My love affair with basketball began when I was 10 years old and started playing on my elementary school team. Of course, that was a couple of years before Title IX, and so our coaches were well-meaning but untrained moms, and we played half-court ball, since a lot of people believed girls couldn't and shouldn't run up and down the entire court.
Fast forward 45 years. My beloved Oregon State Beavers are headed to the NCAA tournament as a number two seed. They ended the regular season ranked sixth in the country, the highest ranking ever for our team. As I watch them play, I see what's been so great about the impact of the Women's Movement, and I see the work we still have to do to achieve true equity between women and men -- and not just in basketball.
In the mid-1970s my best friend played basketball for the University of South Carolina (today one of the number one seeds in the tournament) for one season before she blew out her knee. She's 5'10". She was a tall player back then. Today, our point guard is 6'1".
Because of Title IX, girls now start playing basketball with real coaches. They have trainers. They go to basketball camps. They grow strong and fast in ways we could not have imagined in the 1970s. In fact, Bernice Sandler, one of the driving forces behind Title IX, once told me that those early feminists had no idea the impact Title IX would have on women's sports. We just hoped for a few more games at field day, she told me.
The advances on the court have been paralleled by advances in the classroom. Our 6'6" center who holds the Pac 12 career record for blocks is a rocket scientist (seriously) with a stellar grade point average.
Fans are wild about this team. We are Beaver Believers. We cheer them on with such passion that I truly believe that in a couple of close games the home crowd willed them to the win. Community members, students, women and men, girls and boys come to these games. I took my nine-year-old goddaughter to a game a few weeks ago, and I was thrilled to see her watching women being strong and competitive and hearing a crowd cheer for women. So many Beavers fans made the trek north that when we played in the Pac 12 tournament in Seattle, organizers announced that this year's tournament had set an attendance record. Meanwhile, the University of South Carolina has led the way nationally with an average attendance of around 15,000 fans at each game.
One could almost think the dream of equality has been reached. Almost. The distance we still have to go, however, shows up now and again in subtle ways in what we value and how we behave.
I'm grateful that all of our sports teams are Beavers. We have no "Lady" Beavs. I was always a little puzzled at a previous institution where our women's basketball team was the "Lady Lancers." While most college teams have gotten rid of the "Lady" designation, high schools have "Lady Knights," "Lady Rebels," "Lady Warriors," and even "Lady Friars." Not long ago, the University of Tennessee rebranded all of its teams as simply "Volunteers," except for the women's basketball team which remains the "Lady Vols" in honor of what Pat Summit did there (and I believe Pat Summit did more to advance women's basketball nationally than anyone). Still, 2016, and women athletes are "Ladies."
This season and last, OSU led the Pac 12 conference in attendance for women's basketball. We usually have between 4,000-5,000 fans at home games. I believe our best attended game this year was around 7,000. But no matter how good our women's team has been the past two years, attendance at our men's games is better (and I love our men's basketball team too -- nothing against them), even though they have not had the successes the women have.
People often suggest the men's game is just more exciting. But women's basketball and men's basketball are really two different games, and we should ask why we define dunking as more exciting than actually shooting the ball. In other words, we've made the facet of the game that most women can't do the defining skill that makes the game exciting. But for those of us who love women's basketball, we know just how exciting pinpoint accuracy in shooting the three can be.
We also know the thrill of watching a group play as a team. This year very few of our players were recognized for individual achievements; we had very, very few Pac 12 players of the week. We won as a team.
Media coverage of women's and men's basketball is different too. From our local paper and local TV stations to The New York Times, I've noticed the greater coverage given to men's basketball. An article this week in our local paper highlighted the dilemma for OSU students who can't travel to the men's first round NCAA game in Oklahoma because this is finals week here. The article ended by saying that students could go to the women's game on Friday because it's in Corvallis. I guess the women's game is the consolation prize.
Second class status continues into professional women's basketball as well. No matter what UConn's Breanna Stewart has accomplished as one of the greatest players ever, she'll never make as much money as the top players in the men's game. Her team will never draw the same crowds, and she'll have to play in the summer because that's the WNBA season.
Nonetheless, Friday afternoon when the Beavers take the court I'll be there in my orange and black, cheering proudly, yelling at the officials, and clapping along with the fight song. I'll think about how far we've come and how far we still have to go. I'll fume that we didn't sell out the coliseum, and I'll form the letters with my arms as we chant, "Ohhhhhh -- Essssss -- Uuuuuuu! Oregon State, fight, fight, fight!" And I'll spend March Madness marveling at powerful, capable women, the fruit of Title IX and the challenge for a more equitable future.