It’s lonely out here. Being a Women’s National Basketball Association fan this past month was a lot like being a fan of Senator McCain’s geography skills. The still-struggling 12-year-old league made headlines that no league would envy. First, the WNBA made news for its first legitimate brawl, between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Detroit Shock, which resulted in 11 suspensions. Two days later, the Shock were in the news again for signing 50-year-old legend Nancy Lieberman to help their depleted roster.
The two events were viewed with some amusement by the mainstream media and a fair amount of scorn from the sports blog community. The treatment of the WNBA isn’t surprising; it’s a poorly promoted, inefficiently run league that would have folded before its fifth year if not for the NBA’s muscle.
The players and the product, however, are awesome.
I’m a 21 year-old-guy – not exactly the demographic – and it didn’t take much to win me over. With the right exposure and a few key changes, the WNBA could provide something our community desperately needs more of: Black female icons.
Oprah and Tyra and Beyoncé are fine, but they’re sanitized. For me and many, the most enduring modern images of Black female power and beauty are athletes: Wilma Rudolph. The Williams sisters. Flo Jo. (Talk to any Black woman who was an adolescent during the 1988 Seoul Olympics and see how they feel about Flo Jo. Sit down first, because it’ll probably be a long conversation.)
If I have a daughter, I look forward to taking her to Seattle Storm games and encouraging her to have the same type of relationship with sports I had growing up.
Athletes aren’t necessarily role models or heroes or sex symbols, but they do represent strength and determination and often, they empower young people to excel in areas beyond the court or field. I pretended to be Ken Griffey Jr. and Gary Payton growing up. I’m not playing point guard for a living, but I can still say confidently that my fanhood helped me become confident as a Black person.
I want my daughter(s) to be able to have that affirming experience of supporting someone like Swin Cash – a beautiful, powerful, independent Black woman.
When I have the privilege of talking with Black elders who were alive to experience Jackie Robinson’s rookie year, they tell me I couldn’t possibly understand how empowering following Jackie’s success was. I can’t argue that; I’ve had Black male sports heroes my whole life.
Black girls, for the most part, haven’t had stars to imitate or franchises to follow.
It’s great that there are Black girls now who have been following the same WNBA team their whole childhood. There are plenty of fans whose lives are being touched, but the league is still a punchline in the national sports consciousness.
The work the WNBA and its players do on a community level is commendable; now they need to push their product to the next level.
It’s always an advantage to have the best quality when you’re promoting something. The WNBA has that – dozens of highlight-reel players that will only increase in number with future drafts. The league’s “Expect Great” campaign was its best yet. Watch Cheryl Ford’s ad and see if you don’t feel a little bit better about the image of Black women.
That’s the crucial thing about the WNBA: the opportunity to provide positive images for women and girls, particularly in the Black community. Women who use their body to make a living without being perceived as immoral, promiscuous, or fallen didn’t exist in this country until last century.
The WNBA doesn’t have to do much to become a national presence. If it can work on its shortcomings - the gimmick ball has never stopped implying that maybe this isn’t real basketball – and make a few stars – Candace Parker is well on her way – then it should expand seriously in the next five years and start turning a profit.
As the WNBA increases in exposure and influence, all the more Black girls – and everyone else - can see strong, proud, sexy, classy, and successful Black women. That’s something everyone should be rooting for.
Oh, and go Storm.
I wrote this to kind of get prepped for RushmoreDrive a few weeks ago. Should still ring fine.