On July 30, the Los Angeles Sparks’ Lisa Leslie slammed down the first dunk in WNBA history. Suddenly, the league and the press began to laud Leslie for giving her sport more credibility. But Leslie shouldn’t have to make a tomahawk jam to get respect for women’s basketball. Instead of muscling their way to the basket and using their height for an easy two points, women’s basketball players utilize other aspects of the game. You’re more likely to see a WNBA team running a more balanced motion offense than the isolating, one-on-one offense that, ironically, some have argued has ruined the NBA.
This summer also marked the 30th anniversary of Title IX legislation, which demands gender equity in athletics, but the celebration has been marred by interpretative questions and legal battles. Indeed, a commission established by the U.S. Secretary of Education to investigate the success of Title IX will hold the third of four hearings today in Colorado.
But despite the ongoing debate about Title IX, one thing remains clear: women’s sports are here to stay. In the past 20 years, the number of women’s college teams has doubled. One in every 2.5 high school girls participates in athletics, versus one in every 27 girls before the law’s inception. There are also professional women’s leagues in six sports: basketball, bowling, golf, soccer, tennis and volleyball.
Nevertheless, I am constantly astonished at the number of people who are skeptical of women’s sports. As a lifelong sports fan, I’ve heard just about every lame excuse possible for not respecting female athletes. Usually, these excuses are simply comparisons to men’s sports: female basketball players don’t dunk, female hockey players don’t check, female softball players don’t hit as many home runs. These comparisons show a clear misinterpretation of the purpose behind the growth of women’s sports. Title IX promotes equal opportunity to get to the playing field, not equality on the playing field.
The women’s rights campaign in athletics is different from the women’s rights campaign in the work force because female athletes have rarely fought to play side-by-side with male athletes. Men’s and women’s sports are fundamentally different and will always be different. While men and women have equal intellects and leadership skills, as long as the average male’s height and weight is roughly 5 inches and 30 pounds more than that of the average female, the two genders will never have equal athletic capabilities.
Consider Suzy Whaley, who became the first woman to qualify to compete in a PGA tournament in September. She qualified by winning a PGA Section Championship where she played from the women’s tee, making the course 10 percent shorter than the men’s course. If she chooses to compete in the Greater Hartford Open next summer, she will have to play from the men’s tee. Whaley’s participation in the GHO will only prove what we already know: men have better upper-body strength than women. It will not vindicate female golfers or put to rest criticisms of the women’s game.
The lessons to take away from Leslie and Whaley are not what they’ve done to put women’s sports on the same level as men’s sports, but that they earned the opportunity to showcase their talents in the first place. They are examples of women who have just as much love and commitment to athletics as men do.
Athletics is one sphere where men and women should stay separate. Those who argue that women’s accomplishments aren’t as significant as men’s because the basketball is smaller, the number of sets is less, or the course is shorter are comparing women to an unattainable standard. At the games that women play, they are equals among themselves, and those who dominate those sports have shown just as much commitment and intensity as those who dominate men’s sports.
In the next year, more and more universities will have to make tough decisions about their athletics programs and Title IX compliance. The most contentious part of Title IX is that the number of male and female athletes must be proportional to the total number of male and female students. This regulation has forced some schools to cut back on men’s teams. But proportionality ensures that on any given campus, a woman has an equal opportunity to participate in athletics. And whether she goes for the reverse slam dunk or a textbook layup, opportunity is what it’s all about.