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Hoops Happening: WNBA vs. UFC — A tale of two young sports leagues

The UFC — recently in the news for a post-fight brawl — is a billion-dollar industry at just 25-years-old, while the WNBA continues to struggle at age 22. Why? This is today in women’s basketball for Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018.

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2018 NBA All-Star Game Celebrity Game
Candace Parker
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Khabib Nurmagomedov successfully defended his UFC lightweight title on Saturday night by executing a rear-naked choke of Conor McGregor.

But Nurmagomedov would not stand in the center of the octagon and officially be declared the champion. Instead of savoring the victory before a packed and star-studded T-Mobile Arena crowd in Las Vegas, he leaped over the cage and into the crowd, sparking a brawl between his corner and McGregor’s — a culminating moment in a simmering beef between the two fighters (which had been seasoned by the UFC itself).

Founded in 1993, the UFC overcame early struggles — primarily due to its barbaric nature, with some politicians, in the early years, seeking to have the sport banned — to become a billion-dollar, worldwide enterprise capable of putting on an event of this magnitude.

So, how did the UFC, in 25 years, reach these heights while the WNBA, at age 22, continues to struggle?

America loves brutality

The most popular sport in the land is a collision sport known as NFL football. It is a billion-dollar industry that keeps people glued to their televisions all day on Sunday, as well as on Monday and Thursday nights. Fan allegiances to their favorite teams run deep, often along generational lines, with the football faithful willing to pay top dollar for merchandise and ridiculously expensive Super Bowl tickets.

Fans love football not in spite of the violent nature of the game, but because of it, with many bemoaning the new rules that roll out each season in the interest of player safety. The NFL has been slapped with lawsuits by former players and their families for misleading players about the potential health risks of blows to the head and concussions. A growing number of players has died by suicide or currently lives with debilitating, life-shortening conditions, like ALS.

Yet, fans tune in every week and, as with a train wreck or car crash, can’t bring themselves to look away from snapped limbs or players knocked out cold on the field.

America resists full gender equality

Recent social movements, like Time’s Up and Me Too, have aimed a scorching spotlight on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination by men towards women — in all aspects of society — from the workplace to social settings. Prominent women in society have become outspoken leaders on these issues, including Lisa Borders, who resigned as WNBA President to become the first-ever President and CEO of Time’s Up. But as women stand up for their rights and demand an end to these violations and abuses, many in society — including some women — are pushing back, apparently content with the status quo.

Although equality is guaranteed under the law, the laws as they appear on paper differ from how they are practiced in real life, with inequality having become an entrenched, accepted norm of everyday life. Society has been conditioned that certain groups should only exist in the margins, particularly women and people of color. Thus, until a full cultural shift happens in the United States, the WNBA likely will continue to struggle.

As it is, the names of WNBA players often only reach mainstream sports media when uttered from the mouths of NBA players. But even the most outspoken supporters of the WNBA, like Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, have been unable to convert the more troglodyte men to the women’s game. The WNBA shouldn’t need a stamp of approval to gain legitimacy, but even with said stamp, men who have never watched a WNBA game go out of their way to belittle players on social media, as if women do not have the right to be athletes.

In a wide-ranging interview with Sarah Spain at the recent espnW: Women + Sports Summit, Candace Parker and Breanna Stewart discussed the progress that has been made since the league’s inception and the work that lies ahead. Parker said players like Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones fought for a better WNBA landscape for Parker and her generation, while players of Parker’s generation are fighting to make the league better for younger players, like Stewart.

She also discussed the impact the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will have toward ensuring the continued growth of the league, stating: “This is my eleventh season. [Players] talk about [the challenges]. We also are realists ... With time, we’re seeing that growth. We’re entering into a delicate time — the CBA is up. The negotiations will be interesting.”

Stewart’s comments, meanwhile, indicate that players this time around in CBA negotiations may be willing to fight harder for the things they want and less willing to settle without getting them:

This was my third year in the league and I’m kinda just trying to learn things on the fly. I think the last time the CBA was up I think players wish they had done more and now it’s kind of our turn to do more while we have the opportunity. And I need to do my part to help people that aren’t in the league yet, so they have better opportunities, better travel and hopefully better pay, and everything else continues to improve. I don’t think it’ll be an overnight thing but it’s something we’re gradually trying to enforce.

Forcing the league to increase revenue sharing for the purpose of paying players higher salaries will be quite an undertaking considering the league reportedly lost $12 million in the 2018 season. So, to inspire people to respect women basketball players the same as they respect men basketball players, leading to bigger profits to enable the changes Stewart mentioned? A daunting task — one which I am no longer sure I will see in my lifetime.

Her Time to Play

Jr. NBA Week tipped off yesterday, featuring “Her Time to Play,” the WNBA’s new initiative to teach girls ages 7-14 how to play basketball, but with the inclusion of important life skills classes on topics like bullying and body image. Her Time to Play Ambassador Skylar Diggins-Smith said, “Representation matters. Her Time To Play is an important step towards ensuring that young women have access to mentors and others invested in helping them achieve success.”

But in a gender unequal society, male allies are needed for the success of women also, which is why A Call to Men, an organization devoted to “the next generation of manhood,” supports the initiative. The organization’s mission is to help men create workplaces that provide “respect, equity and value for all,” and feminist scholar Gloria Steinem has called A Call to Men “the basis for world peace.”

If A Call to Men can produce a culture shift in how men view and treat women, men would carry these objectives into their workplaces and, thereby, transform them. For the WNBA, this would look like the league, teams and players being marketed and promoted as broadly as the NBA; it would look like major sports networks, like ESPN, ensuring equal coverage.

It is not a foregone conclusion that the WNBA should struggle; it is by cultural design that it does — by normalized gender bias that tells women they should expect less. As Candace Parker noted in her conversation with Sarah Spain at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit, progress of the league depends on “opportunity and exposure.”

Opportunity and exposure do not fall out of the sky; they are the products of a million little decisions by individuals, broadcasters, advertisers and organizations, leading to dramatic cultural change.

“The WNBA is a league that thrives off storylines and thrives off of the fans knowing the players,” said Parker, also noting that social media allows players to “take advantage of” the opportunity to engage with fans. Thus, players are using all of the tools at their disposal to generate exposure in the digital world, but their efforts must be matched by those with the power and money to foster change in bigger ways.

Bigger than basketball

The WNBA’s success (or failure) has far-reaching societal implications.

We’ve seen actresses in Hollywood demanding equal pay to their male counterparts, and now the players in the WNBA are demanding equitable pay, too. But if high-profile women have been subjected to second-class status and sub-par pay for so long, what is the workplace like for women who are working in the shadows? If gender equality is a challenge for the most successful, visible women among us, the struggles for women who are not as successful, and who are not as visible, must be dire.

So, the women of the WNBA, who Parker characterizes as, “from different nationalities, different color, different sexuality,” will work together. And they will do so because they “understand the importance of being united but also standing for something” — an important and timely message for a divided America.

And these women are not giving up.

According to Stewart, “As women, we’re used to fighting, so [fighting] in this league is nothing new for us because whether we’re basketball players or not we still have to continue to fight to make our lives better.”

Thus, the true strength and power of women.

Drink up, link lush!

Sue Bird made an appearance at the NFL Seahawks’ game in Seattle on Sunday, WNBA Championship trophy in hand:


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