I am not a big time sportsball fan. But also, I am not a sportsball boycotter. My oldest friend grew up in northern Connecticut and was a diehard Patriots fan. The Patriots, if you are not aware, play the NFL handegg game which results in so many concussions and other injuries to its players. They also sucked rocks for the entire time my friend was growing up. Their one shining moment from my friend’s earlier years was getting to the Superb Owl only to be destroyed in one of the most lopsided NFL championship games ever, or so I’m told. So of course he reveled in the last 2 decades when Tom Brady played for the Patriots & won them several Owls.
In my childhood, my family was a bunch of sportsers and sports fans. Although I enjoyed skiing & waterskiing (we were privileged enough to have the money for such things), I was always largely anti-team sports. I made 2 brief forays, once for football, once for baseball, and would have quit after just a couple weeks each time had it been possible. (My siblings all played team sports for much longer, save my step brothers who were competitive gymnasts which is definitely a sport but not exactly a team one.)
Still, I absorbed the culture and watched the games with my parents, but by the time I met my now-oldest friend in 1991 I was already over sports. Like, the moment I left my parents house I just couldn’t bother with the sports watching anymore.
But a funny thing happened with my developing feminism: I started rooting for women to do great things, even in sports ball. I remember watching Navratilova’s last great singles match from my bathtub. I watched a Canadian skier in the Lillehammer Olympics because I had met her while dating a competitive skier from Seattle (who was never good enough to make the Olympics herself). My acquaintance never medaled, but it was fun to watch someone I knew. (Well, someone I had met & played cards with while drinking hot beverages after a hard day’s skiing.) I followed the US women win gold in soccer & basketball at the 96 Olympics. When professional basketball came to Portland, I went to Portland Power games, and when the ABL folded, I went to the new WNBA team’s games – the Portland Fire. I saw the Chinese & Canadian women’s national teams play in Portland during the 00-something World Cup. I didn’t obsessively follow any of these teams or athletes, but I had a good time cheering them on.
So when Tom Brady came on the scene and the Patriots were playing in their first Brady/Bellichik Superb Owl, my friend called me up, invited me to drive 500 miles to hand out with him so he would have someone to watch the game with and I said yes. When I first met him I would not have done this. It was in my no-sportsball-at-all interregnum. But since I had learned how to appreciate the fun of watching excellent people do excellent things again, even if it was only when rooting for women, I could appreciate how my friend might have his own reasons for choosing non-women to root for, and I thought I would go and support him.
As it happened, this was when the UConn Huskies were beginning their dominance of women’s college basketball. They had won one college championship in the mid 90s, but from 2000 to 2015 they would win ten more. Women’s college basketball was not much on my radar, but as my best friend and I were chatting during Superb Owl weekend, this child of northern Connecticut started talking to me about how his local college was really tearing up the place. He knew that I wasn’t particularly a sports fan, but he thought that I should check out his team.
So I did, and those women were fantastic. The UConn Huskies only flaw to my feminist eye was that their coach was a guy. But I didn’t let that stop me. Their main rivals in the 00’s were the Tennessee Volunteers, and I loved Tennessee as well. They were even coached by a woman, too, so you might think I would love them best. But for whatever reason, maybe partly my best friend, maybe partly the fact that the UConn coach always seemed to be happy while the Tennessee coach always seemed grumpy, or maybe just because it was UConn that was winning when I first tuned in to women’s college basketball and I love to see women accomplish spectacular things, my heart went to UConn.
Lately, however, UConn hasn’t been winning championships at their old pace. And yet, they’ve never been less than an elite team. Every single tournament for the past 13 years (which is only 12 tournaments since the 2020 tournament was a coronavirus casualty), UConn has advanced to the final four. Although they haven’t won the championship in several years, being one of the top 4 teams in the country is an accomplishment on its own, and being top 4 year after year certainly qualifies as “elite”.
It’s time once again for women’s college basketball to assemble its final four. Eight teams play in 4 games yesterday and today to decide those spots. The team actually favored to win the entire tournament, did not have the best record in the country because of playing in a particularly tough conference as well as playing the early part of the season without their star player who was – get this – literally paralyzed in late October and had to learn how to walk again over a period of weeks before she could even resume strength training and basketball practice in December. Due to a fluke in seeding, they were placed as a #2 seed in UConn’s region – meaning that 2 of the top 3 favored teams could not possibly both advance to the final four. Assuming both survived, they would have to play in the round of 8.
Well, play in the round of 8 Baylor and UConn did. UConn took an early 10 point lead, which Baylor swallowed up before half. In the 3rd quarter Baylor took a 10 point lead, at which point UConn stormed out to a 19-0 run over the end of the 3rd quarter and the first few minutes of the 4th. But that lead wouldn’t last, and with seconds left on the clock Baylor was done just one point and shooting for the win. The shot missed, UConn grabbed the rebound with about a second left and was fouled with 0.8 seconds on the clock. The UConn player was given two free throws, making one and missing one to put UConn up 2 points. A long distance shot would give Baylor 3 points and the win. A closer shot would send the game to overtime, but there was no time for strategy. The clock would start when an inbound player touched the ball and so there was only time to throw a long pass then hope the Baylor player who caught it could get off a shot in less than a second.
It was to no avail, however. UConn’s star player intercepted the ball. Falling backwards and not wanting to travel (turning the ball over with some unknown amount of time left) and give Baylor one more chance for a wild shot, she smartly threw the ball up into the air. By the time it could come down, time had expired.
I like watching people accomplish incredible things, and this, for me, was one of them: UConn has now advanced to 13 Final Four tournaments in a row. I have no idea if they’ll win the championship. At the moment their opponent in the semi-final is the University of Arizona, considered a very good team but not on the same level as Baylor, Stanford or UConn. So their chances of advancing to the championship are good, but nowhere near guaranteed. In the Championship game they could still face any one of 4 teams since the other side of the Final Four bracket is determined by two games played later today. But the #1 seeds in each of the two regions yet to determine their Final Four representative are both still alive and both Stanford and South Carolina have the firepower and defense to defeat UConn should they make it to the championship game. And any team that beats Stanford or South Carolina has to be considered dangerous in the extreme, even if that team had not been as accomplished in the regular season.
But whether they win or lose, this streak of 13 Final Fours is an accomplishment by women athletes that we should be celebrating. The feminist in me thinks that if a team on the men’s side had accomplished the same feat it would be much more in the news. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe I just don’t know where to look for news coverage of UConn’s accomplishment since I don’t follow sportsball news.
But was reading Megan Rapinoe discuss trans participation in sport the other day, and she said this:
Sports have become another avenue to attack the rights of trans people. These efforts cause incredible harm to trans youth, who, like all kids in a global pandemic, are feeling isolated and need compassion and support. …
As a woman who has played sports my whole life, I know that the threats to women’s and girls’ sports are lack of funding, resources and media coverage; sexual harassment; and unequal pay,
I can’t fund women’s sports on my own. I can’t guarantee equal pay. I can’t prevent all sexual harassment.
But challenge accepted, Megan Rapinoe: I can provide my own tiny versions of these things. I can buy (and have bought) tickets to watch professional athletes perform. I can fight (and have fought) rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. I can speak up when discussions of gender disparities in athletes’ pay is in the news.
And I can get you suckers to read a short essay about how a few dozen women have brought me joy by accomplishing amazing things over the last 2 decades.
This is my version of media coverage of women in sport: Women’s athletics are a joy to watch, and women’s bodies accomplish amazing things.
Go Megan Rapinoe. Go Martina Navratilova. Go Kate Pace. Go UConn. You do the incredible, and I will bear witness.