The NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament: The Sport's Better Half
To follow women's basketball at this time of year feels like driving against one-way traffic. But it's worth it. While the largest audiences and coin are commanded by the men's NCAA bracket, don't forget to pay attention to that other postseason tournament, because it's the one in which the athletic scholarship still means something. In fact, you might have a better time. You get to watch the same sorts of heart-robbing upsets and marvel at the fact that athletes have learned to fly, without wondering whether the contenders will be in school next semester.
The players aren't jaded, they don't view college as a temporary obstacle to getting rich in the pros and they're as reliant on execution as they are on talent. Which is why my own father now prefers the women's game to the men's. Having written for Sports Illustrated for almost 25 years, he's a fairly discerning observer, so his conversion is meaningful. We're such junkies that last week our family went to the Southeastern Conference tournament -- where we got to see four terrific games in a single day for just $17, and park right next to the arena -- and then we came home, sat side-by-side in front of the TV and howled as we watched Western Carolina, coached by former Tennessee point guard Kellie Harper, qualify for the NCAA tournament by surviving three overtimes against College of Charleston. At the end of this exhausting weekend, I asked my father, "Why do you like the women's game so much?"
"Because 90 percent of the players are actual students, and they play like humans," he said. "Their individual stars are true standouts. They don't have five players on the court all flying through the air and hanging from the ceiling, shouting, 'Give me the ball!' They're full of surprises. They're not spoiled yet. You can get good seats. Must I go on?"
They don't act like they're doing their universities a favor by playing ball. In fact, some of them feel they owe something in return. That's the case with Oklahoma center Courtney Paris, who has promised to pay back her $64,000 scholarship if she doesn't deliver a national championship for the Sooners. It's not the wisest thing a player has ever said, but it's one of the more interesting. Paris knows what the scholarship costs, because all 15 spots on the team are endowed. The idea for the endowment, pushed for by Coach Sherri Coale, a former high school English teacher, was that each player should understand that scholarships are actually gifts.
"If we play hard and we execute, we are a great team that can win a national championship," Paris said, explaining why she said what she did. "If we don't do that, it won't be because we're not good enough. So when you're good enough and don't do something, then you have to take accountability for that and that's your own fault. We can win a national championship. If we don't, I'll feel like I didn't earn my scholarship."
Incidentally, Paris and her twin sister and teammate Ashley sport grade-point averages of at least 3.0. In fact, the Sooners' cumulative GPA has been 3.0 or better for 22 of 24 semesters under Coale. And it's not like Oklahoma is an aberration. Fourteen of the teams in the women's tournament have perfect graduation rates of 100 percent, including the prohibitive favorite, Connecticut, and two-time defending champion Tennessee. What's more, all but two teams in the field graduate at least 60 percent. Meanwhile, less than half of the teams on the men's side have 60 percent graduation rates.
Part of the charm of the women's game also lies in its difficult history. Coaches and players have an underlying appreciation for the fact that the sport was built in the face of social disapproval and audience apathy. In March 1990, Oklahoma briefly suspended its women's program because of low turnout: Average attendance at home games was 65.
It was 1971 before women were allowed to play full court in college, despite the fact that college women took up basketball just a year after James Naismith introduced it to men in 1891. Apparently, the fear was they would get the torpors, or the vapors, and have to be revived with salts. It was a Smith girl, Senda Berenson, who found a way to make the women's game acceptable to Victorians: she divided the court into three sections, with players required to stay in assigned areas. Snatching at the ball was forbidden, as was holding it for more than three seconds or dribbling it more than three times. In this way, a young lady would be prevented from developing "dangerous nervous tendencies and losing the grace and dignity and self-respect we would all have her foster."
One of the earliest dilemmas in women's basketball was the problem of what to wear. It was the era of corsets, and the only body parts permitted to show were necks, heads and fingers. Hence, the first players wore floor-length dresses, which led to several injuries as a result of tripping over hems, and games ended with hairpins and handkerchiefs scattered all over the floor. It was a great day in the infancy of the game when Clara Gregory Baer introduced bloomers in 1896 at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans.
But other advances were more halting. The two-handed free throw was declared illegal at Sophie Newcomb for fear it would cause women to forwardly incline their shoulders, "with a consequent flattening of the chest." Social arbiters protested that basketball was ruining the comportment of young ladies by causing them to shriek with excitement, chew gum, lie on the floor, use slang and, worst of all, call each other "by their last names." A reporter for the Los Angeles Times who witnessed an early women's game wrote, "There was something disquieting in the grim and murderous determinations with which the young ladies chased each other all over the court."
It's with this woeful and hilarious past in mind that devotees of the women's game will watch the 2009 tournament and relish its various story lines. Will that shrieking, slangy gum-chewer Courtney Paris make good on her vow -- and also satisfy the ambitions of her voluble father, 6-foot-6 Bubba Paris, possessor of three Super Bowl rings he won with the San Francisco 49ers? Can Sooners forward Carlee Roethlisberger get a championship ring in the same year as her brother, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger?
Can U-Conn. and its magnificent star Maya Moore, who plays the game like a gladiator, complete an undefeated season? Can Tennessee, a green, stalky team, reach the Sweet 16 as its seven freshmen have guaranteed, or will the Lady Vols fall short for the first time in Pat Summitt's 35-year career? How far can 31-2 South Dakota State get in its first NCAA Division I postseason appearance?
Their play won't be quite as gasp-inducing or airborne as the men's and their ticket prices will be a little cheaper. But there's a deep satisfaction that comes from watching a more innocent game.