The WNBA will celebrate its 20th season in May. Typically, such a milestone represents maturity, success, growth and prosperity. While the WNBA’s sustainability has disproven many doubters who believed the league would’ve folded years ago, the past two decades haven’t necessarily been a slam dunk either. The all women’s pro hoops league, which recently introduced Lisa Borders as its fourth president, continues to experience growing pains. According to Sports Business Journal, “its 2015 regular season brought record low attendance, a drop in television viewership on ESPN and the relocation of an underperforming franchise.” Also consider, this bleak report was presented amid the league possessing what some consider peak talent. However, should-be recognizable athletes remain anonymous to most avid sports fans. Furthermore, earning respect for the game and the women who play it remain a challenge.
Months ago, former NBA all-star Gilbert Arenas grabbed headlines for ignorant, disrespectful, sexist, and false remarks that disparage the women’s game and perpetuate stereotypes about WNBA athletes, specifically. What happened to game recognize game? If anyone should value women athletes, it’s their male counterparts. Although the NBA jumped to the defense of WNBA athletes, stars such as Candace Parker, Swin Cash, MVP Elena Delle Donne and others were left to advocate for themselves.
But recently, NY Knicks guard Jerian Grant — the son, nephew, and brother of NBA athletes — professed his love for women’s basketball on The Players’ Tribune in a piece titled, “Get With the Program.” The former Notre Dame Irishman acknowledged that it is the Lady Irish who are worshipped in South Bend, Indiana. He acknowledged the basketball culture on campus helped him develop an appreciation for his female peers and to view them as equals. He shared,
It seemed like the whole city showed up for their games. The Joyce Center was live. I mean, we got good crowds, too, but even when the women’s team played Division II teams, their stands were packed. Little boys and girls from South Bend would wait after games for autographs. It would take our team playing against North Carolina or Louisville to get the stands were anywhere near the level they got for literally any women’s game.
Even the way the media covered women’s basketball in South Bend was different from anywhere I’d ever seen. Local TV and the newspapers covered the women’s game the same way they covered our team. One of the coolest things about the culture we had at Notre Dame was that it was normal to see women’s and men’s basketball as being equally important.
Throughout the piece, Grant spoke fondly of women’s basketball, and expressed his incomprehension of anyone’s contrarian point of view. “Get with the program,” he said.
Last season, I recall watching Liberty games and seeing then-rookie Grant and his teammates in attendance. I remember being proud and thinking it was wonderful to see Liberty players supported by their NBA brothers, especially as they advanced deep into the conference finals. I thought, why don’t more NBA players take time to reinforce how great the WNBA talent is by sitting courtside and cheering them on? A little support goes a long way in breaking stereotypes, especially considering the viral impact of social media. Grant’s The Players’ Tribune piece also brought to mind thoughts, I had at the time, on what a strong message it would’ve sent if Carmelo Anthony, not only the Knicks superstar, but one of the NBA’s premiere players, was also in attendance at Liberty games. Grant’s appreciation for women’s basketball is appreciated but he isn’t a household name. The buzz isn’t nearly as great as if Anthony, his wife, actress Lala, and son Kiyan, were snapped jumping out of their floor seats as they reacted to watching some amazing basketball.
But then I checked myself.
For starters, I thought antagonists would dismiss any sign of Anthony and his family enjoying themselves as a cheap ploy or marketing stunt because anything else would be unbelievable. But more importantly, I checked myself for feeding into the stereotypes of women needing men’s validation to be taken seriously.
Women, both professionally and personally, have a tendency to seek approval from men. Instead of being content with uplifting each other or achieving self-acceptance, women play into society’s patriarchal power structure in which men are permanently perched at the top by assuming a position of inferiority and subconsciously reinforcing the notion that women, alone, aren’t enough. Thus, begging the question, not enough in comparison to whom? Answer: Men.
And the cycle continues.
In a perfect and equal society, the WNBA wouldn’t uphold a man’s point of view as a stamp of approval, or the standard. An NBA athlete who barely has any recognizability himself wouldn’t feel inspired to address “the stereotypes, the put-downs, the jokes,” that are made at the expense of the WNBA, because they wouldn’t exist. And better yet, All Sports Everything and other sports media outlets wouldn’t have identified Grant’s rare point of view as refreshing and worthy of sharing. Instead, it would’ve been accepted as the norm; filed under what’s understood doesn’t need to be explained.
But until then, the fight continues.
And while I welcome Grant’s support as a sign of progress, a small piece of me continues to question, is it really more of an impediment?