Not All is Fair in Love and Basketball: Sexism in Professional Basketball

When many professional sports fans think of their favorite teams, teams from the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. The imagery involved in all these sports include huge men in their uniforms, on their respective playing field or court with millions of fans cheering them on. In these circumstances, women are only thought of as cheerleaders, never as the athlete. Many times, women simply aren’t taken seriously in the world of sports. A perfect example of this is the ongoing discussion of the success of the NBA compared to the unsuccessfulness of the WNBA. This discussion remains relevant because many people discuss and study this as an issue of gender inequality.

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According to an article written by Roberto A. Ferdman, a writer for the Washington Post, the rise in popularity of the National Basketball Association, or the NBA, is partly due to the fact that millennials connect to this sport more so than any other professional sport. The popularity of basketball stars on social media plays a major role in the popularity of the sport as a whole. According to Ferdman, “Young basketball stars today are ingrained in culture and fashions and life in a way that the stars from other sports are not… When you look at the numbers in terms of most Twitter and Instagram followers, the NBA blows other sports away.” To my surprise, many of the most dedicated basketball fans don’t follow the WNBA, according to Russ Bengston, “Except for the tiny fan base, people just don’t have an interest.” In 2015, the average attendance per game in the WNBA was 7,318 people. The highest average attendance per team in 2015 for the WNBA was 9,946 viewers at Phoenix Mercury games. The highest average attendance per team in the NBA for the 2015 season was 21,343 people at Chicago Bulls games. Clearly there is some apparent disconnect in how these games are marketed to the public. Players in the WNBA aren’t marketed into the same categories as our culture’s most loved and revered athletes; these categories being attractive, aggressive, successful, and typically masculine.

Our society’s ideals of a masculine character connects concepts of toughness, competitiveness and physique to create the “perfect man’s man.” This “man’s man” can be referred to in the terms of hegemonic masculinity, or “the culturally idealized form of masculine character.” Many of today’s most respected athletes, including Lebron James, Kevin Durant and more, fit into the features that make up hegemonic masculinity because these men are viewed as talented, successful, attractive, and aggressive. These features of hegemonic masculinity include: physical force and control, occupational achievement, familial patriarchy, frontiersmanship and heterosexuality. Typically, these features exclude women and marginalize the importance of gay men and their role in defining masculinity, three of which describe the role of gender in basketball. The first of these features, force and control, assert that men should hold the power and because of this, women are subordinate to them. Occupational achievement views men as the members of society with “more important” work and defines work through a gender lens. The third feature, familial patriarchy is defined as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general.” Focusing on the first three features of Trujillo’s definition of hegemonic masculinity better explains the ways in which society diminishes the achievements and importance of women’s sports, particularly the WNBA.

Twelve professional basketball teams currently make up the WNBA, while the NBA currently consists of 30 franchised teams. The first of Trujillo’s features, force and control states that our idea of masculinity insures that men hold more power than women. I would argue that this form of masculinity in the NBA isn’t reinforced by the players as much as it is by the fans and by those in charge of the franchise as a whole. A large part of the popularity and success of the NBA is due to the success of its marketing. According to Zegers, since the creation of the WNBA, the organization was constantly presented to the public as a “sister organization” to the NBA, not as its own individual association. This is problematic in and of itself because how is a group expected to thrive on its own when its immediately marketed as inferior to the main organization it supports (key word: supports). When asked in an interview after WNBA president Laurel Richie stepped down in 2015, Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, told ESPN he hopes to find a “marketer” to fill Richie’s shoes:

“First and foremost, we need someone to lead the business who can articulate the vision of the league and sell it to many different constituents—some are fans, some are potential fans, some are business partners.”

According to Silvers, a large problem with the marketing in sports is that it is targeted to fit the demographic of young men and companies and organizations struggle to bring women into sports.

Occupational achievement, in the terms of professional basketball, will be defined in terms the salaries of players from both the NBA and the WNBA. In an article written by Maurice Garland, NBA player Gilbert Arenas, “a washed up NBA player who hasn’t come close to playing even half a season since 2007 and isn’t even on a team roster this year” will still make $45 million in the next two years because of a contract he signed in 2011. On the other hand, Tina Charles, a WNBA player for New York Liberty, will earn $105,000, the league maximum. The average salary of a WNBA player in 2012 was $72,000. That same year, the estimated median salary for players in the NBA was $2.5 million. The salary cap for a WNBA team was $878,000. Compare this to the $58 million salary cap the NBA has. As mentioned earlier, much of this salary gap is an effect of poor marketing for the WNBA. According to Silvers, “sometimes with the WNBA, we’ve tried to force it a little bit. React to consumer research and say ‘This is what women’s basketball fans want; let’s present that.’” Silver’s believes a huge mistake made by the WNBA is that they haven’t been authentic enough in how their players have been presented to the public. By being in the WNBA, these women proved that they are some of the greatest women’s basketball players in the world. But these women aren’t marketed as “multi-dimensional” like their NBA colleagues who “care about music, fashion… they speak out on issues that they care about and feel affects them.” Ultimately, the WBA would benefit by marketing their players as being politically, socially and communally engaged.

As defined earlier, familial patriarchy is one more feature of hegemonic masculinity that defines women as inferior to men. An interesting argument that I’ve heard in the past regarding the WNBA, is that men don’t want to watch it because the women don’t play as well as the men and they aren’t feminine enough. These opinions are all over the internet, an example from an article posted on TFM, states “Who wants to watch women do something that men could be doing much better?” and “we are so dumbfounded as to why women are playing basketball when there are far more productive things they could be doing in the kitchen.”  While that particular column was written to get a few laughs out of its readers, it sadly is an argument that has been made before. I find this argument to be almost laughable. I understand that maybe WNBA games aren’t as fast paced as the men’s, or that the men are better at dunking, but to not watch a sport because you don’t find the players attractive is a little weird to me. However, former NBA player Gilbert Arenas has a solution to this. He believes women in the WNBA should play the game practically naked. His direct words were:

Now this is what America was hoping for when they announced the #WNBA back in 1996… not a bunch of chicks running around looking like cast members from #orangeisthenewblack. “If #skylardiggins came out like this,I dont care if she missed every layup..imma buy season tickets and I dont even know where the f*** #tulsa is hahaha #2016newwnbaoutfitPLS and if u thin this is sexist, 9 times out of 10 u the ugly one and we didnt pay to come see u play anyway #donkeykong… smdh #thiswillbeawesome #soldouteverywhere

Arenas posted his opinion as an Instagram caption on a video of two blondes, barely dressed, playing basketball.

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While this isn’t the only example of patriarchy in the world of professional basketball, it is an interesting one because it was said by a former NBA star. In a video posted by the Huffington Post, WNBA players were asked to read mean tweets about themselves. Some of these tweets included, “I’d rather watch paint dry” and “women are not capable of playing sports.” While these tweets may represent a more extremist view of the unpopularity of the WNBA, this proves there is a strong distaste for women’s basketball athletes in the world of professional athletics.

With the rise in the popularity of feminism and equal rights in today’s society, it is interesting to see how little change has been made in the realm of sports. In a changing world, women’s sports have continued to remain on the back burner, attracting a very small fan bases and being overshadowed by the success of male peers in the sports world. I think the idea that if women athletes want more viewers, they need to look sexier is extremely backwards and more than likely doesn’t reflect the views of the population at large. So how does the WNBA change this? In my opinion, the WNBA needs to market their players as more approachable. These women need to be seen, in Silver’s words, as “multi-dimensional” by using their time in the news media and using social media to create connections with fans by building their personal brand. I think it’s sad that we live in a world where the hard work and dedication a person puts into their job, and something they love, isn’t fully recognized and appreciated because of their sex. While progress has definitely been made in the world of women’s sports, there is a long way to go and it can’t be accomplished unless we, as a society, start to look at the world differently and truly view women as equals to men and start seeing the world through a lens different than that of hegemonic masculinity.

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