What Kills The Game: The University of Connecticut, Sexism, and Accountability for Gender Bias in Women’s Sports, by Alysa Auriemma

This is a very personal article for me. Obviously.

If you look at my last name, you might automatically put two and two together, especially if you live in New England.

Growing up as Geno Auriemma’s daughter was fraught with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but I mainly think about the small lessons I’ve learned.

I started to play basketball when I was in fourth grade. I knew the game backwards and forwards – one of my most cherished possessions as a child was a VHS tape called Great Moments in College Basketball that mainly talked about UCLA, John Wooden, NC State, Oscar Robertson, and Pete Maravich. Pistol Pete was my idol growing up. However, my love of the game didn’t really translate into a SKILL at the game. I was slow, and lazy, and a bad shooter. Recognizing this, my Dad took me out to the blacktop in our backyard (when I was five, we bought a house with a small blacktop basketball court!), and told me “I want you to work on your wrist strength, because then you’ll make more shots.” For hours that summer, I did shooting exercises he had taught me. Cut to several years later, when I was the starting point guard on my middle school basketball team, and I led the team in made threes.

What I’m saying is, the game of basketball taught me a discipline and focus that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else. It taught me about teamwork, and set plays, and specific work on the nuance of the game. It taught me about hard, hard work. And I never grew up thinking that anything about what I was doing made me less of a girl, or less of a person, because I liked to play basketball or any kind of sport.

Over the past few years, the dominance of the UConn women has grown to unbelievable heights and yesterday, we won our eleventh national championship, besting John Wooden’s previous record (oh no, did I piss off a man by saying that?).

For years, that high has been contrasted with the opinions of people who actually don’t really know what the heck they’re talking about when it comes to women’s basketball. My dad refers to them as “dodos.” I tend to try and brush off the “dodos” because they just don’t contribute anything to my positive worldview.

But about two weeks ago, Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe tweeted that he didn’t want to watch UConn play because we were, quote, “Killing the game.”

I stared at that quote for a long time, fighting the urge to either laugh, or scream. It seems as if in order to be seen as successful, or even to be seen at all, in this world, it has to be approved of by old white men. I didn’t realize a demand for excellence and a rigorous commitment to discipline both on and off the playing court could be seen as a bad thing. I thought of those teams I had idolized in my youth, the teams like UCLA who made perfection look effortless, and even teams like the famous 1997 Chicago Bulls, and of course the contemporary example of the Golden State Warriors, who make me want to actually watch the NBA without screaming into a pillow about how horrific their offensive sets look.

But of course. These are male teams. Female teams are in the sandbox now, and the man. Cannot. Take. It.

This tweet by Shaughnessy sent shock waves throughout the media world. Suddenly, you couldn’t open up Facebook without seeing someone’s thinkpiece about what Shaughnessy had said. The overall question was, “Is UConn good for the sport?”

I found it all hilarious. Because the fact that this question is being asked begs another question: Should women dumb down their greatness because other people disapprove?

My obvious answer to that is nope, no way. But to some people out there, usually men, that answer is, “Well, we’d prefer if you weren’t so loud about your greatness.” Which means “shut up and go back into the kitchen.”

Sexism in sports doesn’t always have to be about people saying “Girls shouldn’t play sports” (although those people are out there, and they have never sexually satisfied a woman). It can be a microaggression, such as in 2013 when Andy Murray was heralded as the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 70 years when really, Virginia Wade had done it in 1977. Or it can be overtly verbal – when I clicked on the ESPN tweet about our win against Oregon State, the first five responses to the story were a variation on “Get back to the kitchen” or “who cares.” Well, you clearly had the energy to type that tweet in, after seeing that Tweet, so you clearly care a little bit about all of this. The opposite of love is indifference. If you don’t like it, just don’t say anything about it.

But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the issue isn’t that women are equal in sports to men, but perhaps the invisibility of women’s sports is such that it’s like an unspoken rule not to talk about it at all. Don’t show it. Don’t discuss it. Don’t acknowledge it. Then, maybe, it’ll go away.

It’s not going away. But you can’t be what you can’t see. Meanwhile people are shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, that the USA Women’s National Team got paid less for WINNING the 2015 FIFA World Cup than the men got paid for making it to the round of Sixteen in the 2014 WC. Why are you shocked? Women get paid less for literally everything. And why? Because it’s never mattered to the people in charge before. The people in charge have been men. In the words of my glorious yoga teacher Seane Corn, in order for there to be power over, there needs to be power under. Oppression. Systemic erasure. Marginalization. Media narratives that ensure the only focus is on the things they want us to see.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it because it’s boring. This entire argument doesn’t concern you, if you just don’t like it because it bores you. (Although I’d urge you to consider why you find flawless basketball boring.) I’m concerned about people who don’t like it and have literally never watched a second of the games themselves. That, to me, speaks of an unconscious bias and a sexist way of looking at women’s sports.

The sad thing about all of this is, if it weren’t for UConn’s dominance, who’s to say that women’s basketball would be getting any type of attention? If someone’s a peripheral viewer of women’s basketball, they’re going to really know of just us. And beyond that, they don’t really care. THAT is the problem – trying to get a group that doesn’t really like women’s basketball for whatever reason (especially people in the media) to pay attention to it enough so that coverage doesn’t look like an anomaly. By focusing just on UConn, you exceptionalize us to the point of otherness. “Oh, look at what those tall girls can do. How clever.”

It’s not that we get the best players. Breanna Stewart was easily the best player coming out of high school when we got her in 2012. But that’s the last #1 recruiting class we’ve had. Yet, we’ve welcomed girls like Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams, and Katie Lou Samuelson, who have done tremendous things for our program and who have elevated our game to new heights. It’s not what they do prior to getting here. It’s what Dad does to them when they get here. It’s like comparing the regular Navy operations, to a Navy SEAL. They are trained to handle everything and anything, to the very best their ability.

Last night, I watched the ending of a perfect run for this class of seniors, and I cried when Briana Pulido, our walk-on senior, drained a perfect jumper from the corner with 10 seconds to go. I texted my Dad to tell him how proud I was of him. Then I opened my twitter and saw good ol’ Dan Shaughnessy, saying how “classy” it was for “Gino” to keep his seniors on the floor with 2 minutes to go.

While I could mention the fact that he misspelled the name of the now-record holder of NCAA Division 1 Championships, or the fact that these seniors most definitely didn’t want to leave the court after four years of blood sweat and tears, I mostly focused on something else.

Dan Shaughnessy would only have been able to know that information had he watched a bulk of the game.

You may want to talk badly about us, Dan Shaughnessy. But you’re talking about us. And I hope we give you many more things to talk about in the years to come, because we aren’t going to dumb down our brand of focused and thrilling excellence for the sake of a man who wants to come into our world and tell us how to live. Your brand of patriarchal judgment died with the dodo. For now, let us have this wonderful, dynastic moment. It may never happen again. And, admit it – you’re going to miss complaining about it when it’s gone.

But on the other hand, Dan, in the words of my spirit animal, Amy Poehler – We’re going to do what we want, and I don’t care if you like it.


Picture Credit: By US Government (White House video) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUConn_Huskies_at_the_White_House_to_honor_the_2015_Championship.JPG