As any women's sports fan knows, the past 24 hours have been unusual for the amount of attention that has been paid to a group of female athletes outside the Olympics. The big news: UConn's 71st consecutive victory -- an NCAA record.
The news, unlike most events in women's sports, made at least a mention on many sports pages, Web sites and blogs.
It's also spurred a lot of hand-wringing about: a.) the state of women's basketball; and b.) the state of coverage of women's basketball.
The first concern -- that somehow, UConn's dominance is a sign that women's basketball is plagued by untalented, inferior players -- isn't surprising. But the fact that this storyline was prominent on a site (Deadspin) with little regard (putting it mildly) for women's sports ought to tell us that it should be scrutinized. As a women's sports advocate, I grimace when I see mainstream journalists contextualize the story in the same way.
I saw Christine Brennan raise the concern on News Hour (and follow up with a column). "I'm a little worried about women's basketball, when you have got this kind of dominance," she said.
Brennan, who's covered women's sports for decades, did add important context to her concern: This is a “time of the most balance in women's sports…. to think that you have got this kind of dominating team at this time in women's sports history, it's extraordinary,” she said.
Others in the mainstream press in well-read blogs, though, were less nuanced in their assessment -- and I had to wonder whether their concern was really with the welfare of women's sports. For instance, one wrote, “Auriemma's top-ranked juggernaut is making a mockery of the alleged depth of women's hoops.”
UConn isn't the first team (or the last) to experience a period of tremendous dominance in its sport. These periods are finite. There are great players sprinkled among many D1 teams in the field.
And: Sometimes this kind of record-making draws attention from people who otherwise might not have paid attention. In other words, it can attract fans.
The hand-wringing about coverage of women's sports is justified by the fact that paltry and demeaning coverage has always been the norm. UConn's short burst of fame -- although not accompanied by much "buzz" in coverage, as one writer pointed out -- has been unusual. But even this phenomenal accomplishment has been buried underneath stories dissecting every move by men's "bubble teams."
Judy Woodruff asked Brennan about the "ongoing struggle" of female athletes to gain media attention.
Brennan responded: "It just hasn't equated to great television ratings day in and day out for women's sports. Maybe it never will."
Brennan, Bob Costas and others have suggested that perhaps participation – not spectatorship -- will have to be the gauge by which the success of women’s sports is measured. I understand their assessment -- every step has been a struggle.
I’d like to think, though, we’ve cleared that bar -- or that we're very close. I would also argue that spectatorship drives participation – thus, we’ve got to keep advocating for better coverage of women’s sports, even when records aren’t being broken.
-- Marie Hardin
(Note: I edited this blog post after it was (rightly) pointed out to me that I had failed to contextualize Brennan’s comments on NewsHour. The focus of this post was on storylines around UConn that trouble me, not about Brennan's comments in particular. I've edited this post in an attempt to better reflect that intent.)