The women who can’t enjoy the UConn women’s streak

Even before the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team won for the 87th consecutive time last week, some of the most vocal women’s sports advocates there are — affectionately known here as the Sisters of Perpetual Indignance — have felt especially anxious about the reaction to what they believe to be nothing less than (wo)man landing on the moon.

Except there really hasn’t been that much scorn heaped upon UConn’s winning streak, and the chance that Geno Auriemma’s Huskies have on Sunday to match the UCLA men’s record of 88 wins in a row against Ohio State in Madison Square Garden. What has appeared of that variety has been scant, and rather poorly argued. The apples-and-oranges references are as lame as suggestions of putting the respective men’s and women’s teams in question on the floor and letting them settle the matter there.

These are the exceptions to what has been a rather respectful rule when assessing UConn’s apparent place in history (unless the Buckeyes make some of their own). Most notably, there was Connecticut resident Frank Deford on NPR, in his latest tribute to the Huskies. And ESPN.com’s MeChelle Voepel penned this kindly comparison of the coaching styles of John Wooden and Geno Auriemma, who despite their vast personality differences are remarkably similar in what they have demanded from their teams on the court.

Then there’s Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel, who has more than a passing familiarity with women’s hoops, offering a very generous and fair-minded perspective.

But The Sisterhood didn’t wait for any of that, convinced that UConn was not going to be treated “fairly” or “equally” in the press. A few pre-emptory strikes were served up by Laura Pappano, with her usual heavy-handed hyperbole, and Nicole LaVoi, who thought it necessary to make predictions about the coverage, with No. 4 being particularly insipid.

(If you reside outside of the sisterly bubble, these are two of the most notable women’s sports “experts” we’re told we have, women who have written books, participated in panel discussions, conducted research and the like. The quality and accuracy of what they have written, discussed and researched is rarely given any critical examination inside the bubble, of course, which is one of the problems with the general discourse about women’s sports.)

When Connecticut-based ESPN announced it would not displace poker with the UConn vs. Ohio State game that will remain on ESPNU, the conspiracy theorists had their proof that the women were not getting proper respect. (Some UConn fans complained that they don’t get ESPNU on their cable systems, but there are alternatives: Go to a sports bar, or better yet, take a short trip to Manhattan and see history in person. More than 6,000 empty seats still remain.)

But it took the Stenographer of the Sisterhood, the typically late-to-the-game Christine Brennan of USA Today, to stir the pot really good, and turn a celebratory occasion for women’s sports into an unsavory whinefest:

“For decades now, those of us in the sports media have argued about which comes first: interest or coverage. There’s no doubt that college men’s basketball has more interest than the women’s game. TV ratings, attendance figures and revenue bear that out. But there’s also no doubt that the media’s lack of coverage of the UConn story, and many other stories in women’s sports, ensures that interest will remain static.”

If Brennan actually covered women’s sports as much as Voepel, for example, I’d buy some of this. But for someone who parachutes into the realm of women’s sports only when a story becomes big enough, or when she’s trying to make a reflexive point about Title IX or gender issues in sports, or when she’s introduced as a women’s sports “expert” on NPR, it’s truly rich for Brennan to scold the media Tribe for its supposed negligence.

At last spring’s Women’s Final Four in San Antonio, Brennan stuck around long enough to query Auriemma about UConn’s dominance, and why this was the case with Title IX and all. But she didn’t stay for any of the games, having jetted off to Augusta before the women’s semifinals to join the Tribe stalking Tiger Woods. Maybe it’s because she had just written that she thought what UConn was doing wasn’t necessarily good for women’s basketball.

So which Brennan are we to believe now with UConn on the cusp of 88, and possibly more? The March Brennan? Or the December Brennan?

And better yet, will she be at the Garden on Sunday, as one of the few women in sports media with a true national platform? According to her “Keeping Score” archives, the only women she’s written about since March are three drivers at the Indy 500, Maddy Crippen, Debi Thomas, Ines Sainz, Serena Williams and her bothersome foot, Kim Clijsters and Yeardley Love, the University of Virginia lacrosse player who was murdered last spring, allegedly by a member of the men’s team. Oh, and the non-athletic women at the center of the Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger controversies.

By my count, women have been the focal point of only 10 of Brennan’s last 61 columns, and some of that is human interest treatment. Golf is the subject of 24 columns, and Brennan used not one of them to write about women’s golf. Nor has she written in that span about the WNBA or the endangered Women’s Professional Soccer league.

Brennan’s gender scorecard is just as threadbare as those she lectures. And she gets away with it, while the few women’s sports journalists still remaining at mainstream media outlets labor in obscurity.

Look, there’s plenty to lament about today’s sports media atmosphere, and to feel just a bit sheepish about what’s considered important.

It’s a 24/7 noise machine that overdramatizes almost every story, large or small, rehashes of dozens of replays of dunks, touchdowns, homers, golazos, complemented by the rush of reporters to “confirm” petty, inconsequential “news,” all for the sake of getting a “scoop.”

It’s the same sports media environment that women’s sports advocates claim marginalizes them and the feats of female athletes. As a counter, such “experts” like to conduct bogus studies that reflect what they already believe, instead of casting a more empirical net (and that’s a subject for another time, and that I wrote about here and here).

But what the sisters have done this week is to undermine everything they said they wanted to be emphasized about the UConn women’s streak. In making the coverage of the story the story, they guaranteed that the marvelous basketball played by UConn and Auriemma’s coaching brilliance would share some billing with a subject unbecoming of that excellence.

In other words, ladies, you’ve pulled off what you feared the male-dominated sports press would do. Only you did it much, much better.

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2 Comments

  1. Jason
    Posted December 21, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Good article. And btw I think Gino is full of it. He has a juggernaut that unless they are playing Baylor he can’t motivate by pointing at an opponent so he is playing the “we’re being disrespected” card.

  2. jlawrence01
    Posted December 22, 2010 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    Question:

    Don’t you think that this long streak would be covered MUCH MORE if Pat Summit was the coach breaking the record?