“Women’s sports are just men’s sports in slow motion,” quipped a friend of mine when the WNBA was birthed in 1996. Now, the WNBA, on the cusp of what would be its seventh season, is in jeopardy of not even having a season.

Aubrey Henretty

Oh no!

Without the equal representation of women in professional basketball, the framework of equality would surely be altogether lost. This, of course, ignores the huge parental role of the NBA which is forced to hold the WNBA’s hand and siphon funds for its survival. Excusing, for just a moment, the financial woe and misery of the WNBA – the NHL and MLB both lose money – the WNBA exists for all of the wrong reasons.

Without a contract for its players since Sept. 15 and with little to no progress made on restructuring a deal, NBA commissioner (and WNBA foster father) David Stern demanded that in order for there to be a 2003 WNBA season an agreement (between the WNBA players’ association and ownership) must be reached by April 18.

ESPN.com reports the WNBA claims its average salary hovers around $60,000, while the players’ union claims that number is actually closer to $46,000. Either number is far too high for a league that plays around 30 regular season games and only lasts for four months.

The WNBA is an athletic exhibition that has survived on two accounts, NBA money and the ideological convenience and accompanying peace of mind with having women represented in a professional sphere.

Both lifelines to the WNBA should be recognized as shaky at best. A league that makes no money, has no marketed stars, exists solely for the purpose of equal representation. Were the NBA and WNBA combined into a single league without a women per team quota (something Martha Burk would surely fight for), would there be women’s basketball? Doubtful. Is that a problem? No. That is the nature of business, not a byproduct of misogyny.

But is the representation itself equal? If the WNBA exists, but no one watches, does it exist? Certainly, but as little more than a financial vacuum sucking sound in the NBA’s pocket. As Daily columnist Joseph Litman pointed out in a piece titled “Leave your husband at home day” (01/23/03) the poorly launched and poorer marketed XFL was axed after one dismal season.

Yet, entering its seventh season of dwelling in the fiscal red zone, the WNBA is allowed to continue to exist, if for no other reason than to save ideological face. It looks good for the NBA to big brother the little girls’ league.

Is this sort of paternalistic attitude proactive for feminist rhetoric though? To simply champion the existence of the WNBA because it contains women is fruitless and regressive. Let alone that the women’s league is essentially run by the NBA and its money. It is truly a one step forward, two steps back approach to running an athletic exhibition.

Does all of this mean women shouldn’t have the right to play basketball? Readers attempting to cull that from this argument would be suffering from knee-jerk reactions to perceived attacks on women’s rights – and doing themselves a tremendous intellectual disservice.

Instead, the question ultimately returns to equality and representation and the pursuit of these ideals through unequal means. Were the WNBA treated as a business, rather than a tokenist landmark of female athletics, it would not exist.

It could share a gravestone next to the XFL under the epitaph “Ideas that lost tons of money.”

The WNBA, for as long as it has existed, is the result of the sort of fiscal mismanagement of funds that left-thinking fools like Martha Burk exhibit. In terms of these ideals and their implementation, it is a horrible detriment to allow a league designed to showcase women’s athletics to survive outside of reality in the name of ideological equality.

These double standards under the guise of equality are the reasons why Annika Sorenstam will play in the PGA’s Colonial next month (and will not make the cut); why women will always be allowed in Men’s locker rooms, but to even suggest that men be allowed in women’s locker rooms is perverse; and why affirmative action should be met with opposition.

The pursuit of equality through unequal means will always be a flawed way for a group to achieve its goal, whatever that may be.


Luke Smith thanks the seven people who regularly read his column. He also wishes his Kelly Kapowski a happy anniversary – tolerating him for four years is quite an achievement. He can reached at lukems@umich.edu.

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