Ways of rating female athletes

Both espnW and Sports Illustrated have compiled lists of the Top 40 women athletes of the Title IX era, and they’re both revealing in their approaches.

First of all, SI’s list is already done and available on one link, in a very compelling photo gallery. There are some notable omissions. No Dot Richardson, softball gold medalist and a key ambassador in her sport’s growth in the 1990s. No Cammi Granato, who in 2010 became one of the first two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

And Diana Taurasi as the top basketball player, ahead of even LPGA legend Annika Sorenstam? I’ve always been a big fan of Taurasi, but to put her ahead of hoopsters Cheryl Miller, Teresa Edwards and Ann Meyers? Hmmmm.

Sports fans love to argue about lists like this, however, and perhaps this list will create some passionate discussion as the 40th anniversary of Title IX approaches next month.

But espnW’s Top 40 list figures to create discussion for the athletes it is including — even women athletes whose careers have not been affected by Title IX at all. This list is being added once a day, and today’s No. 37 pick is Granato. But she’s the first athlete profiled who competed in college athletics. And this is just the problem.

The others thus far: Mary Lou Retton, jockey Julie Krone and Chinese Olympic diver Fu Mingxia. The disclaimer says”an industry-wide panel of journalists and women’s sports experts have cast their votes, which were tabulated by an independent, outside agency.”

That’s all good and well, but to declare that Title IX is a “law whose ripple effects extend far beyond the U.S., creating a women’s sports culture awash in opportunity” is more than a stretch, even for the purpose of this list.

The SI list contains no tennis players, no figure skaters, only two golfers — Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez; and just one gymnast, former Georgia All-American Courtney Kupets. No Mary Lou. No Venus. No Serena. No Martina. No Chrissie. No Steffi. No Nadia. No Picabo. No Kristi. No Lindsey. No Danica.

And this is as it should be. SI’s disclaimer noted that athletes on the list had to have competed at least one year in college sports, and that its list was compiled by its staffers.

By clicking through the SI photo gallery, you begin to see where Title IX has had its greatest impact — on women’s team sports in particular, and in some individual women’s Olympic sports, such as swimming and track and field.

But even then, there’s no acknowledgement that non-scholastic competition and development played much of a hand in the rise of these athletes. Mia Hamm was a member of the U.S. women’s soccer team before she ever stepped on a college soccer field. Sorenstam gave up college eligibility at the University of Arizona to join the LPGA Tour. Marion Jones cut short her basketball and track career at the University of North Carolina to pursue Olympic glory. Janet Evans, a teenage gold medalist in Seoul, later found the practice and competitive limits of college swimming too restrictive.

Even the LPGA Tour that Lopez and Sorenstam graced with their presence is becoming more global, with Koreans and the Taiwanese star Yani Tseng dominating. The American pro Natalie Gulbis bypassed a college apprenticeship, playing just one season at Arizona.

These matters cannot be pointed out during a time of “celebration,” of course, except by skunks at a garden party like me. But they are important to note.

For all of the marvelous things Title IX has done, it does have some significant limits. Its true cultural impact around the world isn’t as broad as the espnW disclaimer. To cite one very immediate example, Saudi Arabia is flat refusing to send women athletes to the London Olympics.

Brazil has a female head of state and the best female soccer player in the world in Marta, but its soccer federation and its society treats the distaff side of the sport with utter contempt. Indeed, America’s embrace of women’s soccer is not the rule, but the exception.

It’s fine to honor and point out the accomplishments of women athletes around the world, and those American women who did not compete in college athletics. But not on a list designed to commemmorate Title IX.

For the women’s sports that are the most popular, lucrative and commercially viable are those that have not been dramatically affected by the impact of the law. Most had decades of a head start on basketball, soccer and hockey.

I’m hopeful this will change in my lifetime, but it is not the case now.

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