Revisiting Dunking in Women’s Basketball

basketball._whiteMarch Madness 2013 is now in full swing. As we approach our brackets, be aware of how women’s basketball and female athletes are covered and discussed in the media, compared to men’s basketball and male athletes. If you haven’t read Kate Fagan’s piece on espnW titled “What Brittney Griner says about us?”…you should. Fagan outlines why some people negatively react to Griner and why it matters. After I read her piece, I thought it may be worth sharing here an OpEd I wrote that was published in the Boston Herald in 2006, a few days before the Women’s Final Four began in Beantown.

After you read the OpEd, I’d like to know if you think the argument has changed? If you insert ‘Griner’ for “Parker’ would it still ring true?  I contend it has, and in fact the negative comments and critique of Griner has been far more egregious than what Candace Parker endured. This is precisely what Fagan discusses…and it is important to bring attention to the fact female athletes still face discrimination, marginalization and other barriers than preclude them from being seen as equally athletic to their male counterparts.

To dunk or not to dunk in women’s collegiate basketball? (originally published in the Boston Herald, April 1, 2006)

Candace Parker is changing girls’ and women’s basketball. In 2004 Parker won the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest over the best boys in the country. Last week, 6’4” Parker made history by completing two dunks in a first-round NCAA Tournament game. While many applaud past and current dunks as advancing the sport and female athletic potential, others are quick to criticize Parker’s dunks as the demise of the women’s game citing various reasons such as; (1) The dunk is seen as undermining the quality of the men’s game. Thus, dunks are an unworthy pursuit for women; (2) Focusing on the dunk takes away from the array of women’s basketball skills (dribbling, passing, shooting); (3) No one wants to see women dunking, that is — acting like men.

What is missing from the conversation is how women’s dunks, and the commentary around them, simultaneously positively promote, change, and oppress women’s basketball. 

A double standard exists for dunking women. On one hand, if a woman dunks, she may be criticized for showboating, and for trying to be “like a man.” Similarly, her dunk is dismissed and compared to men’s dunks as “not a real dunk,”  “less than,” or lacking proper elevation above the rim.  On the other hand, the lack of female dunking in games is often used as a reason why some people lack interest in the women’s game and as evidence the women’s game is a “lesser” version of basketball. Dunking women are damned if they dunk, and dunked if they do.

The frequency and magnitude of the media’s coverage in recognizing Parker’s achievement can create change in and of itself. The public rarely gets to see or hear about women’s exhibition of skills that are considered male — especially in a sport that is as highly valued and close to the cultural center of male sport — such as basketball. Underlying the hype around Parker’s dunks, however, is an unspoken fear. The dunk has long provided irrefutable, natural (i.e. biological) evidence of male sport superiority. Dunking females threaten male sport superiority by challenging the separation of “men’s sports” and “women’s sports.” Dunking females provide evidence of a continuum of sports performance, where many women routinely outperform many men (e.g., many 6’4” male basketball players have never dunked in a game) and possess strength, ability and speed in equal and greater capacities than men. The dunk confirms female athleticism and potential when equal access, opportunity, and quality training and coaching are provided for girls.

Dunking is a worthy pursuit for girls and women. Dunking is not a proven gateway of demise for basketball.  Even if one believes it has contributed to a decrease in the quality of the men’s game, a similar fate in the women’s game is not a given. Dunking adds to the skill array of women’s basketball. People do want to see women dunk. Dribbling skillfully through defenders does not make ESPN SportsCenter’s “Top Plays of the Week.” Unquestionably, women’s dunks provide increased exposure and coverage of women’s basketball. The dunk is constantly promoted by the media as the dynamic standard of performance and skill, which communicates its societal importance and value in basketball. Why should the standard be different for women? Because discouraging women from the pursuit of dunking under the paternal guise of what is best for the women’s game, will keep women’s basketball subordinate to men’s basketball.

The dunk at its worst can be used as a means to maintain women’s sports as “less than,” thereby reinforcing notions of a gender binary of “women’s sports” and “men’s sports,”  while also perpetuating traditional stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. The dunk at its best can be a change mechanism for people’s perceptions about, and interest in, women’s basketball, and girls’ and women’s sport in general. To that end, girls and women go forth– be strong, fast and powerful and dunk, dunk, dunk!

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