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A while back, Joanne Lannin, author of “A History of Basketball for Girls and Women,” dropped me a note to give me a heads up.

1) She’s working on an updated version of the book

2) She’s also  working on a book about the pioneering spirit of women in basketball and would love to talk to folks who played the game before Title IX was enacted in 1972.

3) She’s started a blog: Finding a Way to Play. Check it out for pieces on Delle DonneShoni

Junior Shoni Schimmel lit up the NCAA women’s tournament last spring with her fearless, exhuberant play for the University of Louisville (that’s her trash-talking Britney Griner at left).By way of her ascent to the national stage, Schimmel has shone a light on the experience of females like her: Native American basketball players who are making a name for themselves beyond the reservation.

Goodrich

Angel, who was drafted 29th out of the University of Kansas, was not the first Native American to make it to the WNBA, but she is the first to crack a starting lineup. Ryneldi Becenti, a member of the Navajo tribe in Arizona, played one game for the Phoenix Sun in 1997 and Tahnee Robinson, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Wyoming, played exhibition games during the 2011 preseason for the Connecticut Sun before being cut.

To Native Americans — be they from the foothills of Oregon, the deserts of Arizona or the plains of Oklahoma — Goodrich’s rise to the elite women’s professional level, has been a break in the clouds after many years of playing in the shadows. The experience of Indian girls in some ways mirrored that of white girls, whose opportunities to play competitive basketball were hit or miss until the latter decades of the 20th century.

the fabulous Hazel Walker, and Coach Summitt.

Wait, you suddenly feel the urge to read up on your women’s basketball history? Check out the books on this list.

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Well, before everybody starts complaining about how UConn’s dominance is bad for the game (I’m doing a private countdown), let’s address the fact that, for some folks, we’re already at the “Is this as good as it gets” stage: Women’s college basketball plateaus

Back in 1995, when Connecticut won its first NCAA championship in women’s basketball, the sport seemed ready to explode.

The attention Rebecca Lobo, Jen Rizzotti and the rest of the Huskies received from the adoring media, especially in the New York City area, helped fuel a “Year of the Woman” campaign for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and the birth of the WNBA a year later.

Title IX triumphs!

But as the confetti fell on UConn’s eighth title team Tuesday night in the New Orleans Arena, there was the general feeling that women’s basketball, both on and off the court has plateaued.

I’m always amused by folks who think women’s basketball will grow in an uninterrupted line upwards, or that somehow “social agendas” — read “empowering women,” “fighting sexism,” “fighting homophobia,” “advocating for equal opportunities” — are hindering the game’s growth. (Is there anything that DOESN’T have a “social agenda”?)

That’s why, while I love the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, it also frustrates the hell out of me. Why?  Because it lays out the history of women’s basketball as if it were a natural, fight-free progression. It was not. And is still not.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: imagine if the small-minded, homophobic and sexist folks hadn’t won the battle to ban girls basketball in the mid ’20’s and 30’s. Consider what was happening at the turn of the century:

When Doctor Naismith joined the faculty of the University of Kansas in 1898 basketball was generally regarded in Kansas college circles as a woman’s sport. This could scarcely have been surprising to its inventor, for girls had begun playing it in the East when it was barely a month old. Coeds on Mount Oread experimented with it as early as 1896, the Kansas University Weekly reporting on November 21 that the girls had organized several teams and that the freshman and sophomore girls hoped to play a match game. There is no record of this contest, if it was played, but if the young women carried out their plan it probably was the first basketball game on a Kansas campus.

In 1897 their athletic facilities were enlarged. A space was reserved to be used as an athletic field for women and facilities were provided for an open-air basketball court. [2] The women of Baker University first played the game in the spring of 1897, when the contest between the Delta Delta Delta team and one picked from the other girls of the university was a feature of the first spring field day, according to The Baker Orange of May 19. Girls pioneered in basketball at Washburn College, Ottawa University and Emporia Normal, as well as at K.U. and Baker. TheWashburn Weekly Review announced on November 3, 1898, that “we may expect our young ladies to issue a challenge to some of the neighboring schools for a basketball game before long,” and reported a week later that they were learning the fine points of the new pastime at the Y.W.C.A. gymnasium in Topeka.

Heck, what might have happened if THIS sentiment had prevailed in the men’s game:

Veteran basketball men say that one factor that prevented basketball from becoming a major sport during the first decade of its existence as a Kansas college game was that men students regarded the game as effeminate.

Where would our game be if it had grown in lock-step with the men’s game? Yes, it probably would look different on the court — sort of how men’s gymnastics is different than women’s gymnastics — BUT off the court?:

  • Perhaps the fan bases would grow at an equal level (’cause, back in the day, they were huge for both girls and boys teams).
  • Perhaps coaches would have been equally paid and respected. For instance, maybe a reporter would be asking, “Would Coach Mike Krzyzewski have been successful coaching in the women’s game?”
  • Perhaps college athletic scholarships, offered to men as early as the 1870’s, would have also been offered women, as opposed to having to be legislated. ‘Cause, as we know, even legislation, most universities are still not in compliance.
  • Perhaps the homophobic bullying tossed at women’s basketball players would be called out/challenged directly by coaches, parents and the media and called out for the hate speech it is. Perhaps, then, Kim Mulkey would not feel the ned to play the ostrich, but be a leader amongst coaches who say “Enough is enough.”

I’m not offering the above “what ifs” as an excuse, but as an example of how things ain’t so simple and/or cut and dried when it comes to women’s athletics. Knowing history is essential to making progress.

So, I look forward to reading Val Ackerman’s “White Paper,” in which, she will present her findings on her “comprehensive assessment of the current state of intercollegiate women’s basketball” and present “her conclusions and recommendations about how best to position and manage the sport.”

  • Revenue generation
  • Marketing and television strategies
  • Image and branding
  • Youth/grass-roots tie-ins
  • Cost structures
  • Scheduling
  • Governance/management
  • Championships

The above points of focus center on topics one might call “hard skills” involving money, tactics and personnel, which is essential to developing strategic plans for growing the game. That is, IF the NCAA actually has the will (and personel) to take action. There have been earlier studies on improving all of the above — with grants given out by the NCAA in 2010 — but for some reason (yes, I can think of some) schools seemed unwilling to adopt identified “Best Practices.” And there was nothing the NCAA could do about making them because universities are independent beings. (Sound familiar, WNBA?)

I’m going to guess that Val’s paper will NOT address “political” issues such as university funding of sports or homophobia within and without the sports. That being said, there does seem to be a sea change happening (and a corresponding backlash – did you see this reaction to the firing of Rice?), primarily led by student-athletes.

Recall this from 2012: Athlete Ally: Hudson Taylor tackles homophobia

The gay jokes. The homophobic slurs, those comments uttered so habitually on the practice mats that no one stops to notice what they actually mean or whom they hurt. They stung Hudson Taylor.

Wear an equal rights sticker on your helmet during a match and we’ll have a hard time cheering for you, some of his Maryland teammates warned. Their words clawed at Taylor, tore at him the way their words tore at so many athletes never bold enough to speak out before. He wondered if by taking this stance he was actually hindering his cause, if his teammates were becoming more homophobic simply because he asked them not to be.

“Sometimes, 18- to 22-year-old young men don’t realize how much an impact their words have,” said Maryland wrestling coach Kerry McCoy. “Hudson brought that issue to the forefront for our team.”

Yes, I wish coaches would speak out more. But, I do understand the fear factor: did you see this from The Tucker Center?  Examining Online Intercollegiate Head Coaches’ Biographies: Reproducing or Challenging Heteronormativity and Heterosexism? Writes Pat Griffin:

Let’s look at the decision whether or not to include a description of one’s family in a professional bio through the lens of heterosexism.  For a heterosexual married coach or athletic administrator, this decision is relatively minor.  Being heterosexual and married with children is what is expected and accepted. Heterosexuals freely share this information in a million little ways every day: wearing a wedding ring, placing family photos on a desk in the office, having casual conversations with colleagues about family, bringing family to department social and sports events. Why wouldn’t she or he want to include this information in a bio? There is no real down side to providing information about a heterosexual spouse and children. To the contrary, in a sports world where many high school recruits and their parents, athletic directors or the general public still view non-heterosexuals in negative ways, this “evidence” of heterosexuality can be read as a big plus, whether intended as such or not: The coach is not gay! 
Through the same lens of heterosexism, the factors affecting the decision of lesbian, gay or bisexual coaches in same-sex relationships to include their family information in a professional bio are quite different from those of their heterosexual colleagues.  Their decision is a big deal in ways that it is not for heterosexual coaches.  Here is why – Lesbian, bisexual and gay coaches carefully consider this decision because it can open the coach to professional and personal risk in a world where heterosexism is the norm.  Only 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. There are no federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Many coaches work in schools that do not even have institutional non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation or gender identity. As a consequence, most lesbian, bisexual and gay coaches have no legal protection against discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

So, maybe the tipping point will be led outside of the college arena. How can you not draw hope from this?

NHL, Players Union Launch Initiative To Battle Homophobia

The National Hockey League and its players union launched an initiative today that it hopes will stamp out homophobia from the game.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman tells our Newscast unit that the partnership with You Can Play is intended to send a message that everyone is welcome in the NHL as a player or a fan.

“This is really about celebrating diversity, whether or not it’s your national origin, the color of your skin or your sexual orientation, and making you feel comfortable that whoever you are you can have a place you can play,” Bettman said.

And while there is this (NFL More Homophobic Than Ever, Asking Prospects If They’re Gay and The NFL Sets the Standard for Homophobia) there is also this and this Donté Stallworth, Wide Receiver, Joins Group Fighting Homophobia In Sports

“I think it’s important for us as professional athletes not only to set the tone in our own respective fields, but also for the kids who are watching our programs or our sports,” he said. “If you isolate a child and teach them hate, hate, hate, that’s the way they’re going to grow up. … And unfortunately, that’s the environment that I grew up in. There was a lot of disrespect for gays. I unfortunately was a part of that. But as I got older, I became more ashamed of that and more open to rights for all.”

Yes, I see women’s basketball as being more than “just basketball.” I can enjoy the game for the game’s sake — niche sport or not. But I also enjoy the fact that it can have a bigger role: It can challenge our preconceived notions and push us to consider our conscious (and unconscious) biases about the “natural state” of the world around us. Why would anyone want to shy away from do that?

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