From the WNBA’s insufficient marketing of the league to gender-biased refereeing and the peril of back-to-back games, Dallas Wings superstars Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liz Cambage did not mince their words or bite their tongues during a conference call yesterday afternoon in the run-up to tonight’s tilt against the Washington Mystics.
Referring to Cambage as “a chick magnet” for drawing double- and triple-teams in the paint, Diggins-Smith shared that she considers Cambage to be the most dominant player in the league, in large part due to the addition of a killer three-point shot to her offensive repertoire. Cambage already was dominating in the paint against players who simply cannot guard her, and already cleaning up the glass on both ends of the floor. But the three-ball adds another dimension to her game and more ways for the Wings to get wins.
Diggins-Smith’s career has been built on an unmatched work ethic that has never been more apparent than her ability to come back from injury in peak form. But she also showed up to the 2018 WNBA season in the best shape of her career — evidence of an absolute grind mentality. It’s so important for Diggins-Smith that people see the work that happens behind the scenes that she wrote a children’s book about her evolution from a little girl first holding a basketball to where she is today.
“People get to see me on the floor and things like that, on the court, in the WNBA,” Diggins-Smith said at the time of the book’s release. “But they don’t necessarily see the process.”
During yesterday’s conference call, Cambage confirmed that her teammate grinds harder than anyone: “[She’s] the first one in the gym, hours before we go to practice.”
But responses turned fiery when the two women were asked about a recent spate of questionable calls by referees, the WNBA’s insufficient marketing of the league and pay inequity between WNBA players and their male NBA counterparts.
“We work our asses off every single day while bench players in the NBA make seven- and eight-figure deals,” Diggins-Smith said.
Cambage, meanwhile, pointed to an overall lack of investment.
“I don’t think the the game is marketed the way it should be,” said Cambage. “I don’t know how you’re meant to get the best out of your players when you’re doing back-to-backs. If you want to get the best out of your [teams], then you better treat them like the best.”
A prior issue of this column, reporting on Cambage’s earlier comments about pay inequity, did not go over well with the league, largely on the issue of back-to-backs. The number of back-to-backs each team is required to play in the WNBA is quite small compared to other professional leagues. But with only 12 teams in the league, players usually have to travel far and wide for these games whereas, in the NBA, it’d be more likely that the Miami Heat would play the Orlando Magic back-to-back in Florida, or the New York Knicks would borough-hop in a back-to-back against the Brooklyn Nets. Both are a far cry from the Indiana Fever playing in Indianapolis one night and Washington, D.C. the next, or the Connecticut Sun playing in Seattle one night and Phoenix the next. Toss in the fact that WNBA players fly commercial, and it becomes impossible to refute that the players are definitely not treated “like the best.”
Cambage recently tweeted about her mounting fines, but that didn’t stop her from sounding off about what many found to be refereeing debacles last week, previously reported here. At the core of her gripe? An apparent gender bias in refereeing, where Draymond Green, for example, gets to flex his muscles on NBA courts following a big play while WNBA players are penalized for showing any hype whatsoever.
In short, Cambage believes the refs are trying to make WNBA competition “more ladylike.”
“Referees [are] trying to soften the game,” said Cambage. “I got a tech last week for looking at a referee. I don’t understand why our emotion and passion are being suppressed. Let us play our game ... We are fierce women.”
WNBA players want to compete at the highest level and please their fans. Yet, they are saddled with the unfortunate burden of still, in 2018, busting down barriers that society has deceived itself into believing had come down long ago.
Diggins-Smith has also spoken out about the WNBA’s failure to market the league in any meaningful way. That eager fans could not find one Dallas Wings item in the WNBA Store following Cambage’s 53-point night is evidence of this.
Fans have sounded off across #WNBATwitter about the lack of merchandise, but the league has not addressed this as a problem. Any talk from the league about the respect it has for the players and their fans should not be taken seriously unless backed up with actions that show their stance is true. It is not expensive to print logos on key chains and t-shirts; even small Etsy-run companies sell this kind of merchandise. So, what is the WNBA’s excuse for not doing what even a tiny $5,000/year craft business does successfully?
ESPN’s ongoing media suppression of the WNBA
The players should be able to play freely, without added burdens that their male counterparts do not have to contend with. But it isn’t just the league, it’s mainstream sports media also contributing heavily to suppression of the WNBA.
“We do everything except clean up the gym after,” Diggins-Smith said, of the unwritten requirement that players also market themselves.
This is unacceptable, and ESPN remains at the root of the problem.
The Wings’ contest against the Washington Mystics will be the first meeting of the season for these teams, and it will be broadcast live on ESPN 2. Although fans are likely relieved to get a break from their HDMI cables, one game on ESPN 2 tonight is no reason to celebrate ESPN — the self-anointed “leading multinational, multimedia sports entertainment entity” — it is further reason to condemn them.
There were several big matchups last week, including the Dallas Wings in a battle against the Storm at KeyArena in Seattle, and none were televised on ESPN 2.
Adding insult to injury — because, yes, sexism, discrimination and other forms of inequity are injurious to the people suppressed by those structures — ESPN chose the following as their Saturday July 14 primetime coverage:
- ESPN — 2018 World Series of Poker Final Table
- ESPN 2 — Summer League
A few weeks before, ESPN aired cornhole over a hot WNBA matchup.
To be sure, this is not an anomaly or fluke. This is not ESPN getting it wrong one time. This is ESPN continuing a pattern of behavior that keeps female athletes out of their coverage, especially when those athletes compete in team sports.
ESPN’s bungling of the 2018 WNBA All-Star announcement on Tuesday further proves the point.
The WNBA said the All-Stars would be announced during the 6 p.m. ET broadcast of SportsCenter on Tuesday. Eager WNBA fans tuned in right at 6 p.m., not only for the announcement but for coverage leading up to it — an expectation set by ESPN based on the network’s usual method of handling announcements. The norm for ESPN is to precede announcements of events with an hour of analysis from the network’s most skilled broadcasters.
In coverage of the NCAA, announcements are made at the start of the broadcast followed by an hour of analysis. Whether announcements are made first or last, the bottom line is that these news events, for any league, deserve an hour of coverage. Not providing this for the WNBA shows ESPN’s willingness to embrace women’s basketball at the collegiate level, not the professional.
Thanks to Cambage’s history-making accomplishment earlier in the night, viewers were treated to a blip of WNBA coverage mid-broadcast. Otherwise, the announcement would have amounted to ESPN rattling off the All-Star selections in the final seconds of the show.
A WNBA player should not need to shatter the league record book to inspire a network to cover the league for four minutes, at best, especially on a night with a pending announcement of the All-Star selections on the schedule. But ESPN gained some viewers that night — WNBA fans hungry for coverage — only to disrespect them and the players both by failing to provide meaningful coverage of the All-Star players who are competing in the best season the league has ever seen.
WNBA fans searching the ESPN website for recent big news surrounding the league, such as the All-Star selections or Cambage’s 53-point performance, would walk away disappointed. ESPN, historically, has buried the WNBA deep into a bread crumb menu and not featured key stories that far surpass the happenings in other leagues — not all of which are even in-season — in their top stories.
On Tuesday, July 17, the night Cambage dropped 53 points against the New York Liberty and grabbed 10 points for a double-double and WNBA history, the story appeared in the “Top Headlines” section of the ESPN website for about an hour (a rare feat for a WNBA player to appear there at all).
If it was Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant or LeBron James hitting some new milestone or setting a new record in the NBA, we all know it would be the lead story, ahead of guilty pleas, deals, signings and suspensions.
After the story dropped from the “Top Headlines,” it was placed as the 20th story on the page, followed by a feel-good piece about Natasha Howard (because coverage of women can’t just be about their ferocity — it has to be quieted in some way) at 21, and a story about Maya Moore passing on the All-Star captain duties at 22.
By Wednesday morning, the three stories had been shoved down to the 30th, 31st and 32nd slots on the ESPN website, in a little WNBA section that had been created.
The galling aspect to all of this is ESPN’s continued tight grip on the status quo and abject refusal to address these issues in any way. ESPN eliminated the public editor position after its mishandling of the Jemele Hill situation.
Through various changes in leadership, ESPN has maintained its devotion to outdated, status quo coverage of female athletes, especially the WNBA, which has amounted either to total omission or token stories doled out piecemeal with hopes of staving off public outrage. Neither is acceptable; neither is sufficient.
And, now, perhaps it is time for ESPN to shake up its programming department or, at minimum, hire a consultant for guidance. But this will only happen if the network is willing to acknowledge a problem exists and be transparent about its belated awareness of said problem.
WNBA fans who have had enough of the egregious marginalization of the league and its players can help matters along by voting with the their viewership and, of course, by sounding off online.
After writing for years about ESPN’s erasure of women from main-page coverage, call me cynical on their capacity for change. But for anyone who needs further convincing, check out these pieces on:
- ESPN’s insufficient, unequal and imbalanced token coverage of the 2014 WNBA Finals game
- Calling bullshit on one reporter’s takes regarding the lack of WNBA coverage on ESPN
Special note: The most recent photo of Skylar Diggins-Smith available from Getty Images at the time of publication is from the GQ x Neiman Marcus All-Star Party at Nomad in Los Angeles on February 17, 2018. Swish Appeal and other media outlets have experienced challenges all season in finding current, on-court photos of players, and the issues have been addressed with respective photo agencies. In an ideal world, a headline quoting Diggins-Smith would include an image of Diggins-Smith, but this is where we are.
About last night in the league
A severe Storm hit Chicago and wild cats went on a feeding frenzy in Minneapolis.
Sylvia Fowles roared to life last night and made WNBA blocking history.
Maya Moore can’t lose for winning.
Guess being the top WNBA All-Star vote-getter wasn’t enough for one week?
NBA superstar Kevin Durant knows what it’s about.
- Skylar Diggins-Smith, in recognition of her community service off the court, was awarded the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award.
- Monumental Sports & Entertainment awarded recent high school graduate Samia Taliaferro with a $10,000 scholarship during a recent Mystics game.
- The Aces continue their efforts to bring healthy food to the needy in Las Vegas.
- Kelsey Bone of the Aces has a hair extension business.
- ICYMI: Albert Lee broke down a possible playoff picture in the context of the league’s competitiveness.
- Candice Dupree, a WNBA champion and mom to twins, has organized a diaper drive in Indianapolis. What a way to give back to the community in an important way.
- Phoenix Mercury will host a Hoops for Heroes event tonight to honor veterans and first responders.
- Connecticut Sun partner with local Fox affiliate to honor veterans and first responders on July 20.
- The Chicago Sky are keeping Linnae Harper around a little bit longer with another seven-day contract.
- A schedule for the 2018 USA Women’s National Team exhibition activities has been released. Work resumes at Team USA Head Coach Dawn Staley’s University of South Carolina.
- Noted WNBA coach Jenny Boucek has a new job! It’s with the Dallas Mavericks.
- Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman views the Larry Nassar conviction as a starting point, not an ending one.
- Serena Williams expresses gratitude, but simultaneously shows off her greatness, and her super-cute sweet-cheeked baby named Olympia.