Commentary

Wooden saw value in women's hoops

Originally Published: June 9, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

John Wooden once made some observations about how he enjoyed what he called the "purity" of women's basketball. He was speaking about appreciating watching the fundamentally sound execution of the top women's players -- which shouldn't have surprised anybody, since doing things the right way was the very foundation of his life.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden, Pat Summitt
Tennessee Media Relations for ESPN.comPat Summitt is the only female coach to win the John Wooden Legends of Coaching Award (2007-08).

Over the years, when he subsequently was asked about the women's game, he repeated what he'd said initially. And many times since, I've heard people -- men and women -- who are involved in women's basketball cite Wooden's "blessing," using it almost like a sacred shield against the arrows that are either thoughtlessly or very purposefully shot at the sport.

Because if John Wooden approved of it, the "haters" had more than met their match. Go right ahead; tell the "Wizard of Westwood" he was wrong about women's basketball.

With Wooden's recent death at age 99, I reflected quite a while about something that actually went beyond the vast praise of his impossible-to-overstate coaching success and universal respect.

I thought about the power of an influential man to bestow legitimacy on something simply by assessing it fairly. And how if such a man does that for the endeavors of women, he is to be especially admired and appreciated.

Because it still has not done that much, especially not in the sports world. It remains very much a machismo culture in which denigrating women in general, not just women athletes specifically, is often part of a "motivational" process. And that culture extends to the coverage of sports and to sports fandom.

Obviously, at least in most of the developed world during my lifetime, women's athletics has made enormous progress, as have women in almost every occupation. So perhaps the gripes of guys who are women's sports "haters" would seem best ignored.

And, indeed, I am wary about giving them much attention, especially when there are so many men on a daily basis contributing immeasurably as coaches, officials and fans of women's athletics.

But I know those men also get extremely irritated and disgusted with the haters, for whom women's basketball in particular seems to bring out the most venom.

The haters are guys who seem to feel they have to vociferously advocate against women's hoops, apparently terrified it might somehow get really popular and they'll be forced to pay attention to it against their will.

It's so incredibly silly. Men's athletics always will be far more popular and widely followed than women's. Who can even conceive of anything changing that? And with the daily avalanche of media reports on men's sports, it seems absurd that a single story on women's basketball could get someone's hackles up enough for him to send a hateful e-mail or make snide comments.

Yet it happens, especially if ESPN.com has the temerity to put a women's basketball story on its front page, even for a couple of hours.

The complainers' thought process seems to work like this: ESPN.com (or any other media outlet) is just being "politically correct" and/or trying to foist off a horrible product on an unwilling audience for its own monetary gain. And that the whole thing ultimately stems from the evil Title IX, which props up worthless women's athletics by laying waste to men's sports.

You can point out to these complainers that there are more male collegiate athletes now and more money is being spent on them than there ever was in the pre-Title IX days.

You can ask them whether it's logical to think it's OK for men's college sports teams that don't produce revenue to be "supported" by football dollars, but it's somehow wrong for women's teams.

You can bring up that the overall purpose of scholastic athletics is to build character, boost self-confidence and promote school pride, for both men and women, boys and girls.

You can laugh at their grumbling that the WNBA causes higher NBA ticket prices/NBA financial woes, in view of the fact that the average salary for one NBA player dwarfs the combined salaries of an entire WNBA team.

You can shake your head at how they could possibly believe NBA commissioner David Stern, one of the most powerful executives and savvy businesspeople on the planet, supports the WNBA because of personal vanity and quivering acquiescence to a mythical feminist agenda.

You can inform them that the world of spectator sports is rich with offerings for a very simple reason: Because there really are fans who don't think exactly like them or have the same interests.

And, finally, you can assure them that they as viewers/readers don't actually have to watch or read about women's sports -- ever. (Although they might have to endure seeing a headline that mentions women's sports. Oh, the horror.)

Unfortunately, those who are at this level of antipathy toward women's athletics usually aren't interested in engaging in reasonable discussion about the topic.

(Which, incidentally, should include debate on the money spent on various college sports. For instance, I actually think women's basketball coaching salaries at some colleges are way out of whack with financial prudence and common sense.)

I love watching men and women play basketball well. But when men or women are clanking shots and their teams are out of sync, games are lousy to watch.

I don't believe women are "better" at basketball fundamentals than men. In fact, I get annoyed when people insult men's basketball as a way of supposedly making a positive comment about the women's game, which is plenty good enough to stand on its own merits.

It's completely fine with me if people don't want to watch one second of women's basketball or read one paragraph about it. But overzealous denigrating of the sport always deserves a pushback.

And ultimately, I can't help but contrast the anger and petty resentment evident in those kinds of needless and hateful attacks on women's basketball with the observations of a man no one would question as having been anything less than a coaching genius and American legend.

Wooden's response to those who ridicule women's athletics likely would have been, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Wooden was born in 1910, a decade before women in the United States had the right to vote. He saw cataclysmic changes in race relations and gender relations in this country. He watched college sports grow exponentially -- for better and for worse.

He cherished the discipline and structure athletics brought to young people's lives. He loved how five people working together on a wooden rectangle could be symbolic of all positive human interaction and cooperation.

He didn't just pay lip service to the necessity of kindness, encouragement, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, good manners and showing respect to others -- he lived every day of his life as a testament to those things.

So if Wooden saw value in women's basketball … if he appreciated skill level in its players (the Wooden Award was expanded in 2004 to include a women's honor) … if he believed the game benefitted from women's participation … if he wasn't threatened by or dismissive of media coverage of the sport … then perhaps he knew what he was talking about, don't you think?

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.