Take heart: female athlete insults are a sign of progress

Tina Charles, left and Candace Parker play in a WNBA that is full of strong women who play physical basketball. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Tina Charles, left and Candace Parker play in a WNBA that is full of strong women who play physical basketball. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

The lament sometimes pops up on social media: “Why do they have to hate on women’s basketball?” Or, “what did women’s basketball ever do to you?”

And the comments from usually-faceless males are rude, at best. “Back to the kitchen,” is a popular refrain, as is painting the sport as “boring” because it is more fundamentals-based than the NBA, which has become decidedly more high-flying over the last 15-20 years.

At first glance, it does seem perplexing. NCAA Division I women’s basketball attendance was up last season. Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale won an ESPY this month for best play, for her Championship-winning buzzer-beater shot.

On the WNBA side, viewership on ESPN was up 38 percent this season over last year going into the All-Star break. The star power around the league is shining bright, from starters to reserves. Both males and females wear WNBA gear, they know who plays for what team, and Minnesota’s Maya Moore was featured on a Nike poster in May.

Parity at both the collegiate and professional level is growing exponentially because player skill level has developed and diversified. So why, if the game is on the rise, does it appear that some go out of their way to try and bring it down?

The short answer is that what seems like a bad thing is actually a good sign.

The only true constant in life is change, as change is continuous in nature. Yet human beings, with our adaptive ways, are usually poor at accepting change and on top of that, we are notoriously slow to do so. When social change occurs, it is inevitably met by some resistance. That is what’s happening now.

The United States was in the throes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For every Montgomery bus boycott victory, there was a lot of violence and death perpetrated on African-Americans and their supporters. In 1967, 10 months before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech, “A Knock at Midnight,” in which he discussed in depth the concept that there is darkness before the dawn:

Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come. Our slave foreparents realized this. They were never unmindful of the fact of midnight, for always there was the rawhide whip of the overseer and the auction block where families were torn asunder to remind them of its reality………Their positive belief in the dawn was the growing edge of hope that kept the slaves faithful amid the most barren and tragic circumstances……..

The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows. “Weeping may endure for a night,” says the Psalmist, “but joy cometh in the morning.” This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.

If women are not quite at midnight, they are definitely at 11 p.m. The “MeToo” movement blew the lid off of a revolution that was already festering, as women just seem to be tired of putting up with abuse, poor treatment, discrimination, less pay, and a host of other inequalities. Women are speaking up, pushing back and refusing to accept less.

What happens when the paradigm starts to shift and the balance of power seems more, balanced? There is resistance, and anger is born out of fear. It has happened throughout history, and it’s happening now. Hence, the apparent increase of negative comments toward strong women – and basketball is where there are some of the strongest. It isn’t surprising that those afraid of losing power would be intimidated by female basketball players and other female athletes.

The best thing to remember when encountering online and other “trolls” is that their comments and behavior says everything about them and their personal insecurities, and nothing about the women they’re trying to degrade. What seems like a personal thing is actually quite impersonal; most trolls are just out there slinging around insults to 1. get a reaction/upset people 2. release their fear-born anger or 3. all of the above.

Taking a stand, “calling them out,” and/or returning the insult is a natural reaction. After all, they are wrong, just like the racists were and are wrong. And deep down in the hearts of even the least self-aware misogynists, they know they’re wrong. But the results of engaging with these people are limited.

Earlier this summer, Atlanta Dream forward Imani McGee-Stafford and Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson successfully confronted trolls online, and each won the battle, putting them in their places and making good points along the way. Most times, however, those who try to do this merely succeed in amplifying the voices of the misogynists. Quoting one of their tweets or trying to engage them in rational dialogue only gives them an amplified voice and lets them know they achieved their goal of being irritating.

Several years ago when I was a new educator, I witnessed an older administrator’s encounter with a student. All of the principals of this high school were pushing kids into class for first period. Ms. Watkins said something to the young man, and he called her a bitch. I was shocked; most people – even in this bold new generation of kids – have the sense not to talk to an older person like that. I felt the anger in my throat, and I was prepared to come to her defense. But Ms. Watkins didn’t miss a beat.

“Uh huh,” she said slowly. “Now get to class.”

How could she have that reaction, I wondered at the time. But now that I’m much more experienced in life and in education, I get it.

Just like plenty of movie characters over the years, there is always someone who stops by to try and rain on a great parade. So your women’s professional basketball league is gaining popularity due to great play and exceptional player personalities and character? Then we will crap on it, or as the current popular saying goes, “throw shade.” Those being insulted take the bait and combat the comments, losing sight of the big picture and why the disparagement is occurring in the first place. Thus, those being attacked lose their power, because they give it away.

It is worth remembering, too, that homo sapiens are biologically programmed to look for what’s wrong, instead of what’s right. It was for the sake of survival thousands of years ago that we evolved to scan the environment for any wrongs, instead of focusing on what is right. Thus, it is natural for our attention to be drawn to the trolls, to focus on the arenas that are not full, and to compare numbers to the NBA, which is 51 years older than the WNBA.

But, there are those of us who choose to go against biology and focus on the positive.

The WNBA is full of good and humorous people who try to be great teammates to one another, and who are welcoming and helpful to newcomers. A growing number of news sources write about them, and collegiate basketball players. WNBA player skill, recognition, popularity, viewership and fandom is up. The game at all levels is growing, as is the strength of women in society overall. It is nearing midnight, and as Dr. King said, there is plenty of hope.

Whether women’s basketball supporters choose to engage teenage-acting trolls in dialogue, or join the Rep. Maxine Waters/WomensHoopsWorld “reclaiming my time”/”ain’t got time for that” school of thought, it is worth remembering two things in this social media world:

  1. As the saying goes, don’t get blown about by every wind. Remember why the insults are being made.
  2. It is indeed true that sometimes having “haters” is a good sign. This is one of those times.

Keep pushing, women and female athletes. We will make it to the dawn.