It's High Time For a Fair Shot

This Op-ed appeared in the March 7, 1999, edition of the New York Times.

The NBA's second chance has begun. Not the second chance for the Bulls, the Pacers, and the like with their truncated season and nail-biting anxiety over fan loyalty. The moment has arrived for the NBA to take a second-look and pump up its less indulged offspring. For the NBA, an unprecedented opportunity now exists to use its power and money to give women's basketball the visibility and respect it has always deserved.

As the owner of the Women's National Basketball Association, the NBA controls the only game in town. With last December's demise of the American Basketball League, the number of fledgling women's professional teams has been cut in half, down to the 12 remaining teams in the WNBA. Fans of the three-year-old ABL with its longer season will have their loyalty tested. Should they turn their support to the rival WNBA or should they wait and see how the Connecticut Attorney General's inquiry turns out?

Less than a month after the ABL went bankrupt, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal issued the NBA a subpoena seeking evidence that the NBA conspired to force the collapse of the ABL. "There's evidence that the NBA used sharp economic elbows to exclude the ABL, a well-positioned competitor, from fair play--including access to essential financial rights like TV and product sponsorship," Blumenthal stated.

The NBA delivered the required documents to Blumenthal last Friday. Blumenthal is looking for any material that would indicate the NBA unfairly pressured advertisers, sponsors, and TV networks to sign with the WNBA. California has joined the investigation, and other states have expressed interest as well. "It's not against the law to be big, powerful, and successful," Blumenthal said. "It is against the law to use that domination to block access to competition."

While some people suspect the NBA squeezed out the ABL in order to create a monopoly on women's basketball, few believe a smoking gun will be found. Historians of women's sports say they've seen it all before.

What's familiar is the takeover by men of women's sports. A similar move occurred in the early 1980s when the NCAA swallowed up the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. Once the NCAA assumed control, women were virtually locked out of administrative positions on NCAA governing boards and lost substantial power in shaping policy, choosing personnel, and determining the direction of women's collegiate athletics. For women of the AIAW who had worked diligently to secure a future that would not include the problems that tarnished men's sports--recruiting abuses, creation of stars first and teams second, and academic shortcomings, to name a few--the takeover had devastating consequences.

Nowhere were the problems more obvious than in coaching statistics. Before NCAA governance, women coaches lead 90% of all women's teams. When the NCAA took over, critics claim it used its men's club influence to tap collegiate athletic directors who in turn hired men coaches. As a result, the number of women in coaching positions nosedived to 47%.

Many women's sports advocates fear women coaches and sports administrators are already being locked out of the WNBA. Instead of women with long and successful records of collegiate experience, former NBA coaches have been selected--men often with little insight or commitment to women's sports who view working in the women's league as a tolerable transition between "real coaching" and retirement.

Although the WNBA would rightly point out that only 25 percent of its current coaches are former NBA coaches, one can only imagine the reaction if 25 percent of NBA coaches were women with no experience coaching men's teams. Providing women athletes with less than first-rate resources--coaches with direct experience in the women's game-- is reminiscent of the days before Title IX when the girls' intramural squad played in the antiquated backup gym in 10-year old uniforms with equipment the boys didn't want.

Of course, salary is another factor that works against the hiring of top female coaches. Few outstanding female college coaches would even think of currently coaching in the WNBA. They wouldn't make as much money. Nor would they want to trade their full-length season for the brief WNBA summer one.

Not only do coaches have a right to fair salaries, so also do athletes. And they deserve to play a longer season during traditional basketball months. The ABL crowds at New England Blizzard games in Hartford strongly indicated that fans would support winter games. To be satisfied with only a short summer season that might be incrementally expanded tells women to be grateful for what they have and sit patiently waiting for the "right time" for equality.

In an ideal world, perhaps a women's professional league not controlled by men could make it. But history tells us the chances of that happening are slim. Men's and women's collegiate teams at Tennessee and Connecticut have certainly begun to find a way to share the court. Now it's time the NBA move from allowing women in the door to giving them an unblocked shot at success.

Sports are not just fun and games. Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King knew that. Our world is a better place because they--and others who supported their struggle for civil rights--were not eternally patient and demanded more from the sports they loved.

It's time for fans of professional women's basketball to be impatient. Actively so. While we wait and see what becomes of the Connecticut Attorney General's anti-trust inquiry, we can demand that the NBA step up its commitment to women. We can go to games, call for competitive salaries, health-care benefits, and retirement plans that attract top college coaches and athletes. We can petition television networks to carry games in prime time, and even urge the NBA to shorten its normally outstretched season so that women can share the winter.

"I welcome everyone's impatience," the WNBA's president, Val Ackerman said. "It's flattering."

Now many be one time that flattery actually gets women somewhere.