By Shannon Ralph
As a born and bred Kentuckian, I am a self-avowed addict, and my drug of choice is basketball. More specifically, University of Kentucky men’s basketball. As such, this time of year—March Madness—is my Christmas. My Easter. My celebration of all that is good and right and holy in the world.
My children are not Kentuckians. They were born in Minnesota—a land where hockey reigns supreme and basketball doesn’t even register on the collective conscience. But I am attempting to teach them. I am trying to channel the tiny bits of blue in their blood into an appreciation for the gruels and triumphs of college basketball. I feel like I am succeeding. They excitedly filled out brackets last week. They’ve been watching the games with equal parts awe and bewilderment. My daughter even pulled out a sparkly baton and a rhythmic gymnastics ribbon to cheer on our beloved Wildcats. They get it. They really do. I feel like I’ve truly taught them something.
Nowhere in this week of upsets and bracket busters, however, did I expect that my children would become the teachers and I the pupil. But that is exactly what happened yesterday as we watched Virginia fall to Michigan State.
“Mommy, do girls play basketball, too?” Sophie asked me.
“Of course they do, honey,” I replied, not bothering to take my eyes from the screen.
“Are they not any good?”
“No, they’re amazing, Sophie. Why do you ask?”
“Well, if they’re amazing, why don’t we watch them then?”
“I guess the men’s teams just get more attention,” I lamely replied.
“Because they play better.” This was not a question, but a statement of fact.
I turned to her, surprised. “No! Not at all,” I assured her. “The girls play just as well and just as hard as the boys.”
“So why don’t we watch them?”
“Well…we don’t have cable, honey. They don’t air the women’s games on CBS.”
“That’s a good question. I guess the men’s teams are the ones who earn the network the big bucks.”
“So people don’t care about girls’ basketball?”
“No, that’s not true. A lot of people care about girls’ basketball.”
“Then why don’t we watch their games?”
I had no clue what to say. I’m guilty. I don’t watch the women’s teams. I am a self-avowed feminist, but I ignore the women’s tournament completely as I rabidly cheer for the men’s teams every March. How do you explain the gender inequality in collegiate sports to an eight-year-old girl? How do you justify the very real part you play in perpetuating that inequality?
“Honestly, I don’t know honey. It’s not fair. The women play just as hard and just as well as the men. We should watch their games. We should cheer for the women. “
“Then why don’t we?”
“You know what? You are completely and totally right.” I smiled at my brilliant little girl. “We need to find the women’s games and watch them. “
And she is right. Women compete at the same level as men. Female collegiate athletes wake up early, work out, travel endlessly—all while juggling classes and social lives. Women demonstrate the same commitment and dedication to their sport. Women endure the busted lips and the torn hamstrings. Women revel in the glory of a win and agonize as the prize slips right through their fingers. Women’s basketball is just as competitive—just as thrilling—as the men’s games.
So why does no one watch?
While Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made equality a requirement for college sports, women’s sports still suffers from an inequality in interest and exposure. While the collegiate men’s teams are filling stadiums to capacity, the women’s teams are dealing with a very real attendance issue. According to a New York Times article from June of 2013, of the 343 women’s Division 1 basketball teams, 205 averaged fewer than 1,000 spectators per game and 90 averaged fewer than 500.
The root of the chasm between men’s and women’s basketball can be traced back to media coverage, or lack thereof. Basketball is the most covered women’s collegiate sport during the regular season, but it is often difficult to find a game being broadcasted. According to a study by the University of Southern California Center for Feminist Research, between 2004 and 2008, the percentage of women’s sports broadcasted dropped from 6.3% to 1.6%. Today, the only chance of catching a women’s basketball game on television is if both teams are ranked in the top ten AND there is no men’s game competing for air time.
I don’t know about you, but I find this unacceptable. And so does my eight-year-old daughter.
So what is the solution? Obviously, we need more women playing at a high level. We need more women on television. In the locker rooms. In the news. We need highly visible and accessible role models. We need women in front of our young girls encouraging the next generation of great female athletes to narrow the divide between how our country views men’s and women’s sports.
This morning, I printed a women’s Division 1 tournament bracket for my daughter. There are three teams from Kentucky in the tournament. And look at that – Minnesota is a no. 8 seed! Go Golden Gophers!