My Game is the Women’s Game

4 08 2009

Once upon a time, some regular wags at an online soccer forum I have since set aside got all huffy that a sport other than soccer was cutting in to the scheduled Major League Soccer game on television. Ultimately, the complaining shifted from “my game is being kept off the air” to “[that sport] should not exist!”

Credit to one of the moderators, who replied simply, “I’m sorry you’re too provincial-minded to accept or appreciate other sports.”

I mention this in light of an article that was passed along by Q at Rethinking Basketball called One Man’s Struggle With WPS Fandom. I’ll use these quotes as the launch pad for the remainder of my comments:

My main explanation for this attitude is that women’s soccer is slow, at any level. It’s inarguably, frustratingly, heart-murmeringly slow.

And…

I wonder if it will take a change in the game itself, something besides the evolution of women players that lessens the talent gap between genders. Like, I’d like to see games with two balls in play, or games with guest male players from the crowd, or games with interactive crowds that could choose the lineup changes or fire good-natured projectiles at players. Then again, these are idiotic ideas that would undermine the sanctity of any sport. If I were commissioner of WPS, however, I’d at least consider some freakishly creative options. Maybe the league could start with some more delicate and minor alterations in the game’s rules to favor offense, to give the league more ammunition. Smaller fields? Smaller goal box? Bigger goals? Why let conventional rules constrict the excitement of the game? Why not start something new, make the product more unique and less comparable to the male-dominated version of the game that the vast majority of people will only continue to see as better?

Deep breath, pause, type.

Knee-jerk reaction: “I’m sorry you’re too provincial-minded to accept or appreciate WPS.”

Except, having read the whole article, I am aware that the author does in fact appreciate Women’s Professional Soccer. What seems to be at issue isn’t his own appreciation, but concern out of how to make the league more palatable to the sports enthusiasts at large.

Here is my professional, degreed, tenured, and expert opinion: You can’t.

Whaaaat?

Look, Cricket is Cricket is Cricket. They monkeyed around with the number of “overs” per game (the US-friendly, I dare say, version of this is called 20/20) to speed things along, but really, if Cricket isn’t your bag, shortening the length of the game, making the wickets closer together, increasing or reducing the number of players, blah blah blah won’t crack the wall of resistance that compels one to gag and say “I hate Cricket.”

It’s not a gender thing, notice.

Same goes for “I hate bass fishing,” “I hate lacrosse,” and “I hate drag racing.” It’s not the players, it’s the game.

There has been talk about the WNBA changing the rules/basket height/whatever else to make the league more fan-friendly. Nyet! Winning is fan-friendly. Actually being fan-friendly helps too.

Here’s an example from another (male) sport: NFL football. The Indianapolis Colts tend(ed?) be so lacking in defense that it’s a wonder they win any games at all. But, they have Peyton [Freakin’] Manning, and generally speaking the Colts win by outscoring their opponents. That plan is all well and good when they’re scoring. Stop Manning, and tear through the Colts’ poor defense, and they’re done.

No, not “new rule, it’s illegal to tackle after 5 yards of ball handling” or similar nonsense. Teams that want to win score points and prevent others from scoring, wow, epiphany.

So: Watering down/monkeying with/screwing up WPS, WNBA, or anything else doesn’t mean it will change anything for the better. Instead, it’s just another Reason Why Not. Did Arena Football compel the holdouts to say “aha, now this this football I can get into!” Razz.

Speaking as a lone male fan of both leagues, whose opinion is his alone, the selling point for me when I talk up both sports is that women are playing quality [basketball or soccer]. The WNBA uses the FIBA rules, which means FIBA men are held to the same constraints. I don’t remember if the smaller ball size is a FIBA thing or a “women can’t handle a ball that is .5″ larger in diameter” thing (snort), but FIBA men play WNBA basketball. How’s that for talking up FIBA, huh?

WPS players play soccer under the exact same constraints as: MLS, Barclay’s Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A, the Bundesliga, J-League, USL, WPSL, FMF, and whatever other pro league you can imagine. Soccer is soccer is soccer. Hope Solo defends the same goal mouth that Tim Howard does. Marta scores with the same size ball as Landon Donovan does. Sonia Bompastor runs up and down the same size pitch (field) as Lionel Messi does.

So when Marta does amazing stuff on the field – and if you missed the most recent LA/CHI game, OH MY GOD I so need to see Marta play live before I die, you’re missing out BIG TIME – you don’t have to spin it as, “sure, it’s a watered-down version of pro soccer, but yay Marta!” When Karina LeBlanc makes an amazing save, you don’t have to defend her ability by saying she could do it in front of a regulation-size goal too. When Kelly Smith blasts in a goal from distance, you don’t have to imagine what it would be like on a longer, wider pitch. They’re all the same.

That’s the selling point.

Now, besides copious amounts of navel-gazing as to why women’s pro sports are more compelling to me than many male sports, I will harken back to the good ole Chicago Bears, who for a brief time started a relatively unknown quarterback named Steve Walsh. Why yes, he did lead Miami to the NCAA national championship, but that wasn’t a Chicago thing. He was “backup QB” to us, and while Erik Kramer rode the pine, Walsh did something completely unheard-of by a 2nd-string quarterback in Chicago: He won games.

Now, it’s not just that he won them (well, QB’d the team to victory), but it was how he won them. Jerry Glanville used to do color commentary for Fox back then, and he went absolutely ballistic when he put the magic formula together for the Steve Walsh Experience: He threw “dink and doink” passes into the flat.

Whaaaaat!

(It was amusing to hear Jerry Glanville hollering “the flat! The flat! The flat!” after yet another Steve Walsh 5-yeard completion. Hee.)

Now, the haters (they’re everywhere) moaned and groaned that Steve Walsh didn’t “have what it takes”. Upon closer inspection this meant that he didn’t “throw the long bomb” like Erik Kramer did, you know, while the Bears were losing.

I think Walsh got wind of the peanut gallery, because he became one of my many all-time sports heroes by throwing a bucketload of short passes, and then aired it out for 50+ yards in the NFL version of the rope-a-dope.

He won the National Championship at Miami, you idiots.

A caller to the local sports radio summed up his support for Steve Walsh that I have tacked to my mental cork board ever since: “I’d rather have a short-passing champion than a loser who throws 80-yard interceptions.”

So I stuff that in the pipe of every hater, doubter, yeah-but-it’s-not-the-samer, yawner, scoffer, back-turner, and worry-wart who thinks that women’s sports have to somehow “be like the men” to garner support.

(I have to add here that like the basketball clinics offered vicariously by Kelly Mazzante, or Candace Parker, or Shameka Criston, or even Katie [Feenstra] Mattera, Steve Walsh was beneficial to me in that suddenly it was okay to throw the short one. Hey, 5-yard completions are OK! Group hug! Stop kicking my ass!)

No, “the men” could learn a thing or two from the women. I’m sure it didn’t endear me, but I passed Ray Burse (FC Dallas goalie) a note after a loss that he’d do well to study Hope Solo’s goalkeeping technique. That’s not a sexist slam, like calling men “ladies” and whatnot. That’s Serious Helpful Advice that I would offer anyone who needed a GK clinic on the cheap. She puts on a clinic every game. Sadly, we don’t get to see each game on TV because WPS is a fledgling league.

And as I have said before, perhaps not on this blog but here it is anyway, I have found WNBA basketball to be of immensely more value to me in the rec center than anything my favorite male ballers ever did. (Parenthetically, I will say it is weird as a man to be thinking about how to set my feet and shoot the three just like Kelly Mazzante, but when the ball goes “swish” I’m not that concerned about my masculinity.)

WNBA games aren’t on TV either very much outside of the 13-city market, but I am a major supporter of WNBA Live Access. It’s not just the online streaming of most games. It’s the teams/media outlets that “get it” and call the game like it should be: A professional sporting event. Not some sideshow, not pro wrestling, not a gimmick.

Now, if everybody (read: men and women) could get behind supporting pro athletes, and appreciating their abilities rather than pitting every female athlete against “the men”, we could all enjoy our pro sports, dislike or ignore the ones we don’t, and sing kumbaya, yes?

Or maybe some people are just too provincial-minded to see athletes as athletes, and appreciate their achievements in context.

Phooey.

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One response

6 08 2009
Ay

Your NFL comparison makes no sense: changing the rules for a single team is far different from changing the rules to make the game better. Which the NFL, and NBA, and every other league do on a regular basis. It’s not “monkeying around,” it’s improving the sport. It’s not foolish for the WNBA to consider the opinions of a huge potential audience, though I’m sure you’ll agree they should be careful not to pander to that audience at the expense of their core audience.

Women’s basketball is a different sport than men’s because the lesser level of athleticism (as well as height) means the game is played differently.

HOWEVA… I will definitely be following the career of Britney Grinder; hopefully she can become the WNBA’s Jordan.




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