Commentary

Priorities seem askew at FIBA summit

Lowering basket, focusing on uniforms aren't first steps to improving women's game

Originally Published: October 8, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

You have to hand it to FIBA. Last weekend, basketball's world governing body had its inaugural conference on women's basketball … 57 years after the first world championship.

[+] EnlargeSylvia Fowles
AP Photo/Fred BeckhamLowering baskets might mean more people could dunk like Sylvia Fowles, but what happens to field goal percentages for players who have shot at a 10-foot tall hoop their whole lives?

Guess you gotta start sometime, huh?

In its news release about the conference, FIBA sounded somewhat like a former curmudgeon, circa 1971, who has seen the light and decided it really is OK for that headstrong granddaughter of his, with all her crazy libber ideas, to want to go to grad school. In fact … he's going to help her!

Right on, Gramps!

Please excuse a little (OK, a lot) of sarcasm. We realize that FIBA not only represents the United States -- which won its eighth world title Sunday in the Czech Republic -- but nations that are still getting around to accepting the concept that investment in women's athletics might be beneficial to their population.

Still, we couldn't help but roll our eyes when FIBA trumpeted a two-page "declaration," agreed upon by conference participants representing 49 basketball federations, that detailed the following points:

• It is important to have female players, coaches, referees and administrators as the role models for women and girls.

• Creating opportunities for women/girls to participate in basketball is an essential factor in ensuring their well-being and health.

It sounds as if FIBA is "catching up" on what might have been considered ground-breaking basic platforms several decades ago. It tells us there might be even more nations than we suspected whose thought process toward women's basketball has "evolved" all the way to the 1970s.

When it comes to patriarchal organizations such as FIBA or its soccer equivalent, FIFA -- which was flabbergasted when the 1999 Women's World Cup became a phenomenon -- you almost need to think of them like the aforementioned fictional granddad, who is just getting his mind around the fact that his granddaughter might actually have (gasp) expectations.

There was a good deal of irony, among other things, in the FIBA conference's conclusions and suggestions. You can't help but laugh at an organization that issued a news release stressing that females need to be more visible as role models … but didn't quote any of the four women, including former WNBA president Val Ackerman, among the 23 members listed on the Central Board, FIBA's brain trust.

The quotes instead came from FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann, who is also an International Olympic Committee member.

It should be noted that among the 16 teams at this world championship, two had a woman as head coach (Australia and Canada). If you scanned the stories FIBA posted on its website, you might have noticed an article posted before the event began about the coach of Greece's women's team, Kostas Missas, who said he wanted to coach the Greek men. That squad's coach had just had his contract expire.

If that is Missas' ambition, that's perfectly fine. The guy was just being honest, right? But maybe it's not the best motivation for players about to start a world championship when they can read that their coach said: "Of course, I'd like to coach (the men). I believe it's an honor for every one of us (Greek coaches) to coach a team with history, with results, with talent."

As opposed to the dreck he was currently in charge of, right? Later in the same story, Missas said, "It's an honor to coach any of our national teams -- the women's team, the junior team, or under-20 team -- but at the top is the men's team. Everyone would be happy to have this job."

Again, you might ask what's wrong with that. Across the board, men's athletics are more popular, and coaching jobs in that realm are usually considered more prestigious and typically better-paying.

However, lots of people involved in women's athletics are there because of choice. Not everybody considers it a consolation prize. If they do and are still in the job … tah-dah, FIBA! Let me introduce you to part of your problem.

If women players think of being on their national team as the sport's highest honor, is it too much to ask they get coaches who feel the same way? And no, the coaches don't have to be women. (Although, having women coaches for more than 12 percent of the teams in the world championship would be nice.)

That brings us to five "key topics" that the conference highlighted:

• Increasing the resources allocated to women's basketball.

• Lowering the height of the basket for women's basketball for all official competitions.

• Designing and regulating uniforms for female players.

• Developing a special program for creating female basketball journalists.

• Setting up continental girls' coaching camps similar to Basketball without Borders.

Two of these things make sense: allocating more resources to women's hoops and setting up girls' camps.

As for the program for "female basketball journalists," it's hard to be sure exactly how they mean that. Do they mean basketball journalists who are female or journalists who cover women's basketball?

If it's the former, it's incorrect to assume a woman sports journalist is inherently going to be any more interested in or inclined to cover women's basketball than a man would be. They should find a way to encourage those journalists, regardless of gender, who already show an aptitude and desire to cover the sport.

To that end, FIBA, and any other organization that wants coverage, should make it as cheap as possible for media to cover it. For the 2008 Olympic trials, USA Track and Field gave journalists the option of staying in inexpensive dormitories right next to the track complex. "Inexpensive" is one of the most important words in today's media world.

At last, we can get to the two most discussed "key topics" among women's basketball fans: lowering the rims and "regulating" uniforms. My initial response to the top topics was, "You've got to be kidding me."

I do not want the rims lowered. And while I'd just as soon not see any more of the goofy Belarus hoops "dress," which appeared more like a long top with compression/spandex shorts underneath, what teams wear is so far from what FIBA should be thinking about. Even bringing it up made the entire conference look stupid.

First, the whole rim-lowering thing. The supposed "logic" goes like this: More people would watch women's basketball if there were more dunks, because apparently their belief is that dunks are the primary reason that everyone watches men's basketball.

[+] EnlargeBelarus
Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty ImagesInstead of talking about uniforms like the Belarus hoops "dress," FIBA should focus on funding, making sure girls have access to camps and developing coaches who want to stay in the women's game.

This "logic" assumes that a significant portion of the new audience FIBA apparently seeks wouldn't automatically say with scorn, "So what? They lowered the rim for their dunks."

Some will say of lowering the rims, "Hey, why not? Women are on average smaller than men. The volleyball net is lower. Women in alpine skiing's downhill or slalom don't ski the exact same course that men do. So why does the basketball hoop have to be 10 feet for both sexes?"

That particular argument is, at least, based on some reason, but people have been playing basketball on a 10-foot rim since the game was invented in the 1890s. You could argue that elite men, especially in the NBA, have outgrown the 10-foot rim. Why isn't there more of a movement to raise it for them than to lower it for women?

I have nothing whatsoever against the dunk. If done correctly, it's the highest percentage shot there is. And it's impressive in large part because most people can't do it. If they lowered the rim even 6 inches, most people still couldn't do it. Some elite-level women already can do it on the 10-foot rim. Maybe a few more could if it were lowered.

But to whom would this appeal? Would the potential to see a few more dunks on a lower hoop actually change the general popularity of the women's game in some significant way? How would it affect the overall shooting percentage of the vast-majority of players who aren't dunking?

Apparently, FIBA will test it at various venues. I know there will be people who say, "Oh, come on. Give it a chance! What is there to lose?"

Is there anything to gain? Instinctually, I hear alarm bells go off in my head. I'm not pessimistic because I'm a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist afraid of risk or change and not because I'm worried about what the haters will say. They've already posted, "Women's basketball sucks!" and "Does the WNBA still exist?" in the comments section of this story. They are irrelevant to this and any other discussion about the women's game. It's not for them or about them.

No, the reason for the alarm bells is that these two concepts -- what uniforms women wear and how much they dunk -- are oft-repeated as things that supposedly need to be "fixed" for the sport to become the nebulous "more popular."

And I want you to really, really think about the opposite things that these ideas suggest are wrong with women's basketball.

The notion for the need to "feminize" players while they're on court, which seems like what "regulating the uniform" is code for, is saying that players, by some arcane, arbitrary standard, need to look more like women. But the idea that rims need to be lowered suggests the women's game needs to look more like the men's.

So there you have the impossible conundrum that women athletes continue to face: that they're deficient both because they're not "good enough" women … and because they aren't men.

These ideas are equally toxic streams of negativity and come from the same poisonous well that tries to make women athletes feel they can't just exist and excel as they are. They constantly must be compared and made to feel inferior to what they are not.

If you were to flip this thought process on its head, couldn't you say every male player is deficient compared to Candace Parker because she has dunked a basketball and given birth to a child?

That would seem silly to say, huh? So isn't it just as dumb to keep acting as if the measuring stick for women's basketball necessarily must be men's basketball?

Fortunately, the girls and women who play the sport will keep elevating it, regardless of what FIBA says or does. If FIBA is truly going to force through a rim-lowering process and it's a rousing success, I'll be the first to say I was wrong. I just doubt that will happen. If FIBA is going to insist on being fashion designers, I'm not sure how seriously we should continue to regard this organization.

Here is what FIBA should focus on that has nothing to do with those things: Fund your women's programs to improve teams' performances. Make sure girls have access to camps and training. Develop coaches who want to stay in the women's game. Help qualified women attain more positions of authority in the sport. Educate and nurture member nations that have the worst histories of providing women opportunities. Work harder with the WNBA and various leagues around the world to come up with better solutions for how the global women's basketball calendar should look. Be a better intermediary between the summertime WNBA, other leagues around the world (which play in the fall/winter/spring) and the national team programs.

Those things will take all the energy FIBA has, and then some. Work on that before 2012's proposed second women's conference, OK?

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

ALSO SEE