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A Review of Media Attention to the Melee & Perceptions of Female Athletes

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If there was any doubt about whether female athletes faced double standards, the reactions to Tuesday night’s scuffle should be convincing evidence of the challenges they must overcome.

That is not to say that the incident will have an adverse effect on the WNBA’s popularity (though I don’t think it is positive effect either). In fact, I think we can conclude is that it’s not the fight itself that says anything particularly insightful about female athletes, except that female athletes can show a lack of judgment too ("It was just a couple of people being stupid," as Rebecca Lobo put it).

Instead, I think the incident makes the double standards female athletes face obvious for those who try to deny their existence. And in admitting their existence, I think it’s reasonable to say that those double standards distort people’s ideas about women’s basketball and shape what’s acceptable to say about it publicly.

The WNBA provides a meaningful lens through which to understand mainstream perceptions of women because it is one of many growing spaces that challenges traditional notions of what constitutes "womanhood". What makes the commentary on the fight particularly interesting is how various people in the media deal with the intersection of gender, race, and sexuality in the WNBA (even in choosing to ignore them).

Those additional stereotypes that female athletes face are one major way that makes this scuffle different from the 2004 or 2006 brawls in the NBA -– like it or not, women have much less room for error than their male counterparts. Tuesday night’s fight was a much different phenomenon with different implications.

A look at some of the commentary from the past week may help us answer some important questions for women’s sports: how exactly do double standards influence perceptions of women’s sports ? Is any publicity really good publicity for women’s sports?

If this is gender equity, why do we laugh when women fight?

Some commentators believed that the scuffle might help the WNBA because it shows the intensity, passion, and toughness that mainstream society assumes women lack. From Harvey Araton of the New York Times:
A sports culture that historically has preferred its female athletic icons ponytailed or pixie-framed (our Olympic gymnasts will soon be tumbling their way across television screens, into American hearts) could stand a little reconditioning on the appeal of strong, aggressive women, who not only can dunk but can dish it out.
From this perspective, a fight is a good thing because it shows that female athletes are as capable of the average nonsense that men are capable of. And in doing what the men do, some believe a fight may encourage a gender neutral approach to women’s sports. From Ray Ratto, via the Wall Street Journal blog:
It was the stuff of stuff-happens, and to get one’s Under Armour in a bunch over it is exactly the wrong overreaction. But it was also a gender-neutral nostalgia-fest, a more ground-bound Lakers-Pistons battle from the late ’80s when the Lakers were winding down and the Pistons were trying to overthrow the established order.
However, the other day I posted the following quote from columnist Tom Haddock regarding the scuffle’s implications for gender equity:
There is a disparity between the way men's and women's sports are perceived. Clearly, they are viewed differently. We laugh when women fight. We are outraged when men fight. Until that changes, men and women in sports will always be different.
And I think Jemele Hill of ESPN.com nicely elaborated on this point:
It's interesting how differently we look at boorish behavior when gender is involved. The reaction to women fighting is usually a mixture of astonishment and fascination. Sure, some of it is because it plays into juvenile male fantasies… We treat girl fights like a novelty, when they shouldn't be seen as such. News flash to those still using sticks to create fire: Female athletes are just as competitive as men and when some are pushed to the edge, they'll exhibit the same lack of control.
If we agree with Haddock and Hill then any increased attention to women’s basketball over the remainder of the season could be attributed to a "novelty effect", which will naturally end at some point. The notion of aggressive, rugged women throwing down on the court will be "cool" to watch for a while, but won’t sustain an audience if it’s treated as nothing more than a spectacle. Again from Harvey Araton of the New York Times:
Wednesday night, I happened to catch the last 20 minutes of a cable news show (I won’t say which one, except that it was mostly fair-and-balanced Obama bashing), which signed off with the Sparks-Shock fisticuffs — without commentary, context or even an identification of the combatants.

Chick fight on court, no details at 11.
Ultimately, all this fight shows about gender equity is that we’re not yet there for female athletes and that WNBA players will likely continue to face negative perceptions as long as they play ball. From Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant:
If this is gender equity, give me a little gender inequity where the women have held the high ground on athletic anger management.

There is a line between Billie Jean King and Don King. There is a line between Title IX and Title Asinine.

And these two WNBA teams crossed it.

After we laugh about women fighting, we assume they're "acting like men"

What I think the discussions on gender illustrates is that we’re still constantly comparing female athletes to men and when that happens, it’s difficult for women to establish legitimacy, even if they’re doing the "same" things. From Marie Hardin of the Sports Media & Society blog:
It's also these kinds of assessments of women's sports -- judging them by male standards -- that feed the tremendous struggles of female athletes for legitimacy.
And of course, when women do what the men do, surely they are trying to be like men… From Gregg Doyel of Sportsline.com:
It was one thing back in the day when Cynthia Cooper mimicked the men and overdosed on that ridiculous "raise the roof" sign to the point that Amy Winehouse thought maybe Cooper needed an intervention. But it's something else entirely -- something so unnecessarily male -- for WNBA players to throw down, as they did Tuesday night in Auburn Hills, Mich.
And if the women are acting like men, people will inevitably call into question their sexuality…because of course, women who fight, must be lesbians too… From SOHH.com:
There’ll you’ll see what looks like Mahorn pushing Lisa Leslie (Deuce Bigalow style: "Now, that’s a big, bi**h!") down to the ground. One of Lesbian’s, er Leslie’s, teammates then slaps Mahorn in the back seconds later (around the :51 mark).
We shouldn’t have to detail the personal lives of the participants involved to show how inaccurate this comment is. That’s beside the point. The fact is, women who play sports are not only seen as unladylike but also homosexual.

And without conducting a large scale study about why people don’t watch the WNBA, it’s safe to say that "concerns" about women’s sexuality might be enough to create a stigma about women’s sports that keeps people from watching. I can’t prove it, but at this point, I don't think it's fair to dismiss it either.

"Angry-black-female-phobia"

We also cannot forget that society is not particularly fond of the "angry black woman"…and of course, that would be any black woman who dares assert herself publicly (see Michelle Obama at Feministing.com). The fact that the participants in this fight were primarily black women (Katie Smith was on the court but to my knowledge, not a primary participant) constitutes nothing but "gender trouble" – black women "complicating" an already complex discussion of womanhood. From the Womanist Musings blog:
Black women count only when the talk turns to sacrifice. The black male cannot speak on behalf of the black female because even though we share the same race it effects us differently. Yes the black male is constructed as a violent criminal rapist, but it is our bodies that are violated.
Returning to the notion of a novelty effect, in a way, this is not a novel situation at all in terms of mainstream perceptions of black women – this only perpetuates a long held notion that black women are a monolithic group of angry people and therefore, a group to fear. From the 1369 lightbulbs blog:
This, to me, speaks to a deeper problem - how readily America pigeonholes that which it cannot readily understand, or seems at all foreign. And America surely has not figured out the Angry Black Female. Jemele's aside, public reactions to this fight have ranged from sanctimoniously horrified to sexually condescending ("Cat fight!"). Obviously this is not how the WNBA would like to project itself, let alone market itself - but it may have been a necessary evil to expose, once again, the very attitudes that hold back women's sports in this country. We love to compartmentalize women into roles that were set for them generations ago, and sometimes we even have their help in doing so.
Racist attitudes affect the men’s game as well as the women’s game. So I am surprised when people remark that there is no reason to worry about the scuffle because it a) is a common occurrence in men’s sports and b) never causes a problem for men.

Aside from statement "a" being historically inaccurate (it’s happened less than once a year in the last decade in men’s professional basketball…which is hardly "often" considering each of the 30 teams play 82 games), I don’t think the NBA would agree with statement "b". And a large reason it causes a problem for men could be attributed to racism. From TrueHoop:
The league has had grave PR trouble at various times in the past (mostly because there's some racist seeming notion on the part of ticket-buying fans that when basketball players do things that other athletes also do, like fight, or party, they're in dire need of taming). When that trouble gets serious enough, it really hurts the bottom line, and nowhere does it say that leagues like the NBA will never have real financial trouble. With some bad decisions, it can happen. Ask the NHL.

One of the bigger NBA PR problems of recent years was fighting (oddly, a feature in hockey, but whatever) which used to happen quite often. So the league took some serious -- even draconian -- steps to prevent it. One of those anti-mayhem rules was that no NBA player should ever leave the bench during an altercation, and if they do, they are instantly suspended, with, essentially, no questions asked.
The black athlete has always been seen as a problem for professional sports even as they are so often also cast as heroes, generally heroes that have "beat the odds" to succeed. So yes, black athletes face double standards male or female. To say that a fight among black athletes is positive for the perception sport, is to ignore the fact that men’s professional basketball has always struggled with constructing a public image with black players. From the Daily Fortune blog:
Professional basketball has continuously worked on perfecting its public image, one that requires using many black americans faces and bodies, for decades. After the drug and alcohol abuse situations in the NBA during the late seventies into the late eighties, the NBA has enforced strict laws that however have unevenly vilified black players as destroying the game… So when WNBA players emphasize their hard work and love for the game, perhaps its in fear of being vilified as greedy black male athletes…except the fact that the average salary for a WNBA player is somewhere between 60,000-80,000 dollars.
Even if you don’t agree that black WNBA players are consciously fighting against being vilified as greedy black athletes, the fact remains that black athletes are a tough sell for mainstream U.S. society because of long-standing racial stereotypes. A nationally televised scuffle is just more reason to vilify these black athletes despite their best attempts to separate themselves from their male counterparts.

It’s been a long, long time, comin’…

Again, I think this incident demonstrates more about perceptions of female athletes than the implications for the popularity of women’s basketball. I believe that the WNBA’s core fan base is likely less concerned with the gender, race, and sexuality of the players, perhaps to the point of being color/gender/sexuality-blind (which can be dangerous, but is an entirely separate conversation). However it would seem that the casual fan is quite concerned with the identity of the WNBA’s players, if the commentary around the web is any indicator.

The underlying theme to me is this – our society, our world, still struggles with the notion of femininity. What’s disturbing about some of these accounts (and many others I didn’t post here) are that I didn’t find them at "AverageLunkheadMale.blogspot.com" – many of these are national media outlets. The fact is that most of us know what to say to be politically correct, but on the whole we simultaneously condemn women who step outside of the mold.

And isn’t it odd that in a season that began with the league providing makeup and fashion tips for rookies (read more at smartlikeme.wordpress.com) to ensure that they presented themselves as "women first", we now have a fight that calls into question their womanhood? It seems like overall we’re got our priorities wrong with regard to what is important for female athletes and this is just a very public example of that. From Jeff Jacobs at the Hartford Courant again:
What should be celebrated is toughness. What shouldn't be celebrated is a loss of composure. This isn't a matter of X and Y chromosomes. This is about the ABCs of athletic play. Toughness is taking a hit and getting back up. Idiocy is throwing a punch, getting in a brawl.
It seems like some people have confused a hyper-masculine display of strength with passion and toughness and for inexplicably applied it to women’s basketball. And that does nothing to help a sport that already struggles with the notion that these women are "unladylike".

It’s a beautiful thing to say that basketball is basketball and that athletes are athletes, but the fact is the majority of our society simply doesn’t agree. And it’s hard to conclude that these factors have no bearing on ratings, even when there is a fight that garners attention for the wrong reasons. From Barry Horn of the Dallas News:
Of course, that didn't translate to an overflowing eyeball convention for Thursday night's follow-up between the Shock and Houston Comets on ESPN2. That game featured the Bill Veeck-like return of 50-year-old Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, who made a cameo on-court appearance for the depleted Shock.

Average major-market rating for the season's first 11 games on ESPN2: 0.23.

Average major-market rating for the first post-brawl game on ESPN2: 0.25.
I think this is a chance to put things in perspective. The biggest benefit of this scuffle to the WNBA would be a sustained increase in media attention. I think the blogosphere is helping greatly with that, but the major media outlets would have to do more than focus on a fight. Regardless of whether you think people are dumb, the media is a major factor in shaping people’s opinions about the world, even when something is omitted.

Part of the burden of increasing media attention does of course lie with the WNBA and I think the web can play a major part in that, as Helen from Women’s Hoops points out often (so often that I can’t even keep up). And of course, there’s already been plenty written about the "Expect Great" ads.

But the other part of that burden rests with the "journalists" that perpetuate blatantly homophobic, racist, and sexist ideas about the WNBA in the public sphere. And that responsibility seems to lie with editors and producers.

If all people see of the WNBA this year is a circus act with women fighting, I don’t see how the league will increase its popularity, though it might just stagnate. And it really can’t afford stagnation at this point in its development.

Relevant Links:

Like it or not, melee lifts WNBA's exposure
http://www.connpost.com/sports/ci_9990335

Why The WNBA Brawl Could Be Good For The League
http://jezebel.com/5029067/why-the-wnba-brawl-could-be-good-for-the-league

Taking it seriously.
http://meganwegan.wordpress.com/2008/07/25/taking-it-seriously/

Blog Hound: Fight During Tuesday's Game Good Or Bad For WNBA?
http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=sbd.preview&articleID=122691

Hey, WNBA, don't run away from this fight (…and an idea for a new ad campaign)
http://weblogs.newsday.com/sports/KBQB_blog/2008/07/hey_wnba_dont_run_away_from_th.html