Leagues of their own for a good reason

This week espnW has been running a series examining the possibilities of women competing in men’s professional sports leagues. Veteran reporter Jane McManus does a good job detailing the physical and cultural obstacles women face in football, while Pat Borzi does the same in baseball.

I do admire the women facing very long odds of ever succeeding on the most-dominated fields of play that exist in American sports, and I don’t suspect the cultures of baseball and football will ever embrace women as basketball and soccer have. Theirs is a passion bordering on obsession that is hard to deny — and it is generally a healthy obsession. Perhaps some of these women may parlay that passion into front office and off-the-field careers that are rarities today, or inspire other females to do so.

I also understand the media fascination with this subject, because this is another part of the women’s sports realm devoted to novelty. In fact, the entire field of women’s athletics for many — including some of its biggest advocates — is regarded as experimental ground for working through social issues.

Another trendy topic that gets women’s sports advocates all aflutter is American-style gridiron football — whether it’s championing the fledgling pro women’s league that’s been around for several years or condeming the new lingerie variety that has some of the Sisters of Perpetual Indignance absolutely beside themselves.

But while the latter is mildly amusing, the rest of all this is frankly boring. While women have made enormous athletic and physical strides in my lifetime, the constant obsession — and this is an unhealthy one — to see whether women can really hold their own against men is more than quixotic.

It takes away from acknowledging the most remarkable development there has ever been in women’s sports: The everyday exploits of females on fields, courts, pools and other venues of play, just to play. They’re not always doing so to chase a college scholarship, or aim for professional or Olympic glory, although some get that far. Hardly any do it to prove themselves against men.

It’s been this critical mass, built up over decades, that has helped lead to entities like the WNBA, which is holding its own after a sometimes-rocky decade and a half of existence. Yet in Thursday’s espnW installment, Diana Taurasi is asked the inevitable question about women playing in the NBA, and she handles it well enough. But her fellow pro hoopster Tina Thompson, the last active charter WNBA member, really throws it down the best:

“The question is insignificant. The point of creating the WNBA was to have a league of our own.”

Thank you.

With all due respect to an intriguing topic, what’s the point of all this? I thought it was a marvelous moment for women’s sports earlier this year when the frat boys of American sports media got all worked up with comparisons between the winning streaks of the UConn women and the UCLA men. These are the things that make sports great — the arguments on talk radio, message boards and social media that never end, and always fascinate. Who was better? Mays or Mantle? What about DiMaggio or Williams? Russell’s Celtics or Magic’s Lakers? Lombardi’s Packers or Montana’s 49ers? You’re forgetting the Bulls and the Steelers, idiots! Etc., etc.

That a women’s team sport had reached such a lofty perch in the mainstream sports spotlight was perhaps as notable as what it accomplished on the court. Even amid the clamor of this being apples and oranges, or claims that the UConn women could never beat the UCLA men on the floor.

That was never the point. Neither has it been the purpose of the development of women’s sports to see whether the best females they produce might have an actual shot against the men. There’s a fairly obvious reason why most sports are sex-segregated, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. While the espnW series thankfully doesn’t address the absurd claims of Colette Dowling in “The Frailty Myth,” it still gives far too serious credence to an unrealistic, as well as an insignificant, question.

As I read these stories, I detected a ghost that haunts women’s sports advocates — the fear of invisibility. The barrier-busting, “woman in a man’s world” narrative holds media attention, but only as long as the novelty lasts.

Auriemma, who will lead the American national team in the London Olympics, said at a U.S. training camp this week in Las Vegas he doesn’t worry about the comparative lack of attention for women athletes:

“We could go 39-0 (at UConn) three years in a row and not get the amount of media that goes to a men’s Final Four. It’s just part of the deal. People are either going to appreciate you or they’re not. I’m sure there is an (Olympic) swimmer who says, ‘I’m up at 5 a.m. every day. Where is everyone?’ Or the guys on the crew team who say, ‘We’re in the water busting our ass every morning. Where is everyone?’

“Does it bug me? No. When you look back five years, the attention is better now than it has ever been. I would just like it if one of our players made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the gold medal, she wouldn’t have to take her shirt off to get the coverage it would deserve.”

I firmly believe that the biggest challenges facing women’s sports in America have nothing to do Title IX or wasted cultural obsessions, but with broadening their mainstream appeal, attracting corporate sponsors, working to establish the viability of professional leagues and taking the ideological fury out of getting in the game. Some may find it boring and even dispiriting, but some recent developments make this even more imperative:

— The extremely endangered state of the Women’s Professional Soccer league has taken another heartbreaking turn. If this 3-year-old circuit, now down to six teams, makes it through the season, it will be a miracle.

— The WNBA continues to get a strong endorsement from David Stern, and as long as he feels that way it isn’t going anywhere. But he didn’t dance around his rationale for recently hiring successful marketing executive Laurel Richie as the new WNBA president. He wants to strengthen the league as a business.

— Even the venerable LPGA, now 61 years old, remains on enough fragile financial ground that a respected and fair-minded golf journalist not long ago created a possible scenario for how it might thrive as part of the PGA.

The next barriers to be broken for women in spectator sports will not be about crashing men’s leagues, but making the leagues they have and the games they play compelling and worthy to just more than a small, intense few.

In some ways, not becoming a novelty might be a more difficult feat to pull off.

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