not to tell.
I played college basketball, and I still love the game. But sadly, most men I meet don’t really enjoy basketball (or any sport, really) so much as they love the machismo that surrounds it. That’s why, after learning I played in the NCAA myself, they chalk my admiration of UConn up to a strange personal interest, like folding origami or making my own preserves. And that’s why, after they hear I played competitively, they immediately challenge me to a game of one-on-one.
Many people shrug this off as flirting or an attempt to find a common interest. I see it as the manifestation of fragile male egos, an early attempt at domination, and proof that female strength, skill, and success — whether in sports or politics or in general — still makes us uncomfortable. A one-on-one match merely offers a formal, acceptable avenue for shutting it down.
The same knee-jerk, chauvinistic reaction happens when most people experience women’s sports more broadly. Masculinity is traditionally associated with athleticism, strength, and leadership; study after study after study shows the female embodiment of such qualities quite often makes men (and sometimes women) uncomfortable.
Consider an experiment performed at Fairleigh Dickinson University, which found that merely asking men about the possibility of being the lower-earning spouse shifted their presidential preference to Donald Trump away from Hillary Clinton.
“The conclusion that this is about gender,” researcher Dan Cassino wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “is reinforced by the fact that the spousal income question had no effect at all on a matchup between Trump and Bernie Sanders.”
This relates closely to the theory of “precarious manhood,” according to a recent Atlantic piece titled “Fear of a Female President.” Masculinity is seen as something that must be maintained, the article explained, and “among the emasculations men most fear is subordination to women.” Watching women demonstrate their athletic prowess, even against other women, likely resurfaces the same gendered insecurities. How can we discuss women’s basketball — especially as it relates to the UConn Huskies and their dominance — and not discuss a possible threat to deeply entrenched gender norms?
Which just brings us back to my original point: Stories matter. Problematic gender norms are also born of stories. The more the same old stories are shoved down our throats, the more young men will grow up thinking this is a “right” (or at least acceptable) way to view women — whether they are on the basketball court, in the food court, or in a court of law. So the next time you see some guy in a jersey mansplaining the shortcomings of women’s basketball, remember that sexism is often in the subtleties. Women’s sports is no exception.
Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @alyssaoursler.