Brian Tompkins

View From The Dugout

The Persecution Of Excellence

Gender bias in women's sports

Posted Apr 12, 2010

The Connecticut women's basketball team recently completed a much-ballyhooed run to its second consecutive national championship and the accomplishment was all the more remarkable because they did so by going undefeated over those two seasons, winning by an average of double digit point margins, and establishing a record winning streak of 78 games.

They are the best offensive team in the country; play the best defense in the country and compete with a focus, determination and level of physical commitment that makes them an irrepressible force to play against.

The architect of this incredible team and its accomplishments is Geno Auriemma who recruits great players and then instills in them a will to succeed that overwhelms, exhausts and ultimately defeats all who come in their way. He is a notoriously demanding and often ruthless tactical genius who pushes players through their comfort zones to levels of performance they might have thought unattainable.

In environments such as these where winning becomes habitual and expected, it is not uncommon for the program to view its opponents as merely obstacles in the pursuit of some sort of collective excellence; their goal being not merely to win games but aspiring to play the perfect basketball game and perform at a level that nobody else can reach.

Auriemma's team, with its spirited, hustling superstars has set a breath-taking standard that may never be eclipsed and one can only admire their historically unique achievements.

Yet, there are those that doubt and question and, while naysayers and second-guessers are a long-established and accepted part of the sports world, there seems to be an unpleasant whiff of sexism in the view that somehow the UConn team's accomplishments might be bad for women's basketball.

Prior to the completion of the tournament the television pundits were asking questions about how good or bad UConn's winning streak and general dominance were for the well-being of the game. ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, a former national champion at UConn, diplomatically suggested that the question might be "gender-driven" and it's hard not to agree.

Would the same question be asked if there were a dominant men's team accomplishing the same standards? Perhaps. But it is hard to imagine anybody questioning whether John Wooden's remarkable UCLA basketball teams were good or bad for the sport when they won ten championships in twelve years. Or if the dominant colleges and franchises in other sports are somehow hurting the game they play.

It is disappointing to think that people may perceive the accomplishments of this team to be aberrant or at least open to question because their gender somehow makes their achievements less potent or valid.

Even Auriemma has been damned with faint praise by those who wonder whether he could coach a men's team and have success; the implication being that it's easier to achieve excellence coaching women or that somehow it's not as serious or challenging an environment.

Perhaps some of these viewpoints are borne of societal "gender-driven" attitudes regarding female athletes in our culture. Do we expect girls and women to "play nice" even when they are participating at the highest, most competitive levels of their sports and do we view highly-trained, high-achieving females as being outside of a desired norm?

Elizabeth Lambert, a University of New Mexico soccer player became something close to a national pariah last year when she struck and pulled the hair of an opponent in a conference playoff game. While her poor judgement and lack of self-discipline were evident for all to see, was it the "girls should play nice" bias that resulted in her actions being relentlessly broadcast from coast to coast? It is hard to imagine that a similarly imprudent or violent situation in a men's game ( and they happen frequently) would raise an eyebrow in the media and would almost certainly not end up as fodder for the hysterical disdain of television presenters on mainstream programs like the Today Show or The View.

More recently the Canadian women's Olympic hockey team faced a torrent of criticism for returning to the ice, an hour after winning the gold medal game, and having the temerity to drink beer and smoke cigars in the empty stadium while taking pictures with their medals. While nobody would hold this up as exemplary behavior, it is probably not uncommon and one suspects that other Olympians celebrated in a variety of high-spirited ways without the same scrutiny and feverish fanfare. Was it the nature of the celebration or the gender of the participants that caused the stir, or both? If their conduct was considered boorish why is it that we have such a problem with women behaving as boorishly as men? By the same token why do some people have such a high suspicion of aggression, competitiveness and ruthlessness in female athletes when they are considered admirable fundamental qualities in their male counterparts?

The likes of Auriemma and North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance, whose teams have won 21 national championships in 25 attempts, have eschewed the "dumbing-down" or lowering of expectations of their athletes and have steadfastly pursued levels of unmatched excellence.

What makes them so good? Great coaches, exceptional players, hard work, a commitment to cast aside all gender-based preconceptions about their roles or abilities, and the mentality to do whatever it takes to win. Their teams are so good in fact that they have become revered/despised in similar ways to the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees dynasties; they are the team everybody wants to beat but also the team everybody secretly wishes they were. In some ways it is the ultimate compliment in sports.

With that in mind it is hard to fathom how one might perceive UConn's dominance to somehow be bad for their sport. They have shattered the stereotypes that suggest girls and women cannot or should not play hard; they have shown that competitiveness and tough-mindedness are not gender-specific qualities and they have given all teams, regardless of sport or gender, a glimpse of what true athletic excellence looks like.

The fact that they are women should not, except to the most Victorian thinkers among us, make a whit of difference in recognizing an accomplishment so rare.