Ain’t misbehavin’: Women athletes as entertainers

A question often raised about women’s athletics — and it’s usually posed as a rhetorical one — resurfaced recently following a suggestion from a WNBA coach that her players might just be too “nice” when the reality of competitive sports gets a little nasty:

“Could women’s sports use some bad girls?”

The attempt at an answer revolved around the usual ingredients: Among women athletes in general, there are much lower instances of self-absorbed, narcissistic comportment during games and controversial personae away from them. Rare is the story of a female athlete in trouble with the law.

The writer above, Chicago Daily Herald columnist Patricia Babcock McGraw, a former basketball player at Northwestern, is clearly on the side of better behavior, but she is also careful to repeat the all-important mantra that female athletes ought to serve as “role models” (plenty more on that in a bit).

Yet there’s still this nagging question that she seems to understand works against her preference:

“Would women’s sports get more of a following if the athletes were edgier, more outspoken, more brash?”

In praise of the human carnival

The answer may have been provided on Sunday during the U.S. women’s soccer team’s epic victory over Brazil in the quarterfinal of the Women’s World Cup.

What was on display — in addition to Abby Wambach’s ferocious extra-time equalizer — was the stuff that makes sports so compelling for fans: High drama, intrigue, controversy, dubious sports(wo)manship and ultimately, a comeback for the ages.

This involved all females, including the Australian referee, in a sport about which Americans are generally indifferent.

It was pure spectacle, with a healthy dose of American sports patriotism/exceptionalism thrown in, as is the case during the Olympics.

Above all, it was entertainment. Incredibly memorable entertainment.

That’s a word that rarely crops up in discussions about women’s sports, especially at the professional level. Even in the 15-year-old WNBA, the default mode for talking about how to broaden its audience revolves around the “role model” ideal. New WNBA president Laurel Richie mentions this repeatedly as she makes her way to all 12 league cities this summer.

While watching Minnesota Lynx rookie Maya Moore torch the Connecticut Sun for 26 points over the weekend, Richie rattled through the same litany of praise during a telecast on NBA TV. Yes, Moore is humble and is the perfect emobidment of what Richie and others in women’s sports desire above all: A great player who’s also a “good girl.”

But as I watched Moore, all I could blurt out was: “This woman’s going to tear this league apart. Absolutely destroy it.”

Her entertainment value is undeniable because of the way she plays the game. Moore’s blend of supreme skill and burning desire have already rendered her one of the best players in the history of women’s college basketball. She’ll likely have the same impact as a pro and as an Olympian. She is a basketball purist’s dream.

Yet somehow that’s not enough.

For the “role model” burden is a product of a women’s sports movement that preaches the urgency of teaching young girls well, in hopes that they will soon follow along. And further the claim that they can provide a morally superior alternative to the male sports culture feminists loathe.

While it is a good thing to exhibit good behavior and teamwork, respect for opponents and the games they play, the extent to which this demand is made also has the effect of making women athletes one-dimensional characters. It denies the reality that they are human beings, filled with the same contradictions, grievances, anger and unbecoming traits as men. Women may act out them out differently, and I’ll set aside for now the issue of whether that’s due to real gender distinctions or social conditioning, or some of both.

Role models or robots?

What is noticeable is how the desire to be “good girls” is a strong notion among many female athletes. They’ve learned well the lessons of their foremothers about being wholesome role models, instead of scantily-clad models in racy magazine pictorials emphasizing looks over athletic talent.

The rare cases of bad deeds off the court get a good denunciation within The Sisterhood as well. When WNBA star Diana Taurasi was charged with DUI two years ago, ESPN.com columnist MeChelle Voepel was especially harsh, suggesting Taurasi should be banned from the league’s all-star game. This is more than just another case of a sportswriter preaching morality at an athlete. Taurasi’s offense apparently was against not only the Phoenix community, but her team, league and sport as well:

“She is the first truly high-profile WNBA player to get in any serious legal trouble.

“Considering what a popular, visible and vocal presence she is for her franchise, the league and the sport of women’s basketball, this is as much a worst-case scenario as the WNBA hopes it ever has to deal with.”

Taurasi’s brash style is comparable to that of U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, whose outburst after being benched in the 2007 Women’s World Cup semifinals catapulted her into a different kind of female athletic notoreity.

As Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl examined prior to the 2008 Olympics, Solo was frozen out by her teammates, not allowed to be in uniform or on the bench for the third place game and even the team’s flight home from China. He addresses the sisterly bonding established by the celebrated 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team that the fiercely independent Solo breached:

“No episode in U.S. women’s soccer history has convulsed the team more than the Solo saga, which has strained friendships and sparked fundamental questions about the nature of women’s sports. Did Solo’s outburst violate a team-first ethos that was a cornerstone of the U.S. women’s appeal and success, or was that mentality naive in the first place? Did her punishment fit the crime? And would it even have been imposed on a men’s team? ‘In England guys get in fights and arguments all the time, and usually within an hour or by the next day everything’s fine,’ says former U.S. men’s keeper Kasey Keller, who has played 17 seasons in Europe. ‘But to be completely ostracized? I’ve never heard of anything like that.’ “

And yet the meme of innate female virtue persists. In last Sunday’s game, Brazilian defender Erika feigned an injury that ironically might have yielded the Americans enough stoppage time to score. In The New York Times this morning, Jeré Longman referred to recent research claiming that women do things like this very rarely, as compared to male soccer players. Former U.S. captain Julie Foudy, now ESPN’s lead Women’s World Cup commentator:

“Men have a tendency to draw the foul much better than women. They know and understand pressure, when to go down even though they’re not hit hard. Some are brilliant at it. Women play far too honest sometimes. They take the hit, ride the tackle and stay on their feet. I do think that will change.”

Just let them be

Ironically, one of the teammates most adamant about banishing Solo in 2007 was Wambach. After beating Brazil, they appeared together on the ESPN Women’s World Cup set from Germany, talking about the mutual respect they had developed.

They’ve shared the same amount of sporting hell and now glory together, the staples of all great compelling sports entertainment. Braced around Wambach’s heroics were Solo’s moments: She saved a second-half penalty kick, only to have Brazil given a retake because of an encroachment call that has not been fully explained; in the penalty kick phase she made the clinching save.

This is the sort of thing that draws people to sports. Too see athletes struggle, and lift themselves back up, and the way the American team did, and not just against Brazil, but over the last four years, has been mesmerizing.

While I was covering the 1999 Women’s World Cup — still the best gig I’ve ever had — the euphoria of an unexpected moment was intoxicating. So was the too-good-to-be-true saga of the girls next door, hoisted as perfect “role models” for all the little girls of America and beyond.

This was employed to create the first fully professional women’s soccer league in the world. Longman again, following the demise of Women’s United Soccer Association, with blunt post-mortems from sports marketers:

“In other words, if the league had played down ’sugar and spice’ wholesomeness campaigns meant to attract 8- to 12-year-olds, and sold the concept of the players as strong women, the W.U.S.A. could have kept the youth audience and also made itself relevant to a much wider group of adolescent girls and young women.”

When WUSA’s successor, Women’s Professional Soccer, had barely gotten underway in 2009, there were calls to draw paying spectators with an appeal to social activism. Having covered the WUSA, I responded very emphatically that this wasn’t going to cut it either. Women’s sports has got to stop being about a cause, and at the pro level needs to be treated as a business. The business of sports entertainment.

What’s going to sell women’s sports in the long haul will not be an incessant appeal to virtue but rather to sparkling, dramatic entertainment that attracts adults and youngsters alike. As a female marketing friend who’s a fan of women’s sports often tells me, people don’t watch or buy tickets to sporting events to see role models. They want to be entertained.

It’s not a matter of needing more “bad girls” but rather allowing women athletes to be the fully human, adult creatures they are.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted July 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Wendy- Very thoughtful and comprehensive piece on women’s sport. You nailed it…and we actually agree for once! :)
    thanks for this post, Nicole

  2. Posted July 13, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I appreciate the comments Nicole. But don’t be bashful about commenting here when you don’t agree with me. There’s a lot that’s worth discussing regardless of differing points of view.

  3. Matt Zemek
    Posted July 13, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been unable to watch these World Cup games (travel and work), but following along on Twitter, I’m reading a lot of tweets that are expressing how sprawling, athletic and generally dynamic these games are (including today’s USA-France match). Maybe, just maybe, women’s sports is finally gaining (added) traction as high-quality sports entertainment. It is indeed the gateway to sustained market viability and that cultural respect which is central to long-term relevance.

    (PS – Ian Darke just might have become the kind of signature broadcast voice who, with his call of USA-Brazil, will give women’s sports the cultural heft and centrality it can so clearly benefit from.)

  4. Posted July 14, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Matt –

    Thanks as always for the thoughts.

    The biggest challenge for women’s soccer is making the WPS league viable. It’s skating on very thin ice in its third season, with just 6 teams. I hope there will be a post-World Cup boost for the league, but it has a lot of tough issues regardless.

    The games from Germany that I’ve seen have been terrific, lots of great goals. The quality of the sport is improving; if Brazil and France can improve goalkeeping and fitness levels that long have been the advantage for the U.S., that will be something to behold. Their talent and skill on the ball are exemplary, evidence of being from soccer nations.

    The initial overnight ratings for the US-France match are good: http://fangsbites.com/2011/07/strong-overnights-for-womens-world-cup/

    And ESPN does see a lot of potential for soccer, mostly international events, English Premier League, US men and women, etc. So its commitment to WWC is paying off as well:
    http://espn.go.com/blog/poynterreview/post/_/id/80/espn-resources-pay-off-at-world-cup

    Ian Darke is ESPN’s voice for much of that soccer; it’s not just limited to the women.

    But the American team’s showing I think will help give women’s sports another powerful, visible example, and that is to be commended. Just like the emergence of Maya Moore as a basketball superstar.

    Gradually, more and more people are being won over by how these women compete, and their personalities as athletes and entertainers and not just how they look or what their favorite flavor of ice cream is. This is why I rail so hard against the feminist hardliners, who want this perfect world that fits their narrow ideology. Winning over men such as yourself is the real key to women’s sports truly broadening their appeal.

  5. Posted July 28, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the great post. I’m glad you didn’t conclude that women’s sports need some misbehavers to get their due. You’re right. We want to be entertained. And the WWC gave us that and then some.

    Women don’t get their share of spectators, I’m told, because a. women don’t spectate and b. women are not spectacular. I’m curious how you would react to that.

    As a female athlete and coach and parent of female athletes, I love playing and teaching sports but not spectating. (except for youth games where I know the players) I occasionally watch the men’s games because their speed, accuracy and play-making leaves you shaking your head and saying whoa! It’s good entertainment.

    What I love about watching the best women play the sports I play is I can actually hope to (try to) play that way. I can’t rip a driven pass out of the air and stop it at my feet in one touch (like the men) but I can touch it into space and one-two it to create a scoring chance (like the women). So – I guess if that’s role-modeling, I’m stuck there.

    Looking forward to reading more posts.