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|Pat Summitt is, without question, the queen of college hoops.|
And that's saying something. By beating Vanderbilt last week, Summitt became the first men's or women's coach to reach 900 wins. To put that in some context, it would take a coach 45 years to win 900 games if she or he won 20 games every season. It's a staggering résumé for someone who, despite how much we attempt to juxtapose her with Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, stands alone at the top of the coaching game in women's basketball.
So why can't I stop thinking about the one challenge Summitt chose not to confront? For all she's done to change women's basketball, Summitt missed an opportunity to scale the highest peak on the horizon by never taking over a men's program. That would have been different than Danica Patrick or Michelle Wie competing against men. The delicate balance that has evolved over the years between men's and women's sports is shattered like the air around Wie's club head every time she tees off in a PGA event. What began as a bold social statement when Billie Jean King silenced mouthy chauvinist Bobby Riggs on the tennis court has become a troubling phenomenon that threatens to derail real progress. Every time Wie or other women compete in a men's event, it adds fuel to the fire for hot-air balloons in the media who fall over themselves claiming female athletes want it both ways, subsidized by political correctness in their own leagues and handed unfair opportunities to compete against men who, Jean Van de Velde aside, can't do the same in return.
Wie appears good enough to someday win a PGA event, and more power to her in pursuing that goal if she desires. And while the LPGA itself might actually benefit from the increased exposure Wie attracts, she and other female athletes have to accept that their decisions come with potentially negative consequences as well. First on the list is emboldening those who would use their unique skills to denigrate the bulk of female athletes as somehow unworthy of respect because they can't hit the ball as far, jump as high or run as fast as their male peers.
Just as women's basketball doesn't need the dunk -- whenever Parker gets around to throwing one down in a game it will be the most overrated story of the year in women's basketball -- to merit being watched, women don't need to compete against and beat men to prove that women's athletics are legitimate, viable and compelling. But coaching is a completely different animal. The coaching profession, to which so many women devote their lives and their passion, still desperately needs its own variation of that revolutionary moment when King trounced Riggs. And given the differences between baseball and softball, and the relative obscurity of college soccer in this country, that moment can only happen on the basketball court. Coaching is as much business as it is sports. As proven by Rick Majerus, there are no physical skills required to be a basketball coach. But as a blend of business and sports, coaching somehow largely escapes notice as a bastion of genuinely unfair and inexcusable employment practices. Steve Carell is brilliantly over-the-top as a hopelessly intolerant middle manager on NBC's "The Office." But his character is based more on exaggeration than imagination. When the corporate world finally got around to confronting basic inequalities in management opportunities, workplaces were full of men who weren't particularly comfortable with the idea of taking orders from women. (And I'm being kind to my gender by using the past tense). So how is it any different to accept the complete lack of female coaches in men's college basketball on the premise that male players wouldn't respect or follow a female coach? There are plenty of legitimate reasons why a female coach would encounter adversity by the bushel in taking over a men's program. But there are no legitimate reasons why it shouldn't happen. And Summitt has long been the perfect candidate. Summitt repeatedly has been linked by fans and media to openings for the men's team at Tennessee, where male coach after male coach has failed to come close to matching her success with the women's team. In 2001, she even turned down a direct offer from the university's president to switch teams. To date, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that she has ever seriously considered such a move. If that's the case, it's a shame. Still just 53, Summitt has done more for women's athletics than any other individual. She's the John Wooden of women's basketball, only she has Wooden trumped. She didn't just raise a sport to new heights in the public consciousness, she helped shape a shift in the social fabric of the country. There were others alongside her, just as there were others before and alongside Wooden. But Geno Auriemma, much as it would pain him to admit, owes his career to Summitt. Former UConn stars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi owe their places in mainstream pop culture to Summitt. That Parker committed to Tennessee live on national television is a tribute to Summitt. And the WNBA, love it or hate it, owes its near-decade of existence to Summitt. She simply is women's basketball.
But somewhere along the line, she could have left that empire in the hands of able successors such as Auriemma, Kim Mulkey-Robertson and Gail Goestenkors, her opponent Monday night. And she could have set out to conquer the only challenge that remained.
Having already changed women's sports for the better, she could have changed sports for the better.
|Wouldn't it be interesting to see Summitt work with male players?|
It's easy in print to turn real people into symbols. It's easy to say what Summitt should have done, forgetting she's a real person with a family and a life outside of basketball. Without straying too far into territory better left to St. Thomas Aquinas and John Stuart Mill, it seems reasonable to say none of us is obligated to sacrifice for the common good. Hence the idea of it being a sacrifice. Even if it was written in stone that the world would be a better place if Summitt coached men's basketball, she still has a right to say no. And since no such guarantee exists, it's impossible to say she made the wrong choice. The only real blames lies with the athletic departments that haven't extended offers to other female candidates, leaving us to debate whether the perfect candidate has a responsibility to force the hand of the establishment. The world of sports wouldn't change overnight if a woman coached a prominent men's program; it wouldn't even change dramatically if she led that team to the Final Four and beyond. But success would change attitudes and open doors, allowing women the same choice male coaches have. Hopefully for the women's game, talented young female coaches would opt to stay in the women's game. But they should have that choice.
For all the men who make a living coaching women in college basketball (not to mention the WNBA, which is a story unto itself), not one woman takes home a paycheck for coaching men at any of the more than 300 Division I programs or the 30 NBA teams. That's simply embarrassing. Someday soon, a rising star such as Dawn Staley or Joanne P. McCallie will be the first, and hopefully it will be a position that gives her every opportunity to succeed. But it could have been Summitt. It should have been Summitt. And I can't help but imagine there are times when she thinks exactly the same thing. Graham Hays is an editor for ESPN.com's SportsNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.