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The Ackerman White Paper, Part III: The resistance to change

Will women's basketball make any of the changes mentioned in the Ackerman NCAA white paper? Or will it remain resistant to change?


Clearly, changes need to be made in women's basketball, and I agree with one of Ackerman's basic premises - the women's game needs to be differentiated from the men's game. There are arguments that if the women's game doesn't mirror the men's game in every aspect that women are being treated unfairly, with cries of "sexism" abounding. (*) The problem is that the attempting to match men's basketball in every respect has handcuffed the women's game. There should certainly be some rule changes considered that make the game more distinct from its male counterpart.

For example, I wouldn't mind seeing the height of the rim lowered, as Ackerman suggested. However, to even mention lowering the height of the rim brings cries that the game will be ruined. I believe that every change needs to be considered on its own merits. There are hardcore purists who will claim that *any* move away from the men's dimensions is the first step to an inferior product. However, there were hardcore purists that felt that the 3-point shot would ruin the game, or the 24-second clock, or expanding the free throw lane width, or removing the cage, or removing the peach basket would ruin the game.

The game cannot remain static. It cannot remain static and survive. To those who talk about purity, I'm reminded of a saying from an older preacher to a younger one: "You can have a purer church, or you can have a bigger church - but you can't have both." The current court dimensions, hoop height, etc. were designed without women in mind at all. I don't see why women's basketball always has to follow the men's game.

There were two items in Ackerman's list of anonymous comments that I found interesting. The first one was an anecdote that depression is increasing in women's basketball - the players are under great deals of stress and finding it harder to cope. The second one was that one person Ackerman interviewed was worried about the rise of women's volleyball - a sport which didn't have to worry about mirroring the men's counterpart because there were far more NCAA schools offering women's volleyball than men's volleyball.

I had the same worries. I would read on recruiting sites how basketball recruits would pass up basketball scholarships for volleyball ones. I don't know if women's volleyball is less stressful than women's basketball - but I am seeing women's volleyball a lot more on television.

I was also reminded of what happened with wrestling. Recently, wrestling faced the prospect of being removed from the list of Olympic sports. The Olympic committee warned the wrestling hierarchy that wrestling wasn't bringing in any ratings. Undoubtedly, the wrestling hierarchy had the following thoughts:

"You don't understand the complexity of the sport."
"If you don't like it, then don't watch it."
"You're the one with the problem."
"The sport is just fine the way it is."

All of the answers have the same root. "Our sport is perfect, and it's the world that's the one with the problem. Eliminate these competing influences, and the planet shall see the light."

Wrestling said "you're the guys with the problem." The Olympic Committee dropped wrestling. Facing the ax, wrestling is now making changes to make wrestling more fluid and less confusing. Maybe too late, but at least something is happening.

Unfortunately, whenever the subject of change is breached in women's basketball, we get these arguments:

"You don't understand the complexity of the sport."
"If you don't like it, then don't watch it."
"You're the one with the problem."
"The sport is just fine the way it is."

There is a real resistance to change in women's basketball. Take the idea of dunking, for example. The first comment you'll get is that the game is fine just the way it is and that it doesn't need dunking. There are lots of people who love the move-it-around, mid-range positional game. I certainly do. However, I'm also open to other options, particularly if it increases public interest in the sport. It might have been better for women's basketball if Xavier's Dee Dee Jernigan could have thrown down a dunk in the regional final against Stanford instead of missing lay-ups at point blank range in the final seconds.

The second comment you'll get is any change would be used as ammunition for detractors of women's sports, that the counter-argument could be that "if we make those changes, then women wouldn't be playing real basketball". Unfortunately, by advancing that argument you concede the fact that a sport whose measurements were designed without a single thought to female players is the "real basketball" - in effect, I believe you're giving up ground to the detractors. By saying that the current designed-for-tall-males dimensions of the basketball court constitute "real basketball", you're implying "real basketball is whatever the male players are doing".

For a long time the game has some real problems that aren't discussed in public forums. Any group facing pressure from a dominant class always feels that open discussion of problems is simply giving ammunition to the enemy - such things aren't supposed to be discussed in the open, lest the enemy uses a strategy of "divide and conquer". ("See, even Swish Appeal says girls can't play real basketball!") Unfortunately, a problem can't be solved until it's discussed.

(* * *)

So what kinds of changes should be made? The inspiration for the following section came from a phone-text-conversation that I had with an anonymous D-I coach head coach shortly after the Ackerman white paper was released.

What would be a change that women's basketball could make - right now - that would:

a) not require any new equipment or changes in court dimensions (not that we're ruling those out),
b) could be implemented immediately, or at least in 2013-14,
c) wouldn't change the rules in such a way as to make the game "look too different" and upset the purists, but
d) make the women's game distinct from the men's game?

The solution is easy. Start calling contact fouls. Make the women's game a much lower-contact type of game.

Two anecdotes from Ackerman caught my attention. One was a comment decrying the use of male practice players. The female players want to mirror the men's game and as a result, the game gets a lot more physical. The second was the comment that "the strength coach is the most important position on the coaching staff."

Ackerman pointed to the ever-decreasing shooting accuracy of the game. Even though the causes aren't fully understood, shooting percentages have declined since at least the mid-eighties. Making it harder for defensive players to just beat up on shooters would have a great effect in freeing the game and making it more fluid. It would also negate the advantages of schools that stock up with strong players that want to turn games into scrimmages, which might break up some of the parity in women's basketball.

Of course, I can imagine the arguments. "But the fouls! Then the game will be even worse! Then it will just become a bunch of marches to the free throw line! We can't change!"

I'd say that after the first four minutes under the new foul-calling regime, when the bruisers have two starters on the bench with two fouls, then things will change very quickly indeed. If there is real guidance from above, then it will filter down to the referees. Which will then filter to the players, then the coaches, and then everywhere else. The game will become faster and shots will become easier to make. Shooting percentages will go up. The NFL does this kind of tinkering all the time with rules for quarterbacks and pass protection; why can't the NCAA do the same?

The joke is that basketball is only a non-contact sport in theory, not in practice. You'll never eliminate contact from the game, and I don't think it should be completely eliminated. However, I don't think that it will hurt the women's game to have less contact. That should satisfy any purist, even that guy who invented the rules. What was his name? Naismith?

(* * *)

The last part of this post is a thought exercise. What would things look like if some schools started implementing Ackerman's philosophy right away? We'll travel to the imaginary Grove Hills University in Florida, a Division I school looking to hire a new women's BB coach.

The new athletic director has decided that he's not going to pay what is called a "competitive salary". Women's basketball has been a loss leader for years. Oh, certainly a coach will be compensated fairly, but it will be at the low end of D-I schools. The new AD isn't going to pay the salary escalation game.

There will be coaching incentives - but the most important of these will be for increasing attendance at games. There have been calls for the women's basketball program to play their games at Grove Hills Megastadium instead of the older Grove Hills Gymnasium, but the AD knows that attendance at GH has plateaued at about 500 real persons attending per game. Playing in an empty cavern wouldn't do the players or the program any good. The AD makes a note to make real improvements in the ancient gymnasium so that the players don't feel they've been cast into the shoebox, but moving to a larger venue is out of the question.

There should be no shortage of applicants, even at the lower salary. Being the coach of a D-I institution is hard to pass up. But the AD isn't looking for someone with Xs and Os skill - he needs someone with charisma which is what the old coach didn't have. The new coach has to be able to sell the game. The new coach needs to be an extrovert who is good with people. The program needs someone who will go on point and hit the streets to bring up attendance - and since coaching compensation is more strongly linked with attendance, there will be a lot of incentive.

There has been a real push from quarters at the university to discount the prices of women's basketball tickets. The AD has decided to resist as much as possible. "Once you start giving something away for free," he was told, "it becomes very hard to monetize it." The philosophy should be that women's basketball is worth paying for - not as much as the men's games, maybe, but that it is a valuable product. There will be no mass ticket giveaways.

Eventually, a new coach is hired. The new coach and the AD see eye to eye on a lot of things. One thing is that the players will need some media training. There aren't very many reporters that come to see games, but the last thing that the AD needs to see is a bunch of shy players who mumble. The new head coach always hated talking to recruits on the phone who only mumbled or were shy - it was like pulling teeth. That has to stop. Reporters should look forward to talking to players and coaches, and not dread it. The game needs to be promoted, and that starts with the people playing it.

The new coach and AD talk about the physicality of the game. The new coach isn't giving up the emphasis on strength training - "I'm not going to unilaterally disarm", she says, worried about what would happen to her players under the basket. But she is willing to consider - on a trial basis - not using male practice players. The AD has agreed to evaluate the experiment fairly, and return to using male practice players if the success of the program depends on it.

There are concerns that the players are stressed out. The new schedule will include two fewer non-conference games. Travel will focus on the dozen or so D-I schools in Florida and the American southeast for the most part. Oh, the team will still make their trips to New York that can be used as a reward/recruiting fodder, but they're not going to play the South Dakota States of the world.

The new assistant coach in charge of scheduling is concerned, though. Big schools offer sweet money pots for lesser schools like Grove Hills to come visit and get clobbered. "If you play local, then where's that money going to come from?" No real conclusion is arrived at, and the prospect of the team playing thousands of miles away for incentives is unresolved.

The AD, however, has made a decision of his own. If the team finishes less than eighth in conference, the Grove Hills Bears won't be playing in the post-season conference tournament. More travel, and almost no hope of winning the tournament, as a ninth-or-lower seed hasn't ever won the tournament. The players and coach will know this ahead of time. (The athletic conference might not like it, though.)

The issue of tattoos is fraught with perilous landmines. The AD thinks that tattoo art can be beautiful - five percent of it, anyway. The rest is tacky and hardly qualifies as art. The head coach says that kids today use tattoos as methods of self expression. "You're going to lose that battle if you fight it," she says. "You also open up that classism/racism jazz."

Even so, the higher-ups in the school want the tattoos covered. So the kids that have tattoos will wear sleeves - it's come down from on-high. Nothing preventing them from having tattoos, it's just that they have to be covered up on the court.

However, as a compromise for this concession, the students will be allowed to design their own uniforms - the AD's argument is that if you make them cover up their tats, you have to give them some kind of self-expression. (The AD thinks the current unis - designed "old school" like the men's - look terrible, anyway.)

The old guard is aghast! "What kind of uniforms will they design? You really want to give them that power?" The head coach replies, "they have to wear those uniforms, you know". Besides, who knows more about what kind of uniform that a college player would like to wear than a college player? The AD doesn't like the baggy shorts - he thinks that the players get swallowed up in their proposed uniforms - but it's obvious that the proposed uniforms have a modern sensibility. The new uniforms hit the internet and get a lot of buzz going about the program.

Now, thinks the AD, if I can only get the refs to start calling more fouls....

(*) From the little bit of feminist history that I know, this argument doesn't hold water. Second-wave feminism - the feminism of the early 1970s - would have argued against creating a structure that simply mirrored all the evils of the existing patriarchy but slotted women into the leadership roles. Then again, second-wave feminism might not have cared much for women's competitive sports.