Women Still At the Hoops, But Parity Scores Low

Women Still At the Hoops, But Parity Scores Low

by Mary Lou Greenberg

In the Winter 1998 issue of On The Issues Magazine, writer Angell Delaney projected a bright future for women’s professional basketball and its influence on breaking traditional gender roles in her article, “A Whole New Ball Game: Playing like a girl is no longer an insult. It’s a hoop dream millions aspire to.”

For an update on where things are today, On the Issues Magazine talked with Kym Hampton, who at the time of the 1998 article, played center for the New York Liberty, one of the original teams in the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association). Hampton retired from the game in May 2000 because of a chronic knee injury but is still active with the Liberty as its Fan Development Leader.

When the WNBA was launched in 1997 with eight teams, Hampton said, it was something new on the sports scene and gained a lot of attention. The Liberty and individual team members acquired fans quickly. Soon, the WNBA grew to 16 teams. Today, Hampton continued, you see the results of a decade of development of women’s athletic skills. “You see the athletes evolving,” she said. “Overall, they are bigger, stronger, quicker, and running smoother than we did in the early days.”

This is true for athletes generally, both male and female, she said, attributing this to people generally being more health-conscious, as well as having sports opportunities at earlier ages.

At the same time, however, once past the novelty of professional womens basketball and with corporate financial belt-tightening, sponsorship has not kept pace with the skill level, and the fan base has dropped off. Season ticket-buyers have declined, perhaps because the WNBA season is May-September, competing against summer vacations. Several teams have folded in recent years, bringing the total to 13 today.

Salaries have generally increased for women, although there is no denying the great disparity between the compensation for players in professional male and female leagues. In her 1998 article, Delaney reported that the average male player made $28,000 a game for a season’s total of some $2.3 million. The average WNBA player made only slightly more than that, $30,000 – for an entire season. The maximum pay for WNBA players today is $99,500, with a minimum of $51,000 and $35,190 for rookies. By contrast the median 2008-2009 men’s salaries ranged from $1,141,838 (Miami Heat) to $6,049,400 (New York Knicks).

Many women players still travel to Europe to play on teams in other nations during the regular fall-winter season to supplement their incomes, as well as maintain conditioning and hone their skills.

“When you talk about female athletes,” Hampton said, “you’re talking about so many things. You’re talking about women, about women of color, what’s our sexuality, our preferences. It seems we can’t get respect for being just good athletes, but all these other things have to come into the picture when people look at us.” And, she added, “no one ever speculates whether guys in the NBA are gay or bi. Why can’t a woman just be considered a great athlete”

A new film, Training Rules, produced and directed by Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker, documents homophobia in women’s sports, focusing on a legal battle between Penn State student athlete Jennifer Harris and women’s basketball coach Rene Portland. Portland summarily dismissed Harris in 2005 at the end of her sophomore year, even though she would have been the likely top scorer the next season. Portland’s “training rules” were well known to be: “No drinking. No drugs. No lesbians.” Winning broad community support, Harris sued. Penn State settled the case in February 2007; Portland resigned a month later.

Hampton feels that such difficulties must not deter women from going into sports. “Let your talent speak for itself,” she advises. She said that “mental toughness and perseverance” are skills that male athletes could learn from their female counterparts. “Girls have to be twice as good as boys to become recognized as skilled athletes. Boys are patted on the back and encouraged in sports their whole lives, but girls don’t have that.”

Official recognition of women’s sports is fairly recent. It was only in 1976 that the Olympics included women’s basketball. In the U.S., it took the passage of Title IX in 1972 to force schools to provide equivalent sports opportunities for girls, resulting in a large increase in the number of females participating in sports and in the number of institutions providing opportunities. According to the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, 43 percent of college varsity athletes were women in 2001, an increase of more than 400 percent in 30 years.

The example of professional women athletes helps, too, said Hampton. “I know what inspired me,” she said, recalling watching television one Sunday evening in the 1970s when she and her brother saw the life story of Wilma Rudolph. Rudolph was an Olympic champion who in 1960 became the first American woman to earn three gold medals in track and field in a single competition. “Here was an African-American woman who rose above adversity, having polio, not being able to walk for years, yet making the Olympics and winning gold,” said Hampton.

Currently, basketball is the only team sport in the U.S. for women that has lasted a decade, a level of perseverance in of itself. (The only other professional team sport for women, soccer, re-emerged in a new league in March 2009, six years after a much-publicized women’s league closed at the end of its third season.) As a result, WNBA fans of all ages see “finely tuned and well conditioned female athletes with finesse and power,” Hampton said. “They are inspired to model themselves after these women in whatever they do.”

Watch the Trailer for “Training Rules;”viewers are also invited to contribute to “Your Stories.”

July 29, 2009

Mary Lou Greenberg is a correspondent for Revolution Newspaper.

Also see Gender Was Always on the Agenda — Related Stories in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Elizabeth Sackler Gives Hope, but Artistic Venues Are Slim for Women by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.