A few weeks ago, in an attempt to unwind from a long week, my friends and I did what we normally do on a quiet Friday evening – turn on ESPN.
The network was airing the celebrity All-Star game, the NBA All-Star Weekend’s playful scrimmage that’s intended more for the laughs than impressive play. In addition to a host of celebrities, players from the WNBA also suit up on both sides of the ball.
This year, Shoni Schimmel – an Atlanta Dream guard who won MVP honors in the 2014 WNBA All-Star Game after scoring 28 points – overshot a seemingly open three-pointer that clanked off the back rim. My friend burst into laughter, and from then on, knocked the credibility of the entire WNBA organization based on one missed shot attempt in a meaningless game.
I understand the argument that WNBA players can’t compete with their male counterparts: The athleticism, size and strength gap would put women at a huge disadvantage.
But to say that the talent level doesn’t translate from the men’s to the women’s game at the highest level is a mistake. Unfortunately, that way of thinking isn’t a problem isolated to my friend. It’s a sentiment shared by many.
I can’t fault my friend for his lack of familiarity with the WNBA and women’s basketball as a whole. It’s unlikely that casual basketball fans will flip on a women’s game while perusing television channels. The women’s game, frankly, lacks the above-the-rim entertainment value of the men’s game, and is often criticized for its slower pace.
As a result, female basketball players are left playing catchup to the men, fighting for broadcasting, better scheduling and to entice a largely disinterested audience.
But there’s a reason people say that if you want to teach kids how to play basketball the right way, you take them to watch women play: Typically, it’s a cleaner game fundamentally.
Luckily, GW students and members of the Foggy Bottom community have a ready-made solution to all these problems. You’ve missed your chance this year, as GW played its last home game yesterday, but attend a women’s basketball game next season.
The GW women’s basketball team, ranked No. 22 in the country with a record of 26-3, is one of the hottest teams, male or female, in the D.C. area. They clinched first place in regular season conference play Sunday after defeating George Mason, protecting their undefeated record at home against A-10 opponents. As of Sunday, the Colonials hold the best rebounding margin in the country, and rank 15th in the nation in assists per game. They’ve lost just three times all season – one, without Jones on the active roster against a team that, as of Feb. 23, ranks No. 21 in the country; another, to the team ranked No. 5 as of Feb. 23; and recently, to a Saint Louis team that snapped GW’s 19-game win streak.
The team features a Naismith College Player of the Year candidate in junior Jonquel Jones, who ranks fifth in the nation with 12.6 rebounds per game and 10th in double-doubles with 17. Jones, along with sophomore Caira Washington and freshman Kelli Prange, combine for the best frontcourt in the Atlantic 10.
Despite that resume, and impressive performances all season, seats remained vacant in the Smith Center for much of the regular season – though Sunday’s game against the Patriots brought in a formidable crowd. Overall, however, the women’s team has still fallen victim to the same perception and disinterest that plagues women’s sports, and women’s basketball in particular.
I’ve been a fan of women’s basketball since I was in elementary school, and from what I can remember, was introduced to the women’s game before the men’s. I grew up a fan of the Stanford University women’s basketball team. If I wasn’t watching Tara VanDerveer’s nationally ranked teams, I was watching my sister play, scribbling through countless scorebooks as she played for middle school, high school and Amateur Athletic Union teams.
But my sister’s athletic career was a product of the successes achieved by the women’s sports pioneers who preceded her. Women have incrementally fought a battle in sports for more than a century, starting at the baseline level of involvement: participation.
Dating back to the early 1900s, women had to struggle to participate in track and field events because many viewed their participation as threatening to their nervous and reproductive systems. In 1973, tennis star Billie Jean King proved that women could be professional athletes – and could beat men at their own game – when she defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes.
But these aren’t just problems of a bygone era: While women have made tremendous strides in sports, women’s ski jump, for example, was included in the Olympics for the first time this past year because of an antiquated belief that the sport could harm a woman’s reproductive system.
Because hurdles like these have had to be jumped for so long, when women do get the chance to compete, their sports are immediately put at a disadvantage to men’s, which have already been played for years – if not decades.
The NBA, for example, was founded in 1946, so it’s had nearly 50 more years to perfect its style of play and develop its reputation than the WNBA: Founded in 1996, that league is still in its infancy. It’s over that time that the NBA has become the spectacle it is today, with dunks and three-point shots adding entertainment value.
Granted, even without this flash, the GW women’s basketball team has seen an increase in average attendance per game since last season – up to 786 from 454, not counting Sunday’s game. But that’s still paltry compared to the GW men’s team, which averages 3,361 attendees per game, or even women’s teams elsewhere in the top 25.
Look no further for disappointment than women’s basketball head coach Jonathan Tsipis. After defeating Fordham on Feb. 21, a team that had entered the game with a top-10 defense in the nation, the fourth-year head coach once again had to walk off his team’s home court in front of a lackluster crowd absent of any substantial student body presence. The Colonial Army’s banner hung prominently on the railings at midcourt with almost no members in attendance.
“I think the reality of it is that people in the DMV right now are missing out, missing out on watching a team play like they are supposed to and for the love of the game,” Tsipis said after his team defeated the Rams. “I think the best thing I can say with that is that it’s a team that is so unselfish that whether your son or daughter plays, that’s how you’d want them to play the game.”
Tsipis is right. His team has been exciting to watch all season. They play a fast-paced, uptempo game, and they move the ball. They’re not perfect, of course – committing frustrating turnovers like any other team – but they undoubtedly compete every night for 40 minutes at a high level. The team is destined for their first NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 2008.
When the women’s basketball team plays in the A-10 tournament quarterfinals Friday or in their opening-round matchup in the NCAA tournament in a few weeks, tune in. You won’t be disappointed.
Sean Hurd, a junior majoring in exercise science, is The Hatchet’s sports columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.