Posted by: Ethan Johnson | April 9, 2011

WNBA: Notes From REM Sleep

The 2011 WNBA season has yet to begin – the draft is this coming Monday – but a recent back and forth discussion concerning transgendered athletes has prompted me to describe, as best as I can, a dream I had a few months ago:

I found myself playing as one of two token male players for the LA Sparks. The other was Josh Holloway, known to many as “Sawyer” from Lost. Dreams being what they are, I just went with it and every time I got the ball, no matter where I was in relation to the basket (so, mid-court) I kept heaving the ball up for the shot and giving possession to the other team. Finally a time-out was called and rather than going to the sidelines, we huddled as a team near the free-throw line and “Sawyer” came over all pissed off. “How about passing the damn ball,” he said, in that Sawyer-ly way.

In the huddle, Lisa Leslie (!) turned to me and said in her Lisa Leslie way, “I think it would be best if you involved your teammates more in the plays so we can be successful.” Time out over, I got the ball again, same thing. heave, miss, run down the court, Sawyer glaring at me, Lisa Leslie hanging her head down but getting back on defense.

Some points:

  • No, I don’t secretly dream of playing for the Sparks, or any WNBA team, or any basketball team, period.
  • I think part of the disconnect in my involvement versus what was supposed to be happening is that I somehow transitioned into this scene “cold”. Imagine suddenly finding yourself on the field for an NFL game immediately after reading this sentence. Wait, what? What do you mean here’s the ball? Why’s Reggie Lewis coming after me? AAAAHHHH! So yeah, I had a basketball, I heaved it up. Who wouldn’t, right?
  • I have no idea why Lisa Leslie was part of this. Hell, why Josh Holloway?
  • In case you’re wondering, “Sawyer” and I were wearing yellow t-shirts with tank tops over them, keeping with the team look but not wearing “female” attire. Yes, the Farmers Insurance logo was in the front, which was an amazing detail to include in a random dream scene.

Now: I bring this up not in terms of transgendered athletes pro or con, but I awoke from this strangeness and thought “what if the WNBA included male players on the roster? I suppose this could be asked as “will the NBA ever include female players on the roster” and get the same reasons why not. Women can’t this, men are better at that, never gonna happen, blah blah blah.

From the WNBAs perspective, this seems like a no-brainer. Hello, women’s league. Men have their own. Case closed.

From the NBAs perspective, this also seems rather pat, as it’s a men’s league.

The twain have met at least once, but it was some charity game if I remember correctly, where male and female basketball players teamed up with random celebrities. The All-Star break seems to be the time and place for experimentation without affecting the status quo.

But my fundamental question, and it doesn’t have to apply strictly to basketball, is will there ever be mixed genders in pro sports? Tennis has mixed doubles, but that’s all I can think of right now.

I had this discussion with someone recently who vehemently disagreed that men and women could ever play the same sport together, again save for tennis. And curling, assuming curling ever goes gender neutral. And bowling, yes?

But what about the “real” sports like basketball, baseball, soccer, football, and hockey?

Well, Carthage College does have a co-ed hockey team, but beyond that I am not expecting the NHL to incorporate female players in my lifetime. I’m thinking football culture is too macho to countenance female players in any capacity, even holder for field goals. Same with baseball, I’m thinking. Basketball is macho insofar as the playground attitudes that seemed to really pervade the NBA in the 1990s somewhere, plus the endless debate over dunking vs. “fundamentals”.

That leaves soccer. I contend that soccer is soccer is soccer, and men and women should in theory be able to play together. Basketball is basketball too, really, but for some reason I view soccer as presenting the best chance for gender neutral involvement. Perhaps because it is still relatively “new” in the USA relative to those European teams that have the year as part of their club name, like “Goatsmilke 1899”. The message is clear (to me) that such clubs are rife with tradition and no women are going to screw that up for anybody.

Time and time again, what seems to scuttle the idea of co-ed sports outside of academia (read: elementary school gym class) is the difference between men and women, boys and girls. Men are stronger, faster, better. Women can sorta kinda participate but not really. In my soccer-themed conversation my partner ultimately determined that any male soccer player would outperform the best female soccer player. In MLS terms, the argument is that some bench-warming scrub on the New England Revolution would play circles around, say, Kelly Smith.

I let that claim hang over us to ideally dissipate as the absurdity that it is, when the silence was broken.


“I’m sorry?”

“Goalkeeper is the only position that could be gender neutral. Because women don’t have the physical demands put on them in that position like they would in others.”

This from someone who has a daughter that plays youth soccer.

I’ll have more to say about this in the near future, but I think that sums up one of the issues, if not the issue surrounding women’s athletics rather neatly.



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