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Why White (and other) Women Can't Jump

From the Spring 2002 issue of the Women's Quarterly: The WNBA makes a great feminist propaganda tool.

12:00 AM, May 10, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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THE WOMEN'S NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION (WNBA) kicks off its sixth season this month, and the sports-positive feminism machine is already cranked up. Since its debut in 1997, the league has endlessly trumpeted its slogan--"We got game"--and relentlessly pushed the idea that the women of the WNBA are just as good as the guys in the NBA. Which is bunk.

They turn the ball over, they don't dribble or pass well, and they can't shoot. Not to put too fine a point on it: Whoever wins the WNBA championship this year would get blown out by most of the country's top high-school boys' basketball teams and every Division I men's basketball team.

Which, of course, isn't their fault. There are physical differences between men and women that are fairly undeniable. Men are taller, weigh more, and are stronger and faster than women. And this includes even women at the peak of physical condition.

Take the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Marion Jones went into the games as the most ballyhooed female sprinter in history, and she made good on her promise, winning gold in both the 100 and 200 meter events. But how do Jones' times stack up against high school boys from, say, New Jersey?

In the 100 meters at last year's state championship meet, Jones would have finished fourth. (At the Olympics Jones won in 10.75 seconds; the boy who was state champ in New Jersey last year ran a 10.30. In the sprint world, a 0.45 second difference is like winning by three touchdowns.) She would have fared no better in the 200 meters: Her Olympic time would also have put her fourth in the state at that distance.

Mind you, nothing against Marion Jones. She's a hard worker and a great athlete. But all through the Olympics she was labeled "one of the fastest human beings on the planet" by Nike and the gender-equality sportscasters at NBC.

The hyping of both Jones and the WNBA is an ugly bit of feminist proselytizing that grew out of the gender equality movement championed by Colette Dowling and Nike's discovery of the women's sneaker market in the early nineties. Given the chance, the mantra goes, women are just as good at men's sports as the guys are. In a Gatorade ad typical of the ethos, Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm go head-to-head in a montage of different sports (including judo) and come out--tied!

The idea behind this girl-power schtick is that the spectator is supposed to watch sports and not notice the differences between men and women athletes.

And if you do notice, you're a sexist pig. But this notion insults male athletes and patronizes the women it's trying to flatter. Even worse, it fails to recognize that some sports are better suited--from an aesthetic point of view--to men. And some are better suited to women.

Most sports are defined by a unique physical parameter. In baseball, for example, it's the ninety feet between bases. In basketball, it's the ten-foot rim. Within these confines, people play different species of a sport. A bunch of 5'10" men--or women--don't play a lower quality of basketball than the men in the NBA, they play an entirely different game. And if we were honest about the WNBA, we'd admit that it's an inferior game.

But there are lots of sports which have evolved to the point where the women's game is actually better--which is to say more pleasing to watch--than the men's version. Take tennis. The men's game today is so dominated by power that it's often boring and doesn't allow much actual shot-making. But because the women aren't quite as strong and don't hit the ball as hard, they play tennis in a very pure form. While they couldn't beat the men head-to-head, women play tennis the way it was meant to be played.

The same can be said for a host of other sports. In both soccer and hockey, men are now so fast and strong that the bounds of play aren't big enough to give them room to work. Women, on the other hand, are just the right size and strength to have dynamic, beautiful games.

Gymnastics have always taken a vive la difference attitude. That's why men compete on the rings and pommel horse and the women compete on the balance beam and uneven bars. It's not that women couldn't perform on the rings or men couldn't handle the beam--it's just that they wouldn't do it the right way.

None of which is to discourage Jones from running or the ladies of the WNBA from hooping it up; they should play the sports which make them happy. I just wish they would leave the sloganeering out of it.

Jonathan V. Last is the online editor of the Weekly Standard. This article first appeared in the Women's Quarterly.