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Interview with Lisa Leslie (Part 2): WNBA Media Coverage, Womanhood, and Empowerment

Lisa Leslie, who recently retired from the Los Angeles Sparks, chats with Swish Appeal about media coverage of the WNBA, womanhood, and empowering girls.
Lisa Leslie, who recently retired from the Los Angeles Sparks, chats with Swish Appeal about media coverage of the WNBA, womanhood, and empowering girls.

Swish Appeal was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to have an interview with Lisa Leslie on Monday afternoon. Topics ranged from her work spreading liver cancer awareness to media coverage of the WNBA to who she was rooting for in the WNBA Finals. What follows is the second half of the interview about the media, womanhood, and empowering girls. Part 1 – about her project spreading liver cancer awareness in partnership with Covidien – was posted yesterday.

The Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) claims in their article, “What the Olympics Has Done for Women's Sports?” that the 1996 Summer Olympic Games of Atlanta, Georgia “signaled the full and unqualified acceptance of women into the world of big-time sports."

Given its significance to women's sports, it should come as no surprise that winning gold at the Centennial Olympics remains the most memorable moment for four-time Olympian and three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player Lisa Leslie, who recently retired from the Los Angeles Sparks.

“It was just the best team we’ve ever played on; that was our first Dream Team, so to speak, and we played hard, we played with style, and carried ourselves with a lot of class,” said Leslie in a phone interview on Monday afternoon. “We represented our country, we went to everybody else’s country and beat them in their own backyard and then came home and won. So I don’t think you could write a book any better than pretty much this story and the way it unfolded in 1996.”

However, the question that still lingers from the WSF article 13 years later is, "Will female athletes ever receive the same respect and opportunities as male athletes?"

For women’s basketball, the answer is not yet.

Even with the brief surge in excitement generated by the 2009 WNBA Finals, the stories that have unfolded in the intervening years since Leslie’s memorable first gold medal still struggle to earn the respect and attention of the mainstream media.

“It would have been more helpful to see the highlights on a day-to-day basis on our local channels – 2, 4, 7, 3, 11, 13 – to see what happened the night before,” said Leslie. “But we’ll come back to sports and you’ll hear about the baseball playoffs and what’s happening in football and not a mention of the WNBA. I think that the Finals helped us overall – those of us who are fans and who support it – but it’s unfortunate that most of the world missed it because it was not covered in the way that it should have been."

Leslie’s attention to local television stations is intriguing because so often it seems that the resentment about media coverage from the WNBA blogosphere is directed at the print media. Perhaps with greater access to watching games via WNBA LiveAccess or cable packages, people are just less concerned with local television.

The concern about local television coverage is reminiscent of a point she made in her final press conference – that it’s not fair that WNBA fans have to pay money for cable, NBA TV, (or high-speed internet) to actually see the games – and it’s worthy of further examination. Even in the three weeks since her transition began, it’s one of the things she’s already been fighting for.

“Through all my interviews, it’s important to encourage all of these different networks to promote women’s basketball and the WNBA, not just when it’s during the finals, but all season long,” said Leslie. “It’s important to see our highlights and encourage fans to want to come out and support us. And it’s amazing how sometimes the media wants to point out the losses and the teams that have folded, but not necessarily point to what their responsibility is with our league. So yes, I’m pretty much an advocate for it…women’s basketball is important and we deserve to have our place and our space in the world of sports.”

Without actually knowing the broadcast patterns of local television stations across the country, the network response to such demands would probably be similar to what the Atlanta Journal Constitution gave petrel at the Pleasant Dreams blog:

I'm certainly taking note of your request for more coverage and will pass it on to our editors. They will have to consider the options in the new season, taking into consideration the size of the fan base, the size of the section, the relative interest in the topic and the record of the team.

So let the chicken and the egg debate begin: Despite increased attendance, media attention, and television ratings for the recently completed WNBA Finals, it would seem logical that building a fan base starts by giving fans in WNBA cities opportunities to not only follow their home team, but watch it. Meanwhile, local television networks are making a rational choice in not paying attention to the WNBA until they know that a critical mass of fans will watch.

Chicken and egg mind-teaser aside, what Leslie is calling for seems to be relatively simple to accomplish – a highlight on local television stations during a summer season that for the most part is only in competition with the baseball regular season in most cities. 

Tara Polen of SportsPageMagazine.com called Leslie’s challenge to the media during her final press conference after Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals between the Sparks and the Mercury on Saturday, September 26th, “a call to arms, sort of, for feminist action in support of the WNBA and women’s sports.” It’s an important next step in the ongoing development of women’s basketball – and women’s sports more broadly – that has to be taken.

How female athletes are represented in the media

Another aspect of this “feminist call to arms” that has to be considered is how female athletes are represented in the media, something else that shifted during the 1996 Olympiad that Leslie recalls as her most memorable moment, according to the WSF.

The sports world, long used to portraying women in a supporting role as cheerleaders, as sex objects to please a predominantly male audience, or high fashion twiggies, took a 180 degree turn and portrayed women as muscular, strong, confident and competitive serious athletes.

Perhaps the greatest cultural significance of the 1996 Summer Games beyond sports was that they expanded the traditionally narrow notions of womanhood that dominated the mainstream media to that point and still linger in society today. As such, the part of Leslie’s Sept. 26th press conference that Polen and other WNBA fans found problematic was her statement about how women should “look like women” in order to represent themselves as a marketable product.

It leaves us with an important question related to the feminist call to arms in women’s sports, stated most simply by Polen:

“So what does a woman look like?”

For Leslie, a woman’s appearance on and off the court is as important as how hard she competes during the game. It’s something that’s probably not new to women’s basketball fans that have paid attention to her for years. Nevertheless, comments about femininity from an iconic female athlete involved in a monumental moment for women’s sports obviously carry weight.

The unfortunate reality that Leslie is addressing is that since the sports world is traditionally dominated by masculinity, the challenge of “finding a place” in society is intimately tied with fundamental questions of identity in a "man’s world". For some female athletes, like Women’s Professional Soccer player Jill Oakes, “Being a girl AND one of the guys” can be an empowering experience for oneself and others.

I am very proud to be a female athlete.  I love feeling strong and healthy, setting goals and achieving them, and challenging myself physically and mentally.  Although women are making great strides in their interest and participation in sports, I find myself amongst the boys quite often, whether they are other athletes, coaches, or fans.  These are moments when I feel particularly empowered and proud to be a woman.  It is a special quality to be able to hold your own or even dominate in any activity with the guys.  You empower what it means to be a girl.  You may not realize it, but girls everywhere benefit when you publicly display your strengths, athletic or otherwise.  You’re sending a message.  When you see one girl do it, it suddenly becomes possible for all girls to do it too.

Leslie’s concern is that young female athletes are losing their sense of what it means to be a woman in the male dominated world of sports.

“I’m a huge advocate for young girls who play sports to recognize that they don’t have to look like the boys to play sports,” said in our interview on Monday. “I’m a female, I try to be a lady always, but I’m always going to be a woman. So it’s important for young girls to recognize that they’re women. They’re girls and it’s important to be, for them to comb their hair and look that way.

“So, I just encourage femininity. It’s ok to go out and play the sport as hard as you can but not to lose yourself within it.”

Leslie elaborated on what it means to look like a woman in an October 7th interview with NPR by describing the appearance of high school girls that she has encountered during visits.

How I look before I begin my game and why I wear lipstick and why the title of my book is Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You is because the beauty is important but it’s because it’s from within. We need this type of message sent to a lot of young girls. You can go and visit these girls at the high school and you don’t know, ‘Is that a girl or a boy?’ It shouldn’t be a question.

These young girls need to be a little bit more conscious of their appearance and what they look like. And then all these tattoos all over – it was one thing for these young men to have tattoos, but these young girls – on their neck, on their breast. It’s just getting out of hand and I think it’s important for people to speak on that. So I think it’s important for young girls to realize that you don’t have to look like the boys to play like the boys.

Leslie does not blame the girls themselves for what she’s seeing or think that female athletes who look like boys hurt the image of their sport. However, she does think that femininity is something that needs to be taught, as her mother taught her.

“I just think that if you’re not taught then you don’t know,” said Leslie in response to a question about whether she thinks the appearance of female athletes hurts the game. “My mom taught me to be a young lady and it’s important how I looked before I walked out of the door. So I don’t think that it’s a discredit to any of the girls who play sports, but I think it’s something that needs to be taught and heard.”

Just as Leslie’s mom passed on knowledge about womanhood to her, Leslie intends to pass on her knowledge of what it means to be a female basketball player to the girls in her basketball academy.

Leslie’s basketball academy

The goal of starting a Lisa Leslie basketball academy is simple: passing on her knowledge about the game and being a living example of how to be a female athlete for young girls.

“I think having the basketball academy, it’s important to again be an example to young girls, pass on the knowledge that I have – and other very good coaches have – about the game,” said Leslie. “I think it’s important for young girls to also see the correlation between basketball and life. And lastly, it’s about etiquette – how to carry yourself and be professional, even when you’re not a professional: time management, taking care of yourself, hygiene, and how they speak and just really having a broad experience of life through sports.”

On one hand, Leslie’s vision of what it means to be a woman may strike some as unsettling, especially as someone involved in the Olympics that supposedly shifted the traditional portrayal of female athletes. As Oakes said in her post on PrettyTough.com, “‘Female’ is an evolving phenomenon.  And I believe we, as girls, control our own definition.  To me, there’s no right or wrong way to be.  There’s no “supposed to.””

On the other hand, translated into what she intends for her basketball academy – professionalism – it starts to look more like a reality that young girls simply have to adapt to: their appearance in the public eye matters. If true empowerment involves providing youth with the tools to succeed in society and the knowledge of how and when to use them appropriately, one could argue that is the intent of her academy, even while disagreeing with the means to do so.

While there may not be complete synergy between the comments from Leslie (from USC) and Oakes (from UCLA), they mostly agree on what it means to be a role model as a female athlete and just a member of society representing women.

“I think it’s great that we have so many opportunities to empower girls and thank God for Title IX, which was passed in 1972 to give us so many opportunities to play sports. And I think as role models and having the WNBA it’s important for us to continue on that legacy of being able to empower girls to speak to them and recognize that we’re all role models,” said Leslie. “It’s not just the sports world though -- it’s all women recognizing that you may be a role model for someone. Whether you work in an office or a doctor a lawyer or any other types of jobs, we as women have to learn to empower each other and pass on positive information.”

In addition to all of her personal accoldades, what makes Leslie's career so important is that she has been the face of women's basketball during one of its most critical periods of growth. One can only hope that by the end of her lifetime, the WSF's statement about the impact of the 1996 Olympics will come true: Sports is no longer considered a male domain from both the participant and spectator perspective.

Even as Leslie fulfills her “spiritual gifts” of helping others and advocating publicly for liver cancer patients, her love for the game that has given her so much and desire to see continued growth was clear throughout the interview, perhaps best expressed by a slip of the tongue when asked for a forecast on the Sparks’ 2010 season.

“My forecast is always for us – for them – to win a WNBA championship,” said Leslie. “We just got to find a way.”

Related Links:

Being a girl and one of the guys (the Jill Oakes article referenced above)
http://prettytough.com/being-a-girl-and-one-of-the-guys/

Interview with Lisa Leslie (Part 1): Promoting Liver Cancer Awareness with Covidien
http://www.swishappeal.com/2009/10/13/1083014/interview-with-lisa-leslie-part-1

Lisa Leslie Still Fighting for Recognition (audio from Leslie's Sept 26 press conference)
http://www.swishappeal.com/2009/9/27/1057352/lisa-leslie-still-fighting-for

Lisa Leslie's Legacy: Reflections from a Relatively Recent WNBA Fan
http://www.swishappeal.com/2009/9/28/1057892/lisa-leslies-legacy-reflections

Transition Points:

  • I wondered who Leslie was rooting for in the WNBA Finals, but the answer seemed pretty obvious after she answered.

    “I was rooting for Phoenix. Just because that’s who beat us, so you always want to lose to the champs."
  • After rooting for Phoenix, it should come as no surprise that the most exciting development in women’s sports for Leslie is the evolution of “individual abilities to score.

    ”The way Diana Taurasi shoots the ball with quickness and accuracy from any distance on the court is pretty amazing to watch. Or the way Candace brings the ball down with her crossover and the ability to get to the basket and finish or dunk it.

    "I just love the way that the game is going. Tamika Catchings, with her crossing over, step back jumper, or finishing on the block, or just coming down and shooting a three in transition. Just the overall game and talent level of the teams has continue to improve so much that I’m very proud to have been a part of it."