Women, Gays, and Basketball


he announcement by WNBA superstar
Sheryl Swoopes that she’s gay was greeted by the nation’s
sports commentators mostly with an accepting shrug. Swoopes can
be who she is and be open about it seems to be the consensus. 

That’s mostly good. In a society where homophobia is deeply
ingrained, millions of mainstream Americans have also come to believe
it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. 

Yet the mostly accepting response accorded Swoopes announcement
also highlights some of the ambiguity that still surrounds popular
attitudes toward women’s sports; it’s the attitude that
says Swoopes’s gay status doesn’t matter because who really
cares about professional women’s basketball anyway? Besides,
the WNBA is obviously a gay-dominated sport, so what’s the

In comments from October 30 in the New Jersey-based newspaper, the


, columnist Jeff Edelstein, for example, ridicules
the “SuperBigImportant news” that a leading WNBA player
is gay as about “as culturally important as the guy who played
Nat on ‘Beverly Hills 90210’.” These remarks are
worth mentioning because they indicate how easy it is for commentators
to express their public lack of interest in a sport played by women. 

As for gays and lesbians, no minority in sports is subject to the
open bigotry that still greets this community. You can find evidence
of the latter in some of the racket heard by callers and hosts on
the sports talk radio circuit. A few NBA players also responded
to Swoopes’s coming out with thickheaded comments about how
they wouldn’t play in a game with a gay player (as if they
haven’t already). 

Ironically, it was

ESPN: The Magazine

that ran the interview
in which Swoopes announced she was a lesbian. Yet the sports network
also features sometime-ESPN commentator (and full-time bigot) Debbie
Schlussel, who last summer blasted WNBA players as “bad role
models for young girls.” Why? Apparently, WNBA players as a
rule are not attractive enough (compared to, let’s say, racecar
driver Danica Patrick) for this Ann Coulter of sports commentary.
“Take a look at the raven-haired, petite Patrick, with her
long tresses,” writes the right-wing Schlussel. “Then,
look at 7’2” Margo Dydek of Connecticut’s WNBA team—if
you dare. Which one would guys rather date? Which one would most
young girls rather be like when they grow up?” 

Schlussel does not bother to reveal what she knows about Dydek as
a human being beyond her height and job. No matter. That’s
more than enough for her to pass judgment on Dydek, assuming, as
she does, that the Polish hoop star must be a lesbian. 

WNBA President Donna Orender has said that Swoopes’s sexuality
is a “non-issue” for the league. The WNBA website did
post links to the first news stories about her coming out. But one
report from an online women’s hoops discussion board claims
that Swoopes’s profile on the league website came down within
a day of her announcement. 

No doubt WNBA management is sensitive about being labeled the “lesbian
league.” No doubt also that in an enlightened world homosexuality
in general would be a non-issue, or I should say, the strictly personal
issue it should be. But the WNBA’s lesbian label is unfair
not because the league doesn’t have a large lesbian fan base
or number of players. It’s unfair because it’s evidence
of the way women’s sports are subject to a kind of cultural
grand jury not applied to men’s sports. Unfortunately, the
image of strong, competitive female athletes still pushes against
traditions that view women as the “second sex.” That’s
the historic backdrop every advance in women’s athletics implicitly
challenges. The result is that, despite significant advances in
opportunities (and attitudes), women’s sports seems to wage
a continual struggle for equal status with men’s sports. 

That struggle for equality has sometimes taken form as a challenge
for the basic right to play. The birth of basketball in the 1890s
was originally a coed sports phenomenon. The first decade of Illinois
basketball, for example, saw some 300 girls high school teams spring
up throughout the state. The teams often played by the same rules
as boys and interscholastic meets were regularly attended by large
and enthusiastic crowds. But the young female athletes of the day
also evoked the consternation of proper school administrators who
feared dire consequences in the alleged “masculinization”
of female sports. By 1907 the Illinois High School Association (IHSA)
took the extraordinary step of banning all interscholastic sports
for females. The next year the IHSA sponsored its first state basketball
tournament for boys.

Such is more or less the conflicted history of women’s basketball,
played out over the last 100 years as a kind of rolling tug-of-war
between the game’s advocates, physical education theorists,
and school administrators who have, at one time or another, opposed
competitive sports for females. In South Carolina in the 1920s women’s
high school basketball tournaments would draw hundreds or even thousands
to games. By 1954 the South Carolina state legislature had nixed
the long-standing girls regional and state tournaments. Only in
Iowa, where the six-player version of the game prevailed for decades,
has an annual girls state high school championship tournament been
held without interruption since the 1920s. 

Watch and Learn



oday women’s basketball is a sport with
a growing fan base at all levels. Witness the NCAA’s Women’s
Final Four Tournament last April in Indianapolis attended by some
30,000 fans of all types. 

As a fan of the sport, I can’t help but think that the only
way the WNBA could avoid being labeled by the folks who put the
phobia in homo would be to ramp down the talent. But it’s not
going to happen. Women’s basketball at the higher levels may
be the best team basketball being played today. Not everyone prefers
the one-star, powerdunking system that dominates NBA play. 

As an athlete, Sheryl Swoopes is one of the game’s pioneers,
a player whose legacy is likely to be remembered the way the NBA
remembers Bob Cousy. But her decision as one of the WNBA’s
leading players to let the world know she’s a lesbian also
marks her as another kind of pioneer, a human rights pioneer. In
doing so, she will help nudge open the closet door regarding homosexuality
that remains mostly slammed shut in the sports world. 

This is a good thing because it’s about the freedom of individuals
to be more than sports commodities, but who they are. From Sheryl
Swoopes, the sports world can indeed watch and learn.

T. Harris is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Illinois.