Monday, May 20, 2024

No more free throws, ladies: Women’s sports have truly arrived — now the ‘yas queen’ days need to stop

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Women’s college hoops have fully arrived on the big stage and some are surprised it’s not a soft focus, Dove soap ad.

Cries of sexism and then a chronic need to racialize the sport have created an ugly sideshow of identity politics.

This week, an LA Times piece caused an uproar when the writer used the phrase “dirty debutantes” to describe the LSU women’s team ahead of playing UCLA.

The writer, Ben Bolch, wrote, “Do you prefer America’s sweethearts or its dirty debutantes. Milk and cookies or Louisiana hot sauce.”

If you phrase it like that, LSU all the way. UCLA sounds like a snooze.

Bolch issued an apology saying he “tried to be clever” using alliteration and that he had no idea of any bad connotation, which apparently is of the porn variety. I had no idea either, but I also saw people take issue with the whole “good versus evil” narrative.

LSU coach Kim Mulkey, who was recently the subject of a Washington Post profile, was probably happy to have another piece of media as a distraction. She said it was sexist. LSU guard Hailey Van Lith called it racist.

I read Bolch’s intent as treating this matchup like a cinematic blockbuster. Not some 99 cent DVD lingering in a Walgreen’s bin, the way women’s hoops had been treated before.

LSU women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey on the sidelines.

Colorful LSU coach Kim Mulkey called out UCLA writer’s piece for sexism. Getty Images

LSU guard Hailey Van Lith

LSU guard Hailey Van Lith took issue with the LA Times piece, calling it racist. AP

Sure, Bolch might have whiffed on the alliteration.

But underneath the outcry is a certain segment of the world of women’s sports that believes female athletes should only be presented as Cleopatras on a golden chaise: yas queen journalism.

Any sharp takes go into the “ism” bucket, conflated with bigotry.

An apology form Ben Bolch.

LA Times writer Ben Bolch issued an apology for his piece previewing the LSU -UCLA matchup. It was blasted as sexist and racist. @latbbolch/Twitter

Good versus evil, villains, heroes, and heels are familiar tropes in men’s sports.

There was a “Catholics versus convicts” Notre Dame-Miami matchup back in 1988. Or look at Duke, constantly portrayed as the dark force in college hoops. They made a whole “30 for 30” called “I Hate Christian Laettner.”

Maybe —just maybe — those sharp takes are just treating women like their male counterparts, who know that there’s a dark underbelly to this visibility. Tom Brady, LeBron James, the list goes on — they’re no stranger to ad hominem attacks as much as valid criticism.

Sports journalist and personality Jemele Hill.

Writer Jemele Hill has complained that Caitlin Clark has gotten so much coverage because she’s white. Getty Images

The spotlight women’s sports are in now is thrilling but it inherently brings more heat, more drama, more hate. And yes, more love and after NIL, more cashola. But nothing is free.

More visibility and a bigger stage means no more kid gloves because that’s equality too.

Female athletes, like their male peers, shouldn’t be abused or targeted. But they also don’t need to be coddled.

Mulkey’s profile in the Washington Post (which she attacked before it was even published) was blasted by USA Today’s Nancy Armour, who argued that a male coach would never have faced such a level of personal scrutiny.

An enduring presence in the game, Mulkey parades around the sideline dressing and acting like a “Righteous Gemstone” villain.

Iowa star Caitlin Clark shoots against LSU's Angel Reese.

Iowa star Caitlin Clark has become the face of the face of women’s hoops. Getty Images

She’s a lightning rod who brings eyeballs, excitement, and controversy to the sport. Bobby Knight in sequins. There was nothing out of bounds about creating a fuller portrait of a complicated figure.

But while crying racism and sexism on one side, there’s a chronic habit of racializing the sport to an obsessive degree.

Three weeks ago, USA Today’s Lindsay Schnell, who happens to be white, penned a column saying the faces of the game must be black.

She wrote this regressive demand: “In a game built by Black women, it matters that the faces of the future look like the faces of the past.”

Kim Mulkey coachign in a green suit

Kim Mulkey was the subject of a Washington Post profile that she blasted before it was published. Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

By that metric, women cannot cover sports because the faces in the press box of the past were male, so please hand your press pass to Bob, over there. Thanks.

Then Jemele Hill complained that Caitlin Clark, a generational talent, is getting so much coverage because she’s white.

In a recent Atlantic piece, Hill argued that Clark fans are missing something: “A wider conversation about how many Black women athletes have been marginalized in this sport, despite their invaluable contributions.”

Kim Mulkey hugs Angel Reese on the sideline.

LSU coach Kim Mulkey hugs Angel Reese, who is one of the sport’s breakout stars. AP

Caitlin Clark is transcendent. She’s packing houses, drawing an eye-popping amount of TV viewers and she dropped 41 points last night.

We don’t need to strip these women of their personalities, grit, and edge only to reduce them solely to their immutable characteristics.

Women’s hoops is at an exciting point and a crossroads. But we have to decide how the sport and the athletes will be treated: as gladiators on the court giving us an unforgettable show or meek females in need of bubble wrap.

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