Women Don’t Need to Jump
By William Devine
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 1998
See original Chronicle version here
My daughter Amanda and I watched our first Women’s National Basketball Association game on television recently, Houston versus New York. For those wondering whether women pros have achieved equality with their counterparts in the men’s league, I have news: the answer is no, and I hope it is ever thus.
For starters, the women take an entirely different approach to the game. This is apparent in little things like free throws. The women make theirs. The teams were a combined 23 for 28 on this night in New York. In an era when many men (how’s your summer going, Shaquille O’Neal?) approach free throws as if they are trying to play Mozart with a trowel in each hand, this is a refreshing change.
The women also seem genuinely delighted to be playing the game. At halftime, ESPN ran an interview with Houston’s Tina Thompson, one of the league’s no-doubt-about-it stars. NBA halftime interviews, you may have noticed lately, are a lot like audiences with royalty. They tend to feature a guy who refers to his coaches and teammates as “my supporting cast,” and who does so with all the warmth of a feudal lord referring to serfs who squat on his land for a living.
Thompson gave us none of that. She effervesced about how fortunate she was to have had a great college coach. She enthused at length about how good she thinks her current teammates are. She was articulate, she laughed, and she smiled and smiled and smiled.
The women are setting new standards for poise in the heat of competition, too. As the Houston-New York game progressed, New York coach Nancy Darsch became increasingly and understandably agitated. Before the opening tip was over, her team was down, 13-2. Just minutes later the deficit was 20 and still growing, and the truth was plain — her team was about to be pasted on national TV.
At one point during the rout, Darsch screamed toward the court in frustration. Her eyes were intense and she leaned into her words for emphasis. Whether she was yelling at an official, directing her fury at her players, or simply letting off steam, I couldn’t tell. Given the score, it’ s entirely possible that her words did not exactly fall into the category of family entertainment. We’ll never know, though, because she deliberately placed her hand in front of her mouth before she let loose, so that no one watching at home could read her lips.
There have been countless moments more dramatic in the history of televised sports, but few more thoughtful.
Despite this wealth of talent, enthusiasm and poise, the WNBA is no match for the NBA in terms of dollars. None of these women sports a $20 million Adidas contract, a $36 million salary, or even a $10 million underwear endorsement deal.
Some might contend that women cannot rest until they’re on equal financial footing with the men, that more work remains, but using money as the measuring stick for this league only obscures a much more important point.
We devote enormous amounts of money and energy to pro and college sports in this country, with mixed results at best. As fans we mobilize entire communities in an attempt to attract and support franchises and spectacles, thereby hoping to bolster civic pride. This is hardly immoral, yet think about what civic pride would be if, thanks to a reallocation of resources, every child in your community graduated from college.
As players we spend long hours trying to forge ourselves into competitors who can outperform others in the games we play. This is fine, yet consider what our sense of accomplishment and self-expression would be if we chose to develop our talents so we could create work that not only fulfilled and supported us, but also served others in an important way, like cutting our 50 percent divorce rate in half, or lowering DWI-related deaths from 70 a day to 50.
There is indeed more work to be done in our country, but we’ll never get to it if we let dollars be our guide, or if we fixate on a given pursuit merely because men before us have done so.
The bottom line is that the WNBA doesn’t need to be equal to anyone else’s league. It’s wonderful and successful as is.
More importantly, however, we don’t need it to be equal to the men’s league. That we have people shooting basketballs on TV and being paid for it — whether they’re women or men, whether they make five or eight figure salaries — is amazing, and it’s also a reminder that as human beings, we can accomplish anything we can conceive of.
The real message of the WNBA is that it’s time to raise our game a notch.
We have the talent to make our dreams come true. Why not dream bigger dreams?
Bill Devine is an attorney in Palo Alto and the author of “Women, Men & Money’’ (Random House). Amanda Devine is 4, and wants to make a video with Pooh Bear.