I’m a fan of the University of Kansas men’s basketball team. I am a monstrous fan, a fan of Kongian proportions, and (despite the last two seasons) this is a glorious thing to be. The problem is my male friends. They want to know why I, as a woman and staunch supporter of women’s rights, don’t watch the Lady Jayhawks instead. My male friends believe that this discrepancy of sexes allows them free reign to comment on the apparent “worthlessness” of women’s basketball. Most of the time I know they sling their simian insults just to get a rise from me, and I ignore them. But recently their glibly phrased banana-patter has led me to ask myself some pretty uncomfortable questions. Questions that I’ve yet to answer to my satisfaction. What is my “duty” as a female fan of sports? Should I be watching these women’s teams exclusively? Or at least more than men’s teams? Just where do women’s fans fit on this world’s largely male sports turf?
When I was a little girl, my parents introduced me to the world of basketball via the Jayhawks. A good night for our family would be to watch the men’s team on TV together. A great night would be watching them win. I learned my life lessons from these Jayhawks. My father, while mostly a KU fan, had also gone to Kansas State for a few years and enjoyed taunting my mother when the ‘hawks were losing. “Sorry your team’s not doing so well, dear,” he’d say after a particularly vicious dunk from the other side. My sister and I called it “poking the cat,” after the similar reaction our pet displayed when prodded. From their exchanges, I learned about rivalries, humor, and marriage. Kansas suffered many heartbreaking losses in the NCAA tournament when I was younger, and I distinctly remember crying after one of them; the season was over and it felt much like the day after Christmas vacation. I learned disappointment, and I learned loyalty. And when I grew older and began playing the sport for myself, I learned about butt-busting work and constant criticism and I turned to “my boys” for inspiration.
So why didn’t I turn to the KU women’s team for encouragement? For starters, finding a women’s game being broadcast on television back then was a rare event. It also wasn’t an event that my family partook in together. My mother did take me to the Women’s Big Twelve Tournament once when it came to our town, and I remember loving it dearly.
But the truth is, I just didn’t separate the teams like that in my mind. Basketball was basketball, and the only thing that mattered was what color jersey you wore. Of course, the spottily attended girl’s basketball games I played in at high school told a different story, but it wasn’t enough to bother me until people—men mostly—started talking to me about it.
When I went to college, I tried out to earn a walk-on spot for the KU women’s team. This was a lofty ambition at the very least, mostly because I am 5’7” and was trying out for the spot of power forward, a position usually occupied by a woman in Division I basketball who is at the low end a six-footer. I did not make the team, but I was offered the position of manager. Despite a possible full scholarship, I refused. My refusal did not come because I was too proud or felt myself above the job. Quite the contrary, I would have loved to be associated with the team, even practice with them, as they often let their managers do. The problem was, I could not watch them, game after game, without being on that basketball court. When I went to college at KU instead of a smaller school where I could have played sports, I made a conscious decision to choose the lifestyle and academics a bigger school could afford me over my sports career. Trying to walk on to the team at KU was like trying to have my cake and a few leather pies on the side. Watching these women, day after day, game after game, play basketball and not being able to compete with them was something I could not tolerate. I could barely watch my sister at a high school game without experiencing a deep sense of heartbreak. I was like one of those old men who can’t watch a football game without recounting their own glory days on the field, only it was worse because when I tried to recount my glory days on the high school basketball court nobody cared, not even my former classmates.
When I refused the position of manager at KU, I did take away with me one of the greatest compliments of my life. Lynette Woodard, the newly hired assistant coach at the time, watched me, and, as I had the good fortune of blowing by a slower candidate, said, “good move.” Two words—simple—but from the lips of a basketball legend, one who had the distinctions of being both the first female player for the Harlem Globetrotters and an Olympic gold medalist.
I have tried to use these words as a defense against my friends’ taunts. “Did you know that Lynette Woodard once told me ‘good move’?” I’d say. “Do you know how good that probably makes me?” They only stared blankly at me for this, and though I threatened to beat them one on one to prove my point (and even have beaten a few of them), their teasing continues because it really isn’t about who is better or worse. “Women’s basketball is just boring,” they say. “Why would anyone want to watch it?”
I’ve tried, time and time again to explain to them that this isn’t true. Women’s basketball is a team sport, the game played at its truest form. I try to explain that basketball is basketball. By promoting a woman’s team—any team—they are promoting basketball as a whole. Wouldn’t they like it if their girlfriends and wives wanted to watch more games with them? What if they have daughters who want to play sports? But it’s all to no avail. “Then why don’t you watch it?” they ask me, again and again. It doesn’t matter that I tell them I don’t like any professional sports, not just the WNBA. That I grew up with the KU men’s team, and that’s the reason I love it so much. That I can’t stand to watch a woman’s game and not be playing it. “You just don’t want to watch it because it sucks,” they say.
So I have made a promise to myself. I will begin watching women’s basketball. Is it my duty? No. Not exclusively. It is everyone’s duty, men and women alike. There are not enough women’s games, even today, being broadcast on television or being given adequate space in the papers, and not enough fans are filling the arenas to watch these deserving players. The truth is that no matter the excuses I make, no matter how much sense they make, my not watching the games will never convince anyone else of the sport’s importance.
The only way to convince anyone of this is through exposure, and the only way to guarantee increased exposure is to get people watching more games. Therefore, I will watch the games and I will, ever so slowly, bring my friends into the fold. A beer is a beer and a game is a game; if I put them together they will come. Just as basketball grew to embrace the bottomless net over its predecessor the peach basket, these friends will, I hope, grow to enjoy women’s basketball alongside me. And on a more selfish note, perhaps when all is said and done my words of encouragement from Ms. Woodard will gain me the bragging rights they deserve.