This month's coverage of UConn's win streak, and the record the Huskies may or may not have set, presented a new — but refreshingly familiar — storyline for women's sports coverage.
ESPN debuted its women-directed news site, espnW.com, the same week that WNBA great Lisa Leslie called out the broadcast world for the disparity in men's and women's basketball coverage. "Maybe if we had a place [on ESPN]," she suggested in an interview with NBA Fanhouse, "you would be more informed."
Two Sundays ago, when I joined about 15,000 other people to watch the UConn women defeat Ohio State in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden, I thought about that idea of "place" and of being "informed" about women's sports. I sat in the upper decks next to a mother and daughter from upstate New York. Like everyone else around me, they were big UConn fans. "What brings you here?" the mom asked me a few minutes into the warm-ups. "Do you play basketball?"
I paused. The game was to be broadcast on ESPNU; the Garden had distributed its fill of press credentials weeks in advance; some kind of Very Important Record would be tied; and here was a real, three-dimensional "place" for women's sports in one of the most beloved arenas ever built. And yet we all still needed a reason to be here.
"The hype!" I told her.
The hype faded late in the first half, as UConn built its inevitable lead. And it probably died for good after the Huskies recorded their 89th straight victory the following Tuesday, against Florida State, which of course surpassed John Wooden's mark. The game was televised on ESPN2, and it was preceded by five consecutive hours of UConn programming on ESPNU, including a four part, two-hour series called "The Climb: UConn's Quest for Perfection." It was all very Rosie the Riveter meets Tenzing Norgay.
I'm just not sure that this is what Leslie meant when she talked about us all being "informed."
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A couple of summers ago, when I was working for a Time Inc. publication, I got to sit in on one of those "teach the interns" seminars with Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell. He rambled for a bit about new media and later touched on the "soft-core" nature of SI's new Swimsuit iPhone app, and mentioned how you could always count on "naked women" to move copies.
McDonell seemed good-natured enough, and so I asked him how he considered female readership (about 20 to 25 percent of subscribers are women) when developing stories and covers for SI, and what it takes for the magazine to feature a female athlete on its cover. He didn't really answer my question. But he did say that he thought women who read his magazine did so because they preferred "thinking" about sports rather than simply learning those facts that Leslie asks us to consider — who won, who lost, when, where, and how. Then he said, "I know I didn't answer your question."
I can't blame him. How to even begin to answer that essential question — "What does it take for anyone to give two shits about women's sports?" — when the big-media vocabulary of women's sports is already so limited? Storytelling on the distaff side tends to fall into one of two categories: women as victim (Rutgers' players as "nappy headed hos") and women behaving badly (Brittney Griner punching an opposing player, Elizabeth Lambert yanking ponytails). During a particularly telling stretch from 1993 to 1994, the three women to make the cover of Sports Illustrated were Monica Seles, stabbing victim; Mary Pierce, alleged abuse victim; and Nancy Kerrigan, club-to-the-knee victim.
It should be noted, given espnW's current masthead, that the great Sally Jenkins wrote the pieces on Seles and Pierce. It should also be noted that the cover standard has shifted quite a bit since Time Inc. chloroformed SI For Women in 2002: Serena Williams, Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, and Danica Patrick are, by my count, the four women to have made the cover since the beginning of 2008 – excusing a few regional college basketball season previews and Marisa Miller, Brooklyn Decker, Bar Refaeli, and Sweet Jasmine. In this group, only Sweet Jasmine was written as a victim.
Seles, Pierce, and Kerrigan were all world-class athletes, but their most-hyped stories weren't ever about milestones. Terry McDonell's suggestion, though, was that women fall for the cerebral components of these narratives – that we're interested in, say, Seles's wailing because it gets us reading about and thinking about things that have nothing to do with stat lines. That maybe we're interested in those things because they have nothing to do with stat lines. For women, in this view, being "informed" about sports is different from what it means for men to be "informed" about sports. By its very nature, the Worldwide Leader's new site seems to make the same assumption.
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That's not to say that Seles's getting stabbed in the middle of a match isn't a good story worth of the magazine's cover. The issue Lisa Leslie implicitly points to is that Seles's attack, and other stories like it, aren't ever the only ones. Just think of the endless variety of stories told about male athletes. A 2010 study at USC's Center for Feminist Research calculated that women's coverage peaked at "8.7 percent [of total coverage] in 1999" on evening sports shows including SportsCenter — likely related to the U.S. women's penalty-kick win in the World Cup — "before dropping to 1.6 percent in 2009," but far more limiting is the way that coverage is packaged.
Which brings us to the Huskies' pursuit of John Wooden's mark and its impressive television coverage. The wonder of it isn't so much that the story of the record was wholly manufactured to gin up TV ratings; the wonder is that someone attempted to gin up TV ratings for women's basketball in the time-honored tradition of men's sports coverage — by pretending the stakes were much greater than they really were. And it was weirdly refreshing! Maya Moore & Co. weren't rendered victims, or bad girls; they were, simply, a very great basketball team. The story of UConn's 89 consecutive wins was the story of greatness, and if ESPN seized on it for its own cynical ends, at least the network was being cynical about women's sports in a new and perhaps less patronizing way. As Sue Bird succinctly put it: "[I]t's a simple fact of, it's impressive."
That was the irony of Geno Auriemma's much-bruited comments. For those who may have missed it, Auriemma suggested that his team would have been relegated to "two paragraphs in USA Today" or "one line on the bottom of ESPN" and then sent "back where they belong in the kitchen," had they been threatening a women's record instead of Wooden's. (If records really matter to you, UConn is still chasing one: Wayland Baptist University won 131 straight games in the 1950s, before women's basketball was a recognized NCAA sport.)
Auriemma's implication was that the media attention was not about women doing extraordinary things on a basketball court, but about women posing a viable threat to the male order. Naturally, this excited a lot of excitable typists. However welcome it was, the funny part of Auriemma's rant was that he had taken a story that had already been formulaically reduced — Can this great team do something greater than this other great team? Tune in tomorrow on ESPN2! — and further reduced it into another formula, this one about These Poor Women.
Not everyone took the bait, but the return to the old rhetoric was probably inevitable. And in any case, what record chase isn't on some level a media contrivance? Auriemma was talking about gender inequities, but the issue here was really the reductive nature of hype — a symptom of a very different contagion, and one known to all sports.