"The Persecution of Excellence": Why sensationalistic journalism is bad for women's basketball

After having to withstand months of chatter about whether UConn is "bad for women's basketball", their victory parade and rally at the state capitol in Hartford seemed to prompt an opportunity to reflect on the actual significance of their 78 game winning streak.

Geno Savoring This One, But Can't Help Looking Ahead - Courant.com
"Everybody has their defining moments," Auriemma said after the downtown parade in honor of Title No. 7. "And that second half maybe was what Maya Moore absolutely needed at this point in her career to set herself up for next season."

As much as the second half was a defining moment for Moore, it was probably the defining moment for the team's championship run as a whole, as Auriemma described to ESPN shortly after securing his second consecutive National Championship.

"I've never been prouder of a group of young people than I am of this group because of how they fought back today - it would've been easy for them to just pack it in," said Auriemma about UConn bouncing back from a school-low 12 first half points. "And people ask, ‘What are you going to do the first time you're in a close game? How are you going to react?' Well reacted exactly the way champions react and we won the game and that's all that counts."

Although the National Championship game was not necessarily a thing of beauty, UConn gave us exactly what people should have wanted to see in that game from any champion: rather than cruising to win number 78 with another blowout, they were forced to respond to adversity against the worthiest opponent the nation had to offer. That should have been exactly what we want to see from a champion.

UConn always looking forward in quest for perfection - StamfordAdvocate
"It's hard to put this all into words and perspective," Auriemma said finally. "Just the feeling of helplessness we all felt in the first half and not knowing what we had left in us and what they were thinking. And to come out in the second half and make some of the plays that we made and have Maya make some of the shots she made, it was a real testament to those kids and how strong they are and how tough they are and how resilient they are."

Strong. Tough. Resilient. Might as well throw determined, focused and unwavering in there, too. The Huskies were all those things and so much more over the course of this amazing season.

Perhaps ironically, I have decided to bite my lip about the coverage of UConn's dominance in women's basketball until now. The reason is simple: the argument that UConn must somehow be "bad for women's basketball" because they are exceptionally good at women's basketball is so completely illogical, incoherent, and shallow that there simply wasn't any real way to begin responding. Arguing with people so obviously disinterested in logic -- or thinking at all -- is ultimately pointless. It's merely yet another example of sensationalistic journalism that plagues us in a society that "is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection."

And it's especially bad for women's sports.

Thankfully, two weeks removed from the conclusion of UConn's 2010 tournament run, the zombies jumping on the bandwagon to comment about the hot topic they knew nothing about have retreated to whatever corner of the sports universe they came from. Perhaps the opportunity to claim their 15 seconds of fame by posting a high-SEO topic in their corner of web has passed or perhaps with baseball and the NBA Playoffs starting and the NFL Draft coming up, they sniffed out another opportunity to attract attention to themselves.

The problem is that in what could have been a moment to celebrate the growth of the game, a coach who built a program with almost total buy-in from his players over 78 games, or (at least) one of the most dominant women's college basketball players ever to take the floor we instead diverted attention away from that and toward an arbitrary reality in which they were somehow bad for the game.

Regardless of whether you're an advocate of the game, what we witnessed is just flat out bad journalism. Far too many of the "journalists" who sports fans look to most failed to, well, actually be "journalists" -- like, you know, people who take an event, put it in context, and help us understand its significance.

Rather than taking a well-reasoned position based on actually paying attention to the thing they wanted to report on, they presented an unreflective leading question and followed it up with unreflective rantings based on a ridiculous premise. How it is that people who consider themselves "journalists" could write something that had no basis in what was actually happening in the real world is beyond me. And that was bad for women's basketball because it denied the unreflective fans that read these unreflective journalists the opportunity to better understand the game.

A media member paradoxically claiming that UConn is bad for women's basketball while giving women's basketball more attention can't even begin to compose a rational argument. As a game at the fringe of mainstream attention, a team that thrusts it into the national sports consciousness simply cannot be construed as "bad".

How dominant is too dominant? - Frank Deford - SI.com
Women's basketball is different because it's not top drawer. It needs a cynosure. Basically, UConn proves the point that the less mainstream the sport, the more widespread popularity one lasting, dominant team can bring. A team like UConn may be bad for the other women's basketball teams, but it's great for women's basketball.

However, what brings me back to these vacuous claims about UConn being bad for basketball is a few more reflective and thoughtful attempts to contextualize UConn's success after yesterday's parade.

Of course, after so many wins, it is difficult to write anything fresh about the team, whether a beat writer or a random columnist looking for a new angle on a hot story. But what we're seeing now after the dust has settled is that there were in fact angles and fresh lenses through which to analyze the situation that might have done a better job of capturing the significance of the moment as an athletic achievement in a long historical continuum of athletic achievements.

For example, the Hartford Courant presented a whole section of those angles yesterday, including comparing the budding UConn dynasty to others, not to make value judgments, but to better understand what it means to be a player participating in an evolving dynasty.

Dynasties: University Of Connecticut Women Part Of The Club - Courant.com
Since 1964, the Yankees' success has been more sporadic, but the franchise has been in seven of the last 14 World Series, and won its 27th championship in 2009. There is a lineage that seems unbroken in the Bronx. "I think more about the tradition than of a dynasty," said Joe Girardi, the current manager. "You think about the players that played before you, and the level they played at, and the managers who managed before you, and the level they managed at. And you think about the expectations that go with that."

Even if comparing the New York Yankees to UConn seems like an apples to oranges comparison -- and I don't think the intent there was to elevate one over the other -- there were ways to contextualize UConn's streak in the broader context of "athletics" that was missed far too often in the rush to merely pick them apart. UConn has its own tradition, its own cast of characters, and its own progression that's interesting in its own right. And even if linking UConn to other dynasties in different sports does not work for you, doesn't a journalist who randomly decides to pick up a women's basketball story -- sometimes for the first time -- owe it to their readers to try to step into that tradition and make sense of it? The fact is that going out and actually discussing the matter with athletes or coaches is far more reasonable than someone who has never played the game at such a high level speculating about that which they choose to remain ignorant.

However, in today's climate such diligence might be a luxury some writers feel they cannot afford.

In a radio documentary about ethics in sports journalism, Prof. Marie Hardin suggested part of the problem with sports journalism is that with 24 hour news broadcast-driven news cycles quality journalism -- in which a writer might actually take the time to understand a story before writing about it -- has fallen prey to entertainment and commentary in which writers merely try to stir up emotions rather than informing people about a phenomenon. However, the response to UConn seems to be more than lazy writers taking the easy path of simply finding faults with an undefeated team by literally making up an angle in an effort to be "provocative". Some of the coverage was so irrational and contemptuous of the women's game that it quickly became reasonable to suggest that sexism played a role in the pattern of nonsense.

The Persecution Of Excellence | Psychology Today

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.

Before dismissing the "gender-driven" theory as feminist paranoia, consider that it is probably a more reasonable claim than the original "UConn is bad for women's basketball" claim that it critiques. At the very least, the differential media treatment between men's and women's sports can be used as support for Lobo's "gender-driven" claim. Combined with a sensationalistic, fast-paced culture of appealing to prevailing emotions, it's not unfathomable that generally disdainful attitudes toward women's sports play some small role in the UConn coverage.

What we might have just witnessed is a small case in which the need for speed and cheap entertainment in journalism has superseded a desire to inform.

In a fast paced society that cringes at the very thought of nuance, women's basketball -- a game distinct from the men's game that demands an appreciation of the nuance of the sport rather than a demand to be mindlessly entertained -- and women's sports in general do not benefit from journalists who are more interested in promoting themselves than understanding what they're writing about. Shallow coverage will not help a sport that so few people understand with any sort of depth. Unfortunately, quick and shallow sports journalism is what we're getting more of as mobile technology expands and sports department budgets are cut.

At some point people will have to look at the egregious mishandling of the UConn story and wonder how, if at all, this sort of media environment can possibly help women's sports move forward. There are those that believe social media is in fact valuable to the growth of women's sports. I would probably count myself in that camp. But the reality of situations like UConn's streak is that a flood of social media attention without any ethics is actually bad for a growing game, whether we attribute that to sexism or just plain laziness.

If people are going to continue making claims about the inherent good of social media to the growth of women's sports, then they will also have to do the difficult work of figuring out how to intervene in a sports media culture that is proving toxic.

Tomorrow: Jene Morris: A Social Media Mastermind in the Making?

Related Links (update):

(Freelantz heard Oklahoma University coach Sherri Coale discuss the issue of UConn's dominance and heard a similar, but perhaps more nuanced response than some of the journalists commenting about the issue)

And the streak rolls on... - Swish Appeal
However, Coale went on to say for the "tried and true" fan of women's basketball the streak might be detrimental to the game. The seemingly unstoppable Geno Auriemma coached-team might be too dominant, leaving fans begging for a fresh face hoisting the championship trophy and asking for parity that seems to be hidden behind Jonathan the Husky dog's smiling face and wagging tongue.

Transition Points (some other angles on UConn):

One More Look Back
Coach Geno Auriemma did not go into the locker room at the half and scream at his players but recognized the moment. He certainly would have taken a different tact during a midseason game against the likes of a St. John’s. By all counts, he very calmly explained to his team that there was little movement on offense and despite the fact that their defense was more than adequate, holding Stanford to only 20 points they needed to score.

Hartford Hosts Parade For Undefeated UConn Women's Basketball Team - Courant.com
An estimated 25,000 fans lined the nearly mile-long route, one similar to last year's. They crowded the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, waved from apartment windows and hung out of The Bushnell's balconies to cheer as the Huskies, clad in gray jackets, spent an hour circling Bushnell Park atop a double-decker bus.

Moore Stands Out In U.S. Scrimmage - Courant.com
"Even at this level, among all these great players, there's something different about Maya," U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said. "At the end of the game, some of the plays she makes ... I thought it was pretty cool that Kalana [Greene] made a bucket to tie it and Maya makes the bucket to win it."

UConn repeats perfection - The Boston Globe
“And that’s why we’re champions,’’ Moore said. “We rise to the occasion. And we love big-time games and big-time shots.’’

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