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Honoring Force 10 Hoops on Independence Day

As most of you are probably aware, Force 10 Hoops – a group of four women – was responsible for purchasing the Seattle Storm from Supersonics owner Clay Bennett making the Storm the 7th independently owned team earlier this year.

So there is no better time to celebrate this milestone than Independence Day, which comes days after the Sonics move to Oklahoma City was made complete.

As unfortunate as the Sonics’ relocation is, it’s equally exciting that Force 10 Hoops – a group of 4 women – was able to buy the Storm to keep them in Seattle.

The group has received a couple of awards for their efforts –the GSBA Collaboration for Social Change Award and Chairperson Anne Levison received the QLaw Community Leadership award. As whole, the group brings a strong social justice orientation to the WNBA. They’ve also received kudos from bloggers and fans for making history and representing progress in a world still beset by deep-rooted sexism and homophobia.

However, amid all the excitement about this important milestone, journalist Jayda Evans made an important point near the end of an April 20th Seattle Times article that I think deserves another look on Independence Day:
While wanting to do a service to the community, none of the new owners believes they would be truly empowering women without their franchise being a success financially.
Even before taking a position on such a statement, I think it begs a fundamental question: what is empowerment? And then an even bigger question that I think applies to women’s sports and larger political efforts: to what extent is equal opportunity valuable without equitable participation and sustainability?

I don’t ask these questions to minimize the significance of Force 10 Hoops’ accomplishments. On the contrary, I think now that they are officially the only basketball operation in Seattle, it’s worth revisiting the magnitude of this opportunity rather taking its significance at face value.

Before you dismiss these questions as overly abstract and unrelated to the WNBA’s primary endeavor of playing basketball, consider that the WNBA often makes claims of empowering girls and women: providing role models, opening doors that were previously closed to women, and perhaps even helping to shift our definitions of womanhood. It’s relevant primarily because the WNBA makes these claims.

I’m not claiming to have any answers regarding these questions and I understand the problems inherent in addressing the issues as a heterosexual male…and nevertheless I shall proceed because they are extremely pertinent to the WNBA.

Inspiration, opportunity, and access

First of all, an oft-repeated goal of the Storm and many other WNBA teams is to provide role models to demonstrate that indeed new opportunities are available for women. It was explicitly stated in the Storm’s description of the upcoming Women of Inspiration night:
"Part of the mission of the Storm is to provide young girls and boys role models they can look to for inspiration, to show them what is possible to achieve in life when you work hard and reach for your dreams. This night is an opportunity to shine the spotlight on women who have dedicated themselves to helping others and have done so much to give back to the community,'' Seattle Storm CEO Karen Bryant said.
So the Force 10 Hoops ownership group is certainly a very tangible representation of the new opportunities that women have in the U.S. But opportunity and inspiration seem to be only part of that empowerment equation. At some point, there has to be some work done to lower the barriers to accessing those opportunities.

Allowing access includes diminishing discrimination of all types – gender, sexuality, race, class, ability – and giving people a fair shot to pursue the paths they are inspired to take. I would argue the WNBA does that as well, not only by providing role models to inspire, but more recently serving as a pipeline for women to gain access to positions at other levels of basketball. From the NY Times:
"Now you’re seeing the positive impact of Title IX on young women who went through high school, college, then went into the W.N.B.A.," Beth Bass, the chief executive of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, said in a recent telephone interview. "Now they’re getting sprinkled into college ranks and bringing a whole new, fresh approach on how to coach the sport."
Although the coaching ranks in women’s basketball have been male dominated, the WNBA is preparing a new generation of visible women who provide a professional perspective of basketball in the U.S. that has not been readily available previously. That’s important because it provides the young women coming through the basketball ranks with direct interaction with role models who know what the experience is about.

However, this is where the notion of empowerment sometimes becomes problematic – if more women are assuming these positions, but failing to create new opportunities for future generations (e.g. "financial success", sustainability) then its hard to say anyone beyond the individual with the job is empowered. But even beyond that is the issue of advocacy, something the WNBA seems to constantly struggle with.

Advocacy, participation, and success

The WNBA is a business first and foremost, not a political advocacy group. I understand that. And with that comes certain decisions necessary to make sure you don’t alienate the fan base. But it’s difficult to "truly empower" people without being at least a little political…right?

If nothing else, even making conscious efforts to provide opportunities for women -- making sure to break down barriers of racism and sexuality in the process – is a political act in that it upsets the status quo. So it’s impossible to empower women and be apolitical.

But another issue that I find interesting in the WNBA is the position of advocacy. To what extent should the WNBA take steps to actively shift perceptions of women in society? What kind of statement does it make if they explicitly perpetuate status quo images of womanhood while claiming to empower women? Like when the league provides courses on makeup and fashion? Feministing summed it up perfectly:
So long as "womanhood" means adhering to traditional gender norms. When "womanhood" means being a kick-ass athlete, I guess it's not worth celebrating.
Opportunity and access are most valuable to the extent that they add a broader set of perspectives to group of decision makers and avoid incidents like this. With that broader set of perspectives, you would hope that there would be more voices advocating against such blatantly problematic initiatives. And it’s not just advocating against bad initiatives -- in the case of the WNBA, it means advocating for the women who don’t fit the "ideal" image and taking steps to help them live without the burden of society’s double standards.

And for leaders in women’s sports, empowerment entails many other responsibilities including advocating for better coverage, diversity, and giving all women the tools to recognize and resist biased representations in the media. From the Women’s Sports Foundation, worth quoting at length:
"Creating and sustaining change must involve challenging media to not only increase the amount of coverage for women's sports, but to also extend the range of diversity to include coverage of racial and ethnic minorities, larger women, women with disabilities, and older women. We must support (financially and philosophically) those media who do not objectify women athletes or trivialize their athletic endeavors, but do provide positive role models and celebrate the accomplishments of women from various backgrounds. Finally, we must encourage young girls and women to become educated consumers who will have the power to resist biased media images and incite change at the local and national levels."
To me these points have significant implications for empowerment while not being so political that they alienate the fan base. And this would seem to be a very minimum standard required to consider the WNBA empowering.

From opportunity to responsibility

So returning to the original comment about truly empowering women through financial success, I think to really understand empowerment we have to take it a few steps further. Financial success for the Storm – and the WNBA at large – is only one piece of the empowerment equation that includes challenging the media, shifting the "womanhood" is portrayed in the media, and helping recognize and resist bias in the media.

As I haven’t been in any WNBA boardrooms recently (or ever) I don’t know what if any of this is on their radar. And perhaps Force 10 Hoops is already in the process of addressing some of these things as well. But as a fan, I find it helpful to have a clear understanding of what exactly it means to empower women through sports so that I can appreciate the significance the little actions taken in the name of social justice.

Dawn Trudeau captured the spirit of empowerment with a statement back in March:
Each remembers growing up in the years before Title IX was passed in 1972. "In gym class in grade school, the girls were forced to sit on the sidelines and watch the boys play basketball," Trudeau says. "That is one of the reasons why I'm committed to creating opportunities for women and girls in sports."
To me empowerment in 2008 comes down to a basic principle: equal access to inequitable participation is not social change. With that in mind, I look forward to what the Force 10 Hoops group does with this opportunity.

Related Links:

More Sports and Sexism
http://smartlikeme.wordpress.com/2008/07/04/more-sports-and-sexism/

Transition Points:

- This has to be a bad situation for the Oklahoma City fans. While I’m sure they are happy about the prospect of having a pro basketball franchise of their own, they can’t be happy with the circumstances under which they obtained it. I suppose it’s yet another reminder that this is a business…and Clay Bennett is a businessman, never described as a die-hard Sonics fan.

- Now I’m just tossing fuel on the Sonics fire. From an old article in The Stranger: "The campaign finance records I’ve reviewed show that Sonics/Storm co-owner Tom Ward has contributed $475,000 to Gary L. Bauer’s Americans United to Preserve Marriage." Wow, learn something new every day…

- The most absurd thing to come out of this is that if Seattle does ever get a new NBA franchise (post-David Stern, I assume??), they will somehow "share" history with the OKC team. From TrueHoop: "Can you imagine being the people at Basketball-Reference.com trying to deal with that? I would hope that, for simplicity, that history would be attached to one club and not the other. Meanwhile, in 2019 when the TBDs win a title, will that be their first or second title in franchise history? And if the New Sonics win the following year, is their first title? Second? Or, after a couple of beers, and too much thinking about shared history, third?"