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The Cultural Significance of Lisa Leslie's Olympic Success

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I was watching Around the Horn yesterday and the first question was about the significance of the "Redeem Team’s" gold medal.

The brief conversation pretty much went as one would expect, including Kevin Blackistone commenting that they should be called the "Self-Esteem Team".

But I would have liked to hear more people weigh in on the significance of Lisa Leslie’s fourth consecutive gold medal. There’s a significance to Leslie’s legacy that extends beyond basketball – and it is not just that she is a role model for young girls and aspiring female athletes.

She is a black female role model and a winner, which has been a rarity in the mainstream media for anyone not named Oprah.

And as a black female athlete who has publicly embraced her responsibility as a role model, Leslie was a great Olympic story and continues to be a great WNBA story.

Leslie manages to represent so much simultaneously – a role model, the success of Title IX, and the success of the women’s sports movement to this point. And she does it all with grace and humility. So when she passes the torch, she’s passing on more than a legacy on the court, but one of the most underrated cultural icons that has never gotten enough attention in the mainstream media.

A representation of Title IX success

Cathy Young of Reason Magazine writes that "It's an article of faith among advocates of women's sports that the remarkable growth in women's athletics over the past quarter century has been the fruit of Title IX…" And as a founding member of the most prominent women’s professional sports league, Leslie might be the poster child of that success.

Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote the following:
The next time some fool argues that Title IX should be rewritten, just show them the highlights of the U.S. women's basketball team at this Olympics, and of Lisa Leslie in particular.

Twelve years of playing for her country, never a single loss, and four gold medals. Think she was worth the funding?
With so much focus on the impact of Title IX on intercollegiate sports, I think the impact on academics often go overlooked. So I’m a little wary of how people reduce the value of Title IX to a matter of sports legislation.

Nevertheless, I do think women’s sports serve a unique function within the broader Title IX agenda and Leslie represents that well. As perhaps the most concrete and visible example of Title IX success in the public sphere, women’s sports – and particularly the WNBA – might represent a means by which to rally people around broader women’s issues.

Of course, there is still plenty of progress that needs to be made toward gender equity in sports, despite increased participation from women. Brett Zarda of ESPN the Magazine writes that men typically receive significantly more prime time coverage than women in the Olympics. And unfortunately, that disparity in coverage continues after the Olympics.

But staying in the moment, Leslie’s individual success, her role in advancing women’s sports as part of the WNBA, and her participation on among the most dominant Olympic teams ever, make her a relatively easy figure to rally around and celebrate the progress that has been made and inspire further progress.

A strong role model for little girls everywhere

As rare as it is for black female role models to garner positive mainstream media attention, this week we’ve had the pleasure of seeing two shine on major stages: Lisa Leslie and Michelle Obama.

I know that seems like an awfully distant connection but if you look closely a close analysis of the function they each play as a role model reveals similarity.

Obviously, Leslie and Obama have pursued very different careers. But as articulate, educated, and successful black women they both represent dreams of success for black women that seemed unattainable only a few decades ago.

Look closely at Obama’s words from her Democratic National Convention speech last night and you see her articulating what Leslie’s Olympic success exemplifies.
And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children - and all children in this nation - to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Honestly, I acknowledge that the speech was somewhat cliché and clearly design to construct a more palatable political image for Michelle Obama, much to the dismay of some critics. But the inescapable theme of the speech is one of hope and empowerment.

Leslie embodies the spirit that Obama speaks of and has taken on that same responsibility as a role model in her own right. She captures that with her words in a 2006 article about the 10th anniversary of her first gold in Atlanta:
It's been amazing, this opportunity to be a role model… Plus, the ability to inspire young girls and women to want to be professional basketball players as well as going back to school are opportunities that I have embraced and feel a lot of gratitude to have been able to accomplish.
Whether they are inspiring young girls to go into politics or women’s basketball, what's important that they are both expanding the range of possibilities conceivable for young black girls. Just as Leslie helped to change the face of women’s sports as a WNBA pioneer, Obama is on the cusp of the opportunity to be part of a major shift in the way we perceive black women in politics.

But more importantly, both of them appear to do it with a grace and strength that almost makes it look easy to bear such a heavy burden. Why wouldn’t we want our youth to emulate the model they set forward? Kim McLarin at describes the model of woman hood that Obama represents in words that could easily be used to describe Leslie.
Her sense of self comes across as being as natural a part of her as her beautiful skin or her bold and funky walk. It is a birthright, immutable and clear. For a woman—especially a black woman, especially a black woman who did not grow up clutching either the silver spoon of wealth and privilege, or the silver spoon of a normative kind of beauty—to possess such an unshakable sense of self is, as my grandmother would say, something! It is also something not often seen in America. Which is precisely the reason Michelle Obama has sparked the reactions that she has.
The way Leslie has represented the U.S. in the Olympics and as an icon for women’s basketball exudes a seemingly natural sense of self and sense of purpose, unshakable by the world around her.

However, none of this is to say that we have arrived at a post-racist or post-sexist society. But as Mallika Chopra describes, it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of these positive black women for the sake of our youth and a reminder of what’s possible when we continue to challenge structural barriers that limit blacks and women.

And it’s those narratives of continuing to dream and fight despite the odds that make both women’s stories particularly important additions to mainstream understandings of what it means to be a U.S. citizen and the challenges that plenty of people still face. Ding at Bitch, Ph.D. speaks to what Obama’s narrative means to black women.
What I'm hearing in her speech is the same narrative that I, and other people of color like me, have lived. It's familiar to us. It's a narrative, however, that mainstream America still cannot believe about communities of color; like the Mark Penns of this country, mainstream America can't grasp the fact that black, brown or non-white people have the same American dream as they and that they have lived by that dream and hoped for the day when their lives as full Americans would be acknowledged.

I was saying to a friend today that people of color are the last idealists in this country. Fundamentally, we believe - despite the slights and the snubs and the daily presence of racism - that the Great American Story of fairness, hard work and reward for that hard work still has the possibility to exist.
When Leslie celebrates those four gold medals around her neck she’s not just inspiring the next Candace Parker or Sylvia Fowles, but she's representing a narrative of life in U.S. society that so often goes unheard and misunderstood -- the actualization of seemingly impossible dreams.

Conclusion: Part of something bigger than basketball?

Young wrote the following in 2001 about the cultural implications of women’s sports:
Women's sports do have revolutionary cultural implications. This isn't just about equity for little girls but about a vision of womanhood that includes sweat and strength, competitiveness and even ferocity. One could say that this is feminism at its best -- it revels in female power and accomplishment, instead of wallowing in victimhood.
In Young’s terms, Lisa Leslie has become among the most enduring example of female athletic power and accomplishment that we have in U.S. society today, the accomplishments of past female athletes notwithstanding.

But having said all of this, I think it’s also important to point out that Leslie is not perfect in terms of shifting perceptions of women in society – the barriers still exist for black women, but Leslie had the right combination of ability, beauty, and intelligence to succeed. And with that caveat some may have legitimate critiques.

First, due to her exceptional qualities, she has succeeded in spite of racism and sexism whereas many other black women still face barriers. And second, as a former model, she still represents elements of the traditional beauty ideal that favors a very narrow definition of femininity.

Nevertheless, I think the best way to understand Leslie is as part of an ongoing "revolutionary" process that will be carried forward by the next generation, currently embodied by Fowles and Parker, among others. People like Leslie have opened doors and created new opportunities for women, but it will take a collective effort to realize a society in which women can participate equitably once they walk through those doors.

Although the WNBA is first and foremost a business, with women like Leslie creating a foundation for future generations, it could develop into something of a modern women’s movement by embodying a new vision of womanhood for young girls. But for now, instead of critiquing the WNBA for what it has not achieved politically, I think it’s worth celebrating for the accomplishments of accomplished women like Leslie.

Relevant Links:

Dreamy: Leslie says American women have earned name, too

Thoughts on a Black First Lady in Waiting