UA Women’s Basketball, up close and personal

I was asked to be a guest coach at a UA’s Women’s Basketball game. Honored to be invited, I accepted and picked my game, showing up exactly when I was supposed to. As I approached the JAR I was overwhelmed with the number of people crammed into the gymnasium watching the men’s game. My anxiety grew. I couldn’t believe the amount of people inside.

All of a sudden I wondered just what had I gotten myself into?! What would be expected of me? Would I have to do something in front of this huge crowd? Be photographed? Taped? I didn’t know anything about basketball. The last time I had sat on a bench I was a freshman in high school and was only the manager; whatever I had known then, I didn’t know now. Whatever I knew then wasn’t much to begin with. I actually considered leaving, wondering what would happen to my reputation if I did. Of course I didn’t, reminding myself this whole thing was not about me but about those student-women athletes who appreciated me.

Eventually I found where I was supposed to be and who I was supposed to be with. I tried not to think about the anxiety I felt. To my disappointment my student walked out of the locker room in her warm-up gear and unable to play; she had torn her ACL before Christmas break and would be out the rest of the season.Feeling really out of place now, knowing I missed the introductions and knew none of the other players, I remained silent and followed those I thought I should and acted as I thought I should, too, invisible and silent. I didn’t want to be in the way on a game day.  But there is a lot to be said about observation.

Sitting on the bench is a far different experience than sitting in the stands surrounded by fans who may or may not know the players personally. You are practically on the court with them. You see from the coach’s seat while also hearing from the players. You smell the sweat and the intensity. You notice the interaction between players on the court and off, between the coaches, between the players and coaches. You see everything.

The first thing I noticed was how small the crowd had become. Only minutes before this game every seat had been packed with cheering fans. Now there were gaping holes in the rows where bodies used to be. The cheerleaders and dance team were present, but there was barely anyone to cheer and dance for.

Were women’s athletics not as important? Not as entertaining? Didn’t the same amount of effort, energy, enthusiasm, blood, sweat and tears go into this game than any other game played by men? I was both disappointed and angry. Why was this team any different? Why wouldn’t they get the same attention? The same fervor? The same enthusiastic fans? I wondered if the small crowds ever depressed the team or made them feel inferior. Did they sit in the locker room listening to the sounds of large crowds crammed into the gymnasium for the boys’ game, only to come out and see three-fourths of the crowd left? How shitty.

The next thing I noticed were bodies. As I watched these women run up and down the court I looked at their hair, their faces, their arms and legs. I noticed the muscle, the sweat, the blood pumping into their cheeks. I looked at how they ran, how they shot, how they passed, watching their bodies in amazement.How many hours a week were they devoting to this? How much sweat? They pounded up and down the court and I wondered what did they look like on their off-days? Were they still in sports attire? Where they in jeans? More importantly, who were these girls off the court? And how were they treated?

All of this made me thinking of my Intro to Women’s Studies classes. When we talk about gender roles and constructions we always stumble upon the stereotypes and expectations of women athletes. They are considered masculine or thought to be lesbians. They are assumed to have no “feminine” interests.  So many of my women athletes have complained of these things. My first semester of teaching I had two basketball players come dolled up to class just to prove that workout gear wasn’t the only thing they enjoyed wearing. They did their hair and makeup to show that they also wore beauty products that were in the tradition of femininity.

But why did they need to be ‘feminine?’ They didn’t have to prove to me that they were or were not feminine by our culture’s standards. They shouldn’t have to feel that they have to prove their femininity or sexuality to anyone. Obviously there are still people who make it difficult to be both feminine AND athletic. I continued to watch these women play, admiring them for their strength to defy the still persisting traditional gender norms.  

Then came yelling from the coach, capturing my attention and diverting it away from the physical capabilities of her players. Plays were being called, strategies discussed during time-outs. Circles and lines being drawn on a white board. Tactics being revised, summarized, analyzed. I listened but had no comprehension. What the hell was she talking about? The players listened without interruption, nodding, and only answering questions she asked of them. All of a sudden I realized just how much these women athletes were responsible for while also having to physically move. I’m one for multitasking, but this seemed unreal to me.

I watched their faces, trying to determine what they were thinking. Did they want to kick their coach in the face? Did they agree with her? Were they confident in what they were doing? Were they tired? Were they thinking about homework to do later? What was on their minds as the coach stomped, hollered, and ordered them around? Was there this much pressure to be perfect in a boy’s game? Or was there more because as women we often have to prove ourselves ‘worthy’ of doing something that is traditionally masculine? Would they have to win every game in order to prove they were just as good as the guys? Would they each have to play a perfect game, no fouls, no double-dribbles, no travelling, only smart passes and shots that make it, in order to prove their skill and capability at the sport?  

I thought about the pressure. Just what would it entail to be a student and an athlete?  What would I have to give up? What would I gain? And how would my being a woman play into the equation?

I became aware as I looked at the crowd, looked at the bodies, looked at the faces, listened to the calls, comments, complaints, that thirty-some years ago this wasn’t possible. Women on a basketball court wasn’t happening. I’ve always taken this for granted, always living in a time where women athletes were a reality. But I also realize that just because I’ve always lived when women playing sports has been possible, doesn’t mean I live in a time where it’s 100 percent acceptable. Or easy. Or EQUALized.

I looked at the crowd again, more upset than before.  It was obvious that these women deserved support. And they deserved a celebration every time they step out on that court. If we celebrate the men who play-every game gracing them with a packed house- simply because they are men and have always played sports, then what are we saying? These women players are equal to their male counterparts, if not better, having to not just struggle with being a student and an athlete, but also a woman.  They are strong academic students, intelligent, motivated, successful, and they are athletes, skilled and disciplined.

Within them, between them, and among them they have developed a world that allows for both femininity and athleticism despite the traditional patriarchal ideas that still find women athletes to be “too masculine” and not feminine enough. What they are doing, despite it being more common in today’s society, is still something that is not equitable to men’s sports and athleticism, or the ideas or values that surround it. Despite it being less taboo, it’s still something that needs attention and contemplation and support.

There is still work to be done in the field of women’s sports. This experience has opened my eyes. I am so grateful for the chance I had to share in the sweat and hard work that these women athletes tirelessly shed. They represent that it is possible and that is time for women to be present in a sporting world and to be recognized and celebrated for it.


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