Last week Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Mark Cuban invited Brittney Griner, the 6’9’’ women’s college basketball sports revolutionary, to try out for a spot on his NBA team this summer. Cuban’s comments electrified the sports world. Some fans tweeted their excitement about Griner’s ability to shatter the gender barrier and be the first woman to ever play in the NBA. But most insisted adamantly that no woman, not even the greatest of all time, could ever hang with the grown men of the NBA. The ESPN show Sportscenter even devoted an entire several minute long segment to reciting over and over again the many reasons why Griner just could not cut it. Staged as a debate, the segment played as a men’s chorus. The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.
Interrupting this spectacle of gender difference, sports journalist Jemele Hill refutes this debate’s entire premise. She explains: “what I don’t like about Cuban’s comments [to Griner] is that they perpetuate the dangerous idea that great female athletes need to validate themselves by competing against men.”
Hill’s argument is unexpected. In the sports world, one pays a woman a supreme compliment by telling her “she plays like a man.” Indeed, men’s athletic superiority over women operates as one of our society’s most self-evident truths. The objective and inherent superiority of men’s sports to women’s seems to us equally self-evident. Men’s sports earn more money, draw more fans, and elicit more media attention than their female counterparts as a result not of sexism but the facts of life.
And in some ways, this is true. On average, the most elite male athletes do in fact jump higher, run faster, and exert more physical power than their elite female equivalents.
But even if we grant that male basketball players display more skill than female ones, does this alone explain why we consider men’s basketball so much more important? For example, we do not as a rule love musicians in proportion to their skill. Madonna sells out stadiums while symphony orchestras play in cozy theaters. Perhaps we value skill more highly in competitive endeavors like sports. But even then, we do not always love in proportion to skill. In certain parts of the country, for example, the local high school football team is loved as deeply and rooted for as fiercely as its big time college or pro equivalent—even though they are slower, weaker, and much less skilled.
Women’s basketball is undoubtedly different from men’s. But I remain unconvinced that these differences render it objectively less exciting. Consider the dunk. Casual male sports supremacists routinely cite the dunk as the difference that most emphatically epitomizes everything that makes men’s basketball so much more exciting than women’s. In its mind-bending display of embodied creativity and split-second suggestions of human transcendence, the dunk does inspire. But until the 1970s, the slam-dunk was a rare and relatively disrespected aspect of the men’s game. In this spirit, the NCAA imposed a no-dunking order, which lasted from 1967 to 1976. Our elevation of the slam-dunk as the apex of basketball ability arises not self-evidently but out of a historical context. Had the dunking ban persisted, would we hold women’s basketball in higher esteem than we do now? Put another way, if men didn’t dunk, would we care that women don’t?
But even this explanation falls short. In sports that emphasize flexibility and hyper-endurance, like rhythmic gymnastics and ultra-marathoning, women outpace men. And in several Olympic shooting events, men and women competed against each other for several decades, with women winning several of that era’s gold medals. Scientists have also uncovered that women handle the G-Forces of high-speed flight better than men do. The average “woman’s” body performs certain athletic skills more adroitly than does the average body belonging to persons classed as “male.”
Do we more or less ignore feminine sports like synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics in part because they require skills women hold more highly than men? Asked inversely, has professional football overtaken basketball and baseball as America’s most beloved sport in part because it is seen as distinctively male? While girls play basketball and softball, only boys play football.
But we devalue women’s sports for an even deeper reason. All of our society’s most beloved sports, American football, soccer, basketball, and baseball, were designed by men and for men. Seeking to tame American football of its violence, Dr. James Naismith tailored the height of the rim and the size of the ball to the bodies of men. Women came later, staking their claim to a sport that was never meant for them. Women have never really had the opportunity to develop sports suited to their bodies in the way that men have.
Sexism operates at all levels: in the way we perceive women athletes, in which sports we elevate, and in which sports exist in the first place. Women’s difference from men continues to be categorized as a liability, a lack, and an expression of inferiority. Like a high school senior stuck on the J.V. squad, we believe that women play women’s sports because they aren’t good enough to make the men’s team.
For those keeping score at home, here is what men’s professional basketball looked like sixty one years after its invention:
And here is what women’s college basketball looked like thirty one years after Title IX.
Why can’t we just let women’s sports be?