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Lisa Leslie Interview: What is the impact of the Capital One Cup on women's college sports?

Although there might be reason for die-hard WNBA fans to hold a grudge against former Los Angeles Sparks legend Lisa Leslie, she has also been the face of the league to mainstream sports fans for most of its existence.

It might not even be a stretch to say that for mainstream sports fans that didn't pay close enough attention to even realize that she had retired, she probably remains among of the most recognizable names in women's basketball and women's sports broadly.

With the visibility she's gained, Leslie has never shied away from the responsibility of being an advocate for the game and she's previously mentioned that she would continue to promote the game during her retirement. Now Leslie has embarked upon the next step in her role as an advocate for not only women's basketball, but women's sports.

Last Wednesday, Leslie was in Manhattan for the launch of the Capital One Cup, a new award given to the top men's and women's Division I programsbased upon cumulative performance across men's and women's sports. Leslie will serve in the role as advisor for the new program along with a group of other former college stars.

"Basically, our main responsibility is to educate the fans and the media about the Capital One Cup and basically to promote the values of NCAA athletics," said Leslie in a phone interview after the Manhattan press conference last week.

So given that Leslie has spent the majority of her career as an advocate for women's sports, one topic of discussion was how she thinks the Capital One Cup affects women's sports and women's basketball in particular.

The main difference between the Capital One Cup and the Sears/Directors Cup that has existed since 1993 is that the Capital One Cup has divided 13 men's and 13 women's sports into tiers. Points for the Capital One Cup are earned and tracked throughout the year -- with men's and women's sports tracked separately -- and the championship is awarded to the top men's and top women's institution.

"It's different one, because it's two awards and it's separating out the men's and women's, which is, I think, great as opposed to putting it all into one," said Leslie. "It's also different from the Director's Cup in the sense that it's really highlighting a lot of the programs that usually don't get the spotlight and the attention that most of the other teams would usually get whether it's football or basketball. It just really highlights sports that don't get the attention."

Although the Director's Cup includes all three NCAA divisions and the NAIA, the Capital One Cup will launch this season with six more Division I sports (three each for men's and women's) while operating only at the Division I level. As an additional bonus, the winners of the Capital One Cup will also receive $200,000 to fund graduate scholarships for student-athletes, which puts an emphasis on both competitive bragging rights and the value of higher education. Each winning institution will be presented the scholarship check at the ESPYs in July.

"To create that buzz within the universities, the camaraderie is great," said Leslie. "You have to give a lot of credit to Capital One because they really stepped up in donating the $200,000 that will go toward the scholarships for grad school will really be another incentive for those players that when they finish and they don't go pro, here there's another opportunity and really a prize for winning."

As someone who has put effort into advocating women's basketball in particular -- a Tier 1 women's sport -- Leslie believes the the Capital One Cup will help bring visibility to her game.

"I think it will impact women's basketball because, again, Capital One Cup is looking at the points that are generated and obviously women's basketball is right up there," said Leslie. "Obviously with UConn and Tennessee, it would be great if we had a little more parity in the sport obviously. But I mean for even for somebody who's been very dominant over the years as well, women's basketball will be impacted by this particular Cup just to try and gain points.

"Even if they don't win a national championship, if they can win even their league, their championship -- whether it's the Pac-10 championship or the Big Ten, the Big 12 -- all those points are really going to help their schools at the end."

However, one could also imagine arguments about the Capital One Cup from other women's sports advocates that run contrary to the thinking that this is positive for women's sports. There are some, like Laura Pappano who co-authored the book "Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports", who believe that sex-segregated sports at the NCAA level -- even post-Title IX -- serve to reinforce cultural norms that subordinate women to second-class status. Pappano articulated this reasoning in an interview with the Oxford University Press blog in 2007.

OUPblog » Blog Archive » A Few Questions for Laura Pappano
OUP: What has been the impact of title IX and how can it be improved?

Pappano: Title IX opened doors for females to play sports, but it opened sex-segregated doors, effectively limiting women’s athletics to second-class status. Title IX never demanded equality – only improvement – and it is not well-enforced and budgets for female sports dwarf spending on men’s sports, particularly football. Ticket prices for women’s events are lower than comparable men’s teams- even when a team (like the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team) far outperforms its male counterpart on the national stage. Publicity, television and print exposure for men’s teams remain the primary focus of college sports offices. This is not fair, particularly at institutions receiving federal funds. We need a wholesale re-thinking of the way organized sports are structured and supported.

It would stand to reason then that some might think that reinforcing sex-segregation at the level of an institutional award would only further reinforce the notion that women's sports are inferior by suggesting that even institutional success has to be evaluated separately.

Leslie presented an alternative perspective to this reasoning, suggesting instead that the tiered and separate structure of the Capital One Cup will bring more visibility to women's sports -- and all non-revenue sports -- by giving them reason to follow and root for them when there might previously have been indifference or militant disinterest.

"I think that it's more empowering with them being divided because now you're talking about, 'Hey - our men's team may not have had a chance to win the Capital One Cup, but hey our women's team is doing great,'" said Leslie. "I think that's a phenomenal aspect of it all: when you divide them up, that really gives you a chance to rally behind all of your women's teams. So I think that really creates more support."

Yet, as Leslie alluded to, the more important issue than whether the structure of the Capital One Cup empowers women or reinforces inferiority is the matter of how well schools take advantage of this opportunity to build interest in women's sports by promoting both the new award opportunity and all of their eligible programs.

If schools see this as another opportunity to build interest prestige for their athletic departments and promote men's and women's sports equally in order to do so, then it could be as beneficial to women's sports as Leslie suggests. However, if there is an imbalance in the promotion of men's and women's sports -- which Pappano might suggest is the status quo at present -- it will have no impact at best and perpetuate the norm as women's sports as second class at worst.

In any event, the promise of the Capital One Cup is to honor the hard work of athletes in more sports than the Director's Cup (which includes 10 each in men's and women's) and to give women's sports more explicit recognition. Although it remains to be seen whether that's enough to supplant the Director's Cup as the highest honor of distinction for athletic departments, Leslie is excited about its potential to increase visibility for women's sports as well as all niche sports.

"When you look at the third tier -- when you talk about the lacrosse or track, cross-country -- those sports that usually don't get the attention, they really will," she said when asked about the value of the tier system. "Especially baseball and sports at the end of the year and in the Spring season, they'll be rooting to try to see if that team and that one win can make the difference in you winning the Capital One Cup. I mean, that's going to be huge.

"It's going to be great to see who is going to come out with this Capital One Cup, who is truly going to have the ultimate bragging rights in sports in the NCAA."

For more on the Capital One Cup, visit To keep up with the standings as they are updated season-by-season, check the standings page.