Women’s sports shouldn’t have to fight for attention
The death of Pat Summitt last week at 64 took someone who had every right to leave coaching on her own terms and spend decades reveling in the glory of her eight national titles and scores of women she taught and mentored. A contemporary of Geno Auriemma’s — and a rival nonpareil of his, too — won’t live to see the conclusion of Auriemma’s career.
That element of the mourning was present in the reflections of those who knew her well: her family, her former players, those whom she befriended in the coaching world and virtually everyone who knew her.
But the sadness could be found in the writing of many who didn’t know Summitt who were astounded by the stories they heard about her in the final hours of her life and just after it ended, those of a woman who went into labor on a recruiting trip, who responded to an offer from University of Tennessee to coach the men’s team by saying, “Why is that considered a step up?”
And so when considering the legacy of Summitt, what she meant and how to honor it, the question of precisely what path to take is as simple as you’d imagine it to be.
Pretending that Summitt is some kind of singular figure in the history of women’s sports, someone whose intensity is some kind of outlier, whose frankness will never be repeated, allows for the same cycle to repeat.
There are too many women in the world of sports who shouldn’t be ignored for that. Just as Summitt was, they are under-covered by the media. They are plying their trade while their stories are getting told by few and seen on television less and therefore leading to smaller crowds to see them.
The common refrain for why the standard is higher for a women’s sports story to be told is that there’s a bigger audience for men’s sports. Never mind that when a women’s sporting event is properly marketed, like the World Cup final against Japan in 2015, more watched it than any soccer game, men’s or women’s, in U.S. history. Never mind that it is media coverage that dictates attention, free media women’s sports simply cannot buy in the same kind of bulk as men’s leagues, more established and with deeper pockets, can afford.
Each wave of extra attention provides more of that revenue to men’s sports and starves women’s sports of it, making the rich richer. And even when women’s sports manages to overcome such a lack of attention, the double standard persists.
I have many apps on my phone to check scores and stories in the world of sports. Even if we work with the problematic assumption that audience dictates coverage, which abdicates entirely both media’s role in determining what is newsworthy and relies on past preferences to dictate future decisions ad infinitum, still, some numbers are inarguable.
Tennessee, which built a wom- en’s basketball program that earned the respect of the world, is covered like the major story it is by the local media and has continued to draw more than 10,000 fans per game. That occurred even last year, during a very disappointing season, several years after Summitt relinquished the reins..
Meanwhile, Southern Illinois drew an average of 5,277 fans to their men’s games. I’m choosing Southern Illinois, but there are many such examples of teams in the men’s game who draw a fraction of the Tennessee audience. Southern Illinois was 100th in the country in men’s attendance this season.
Yet on every one of my apps, I am able to get Southern Illinois scores and stats, even alerts on scores and important news.
Not one of the apps offers the same options for Tennessee women’s basketball. Or Connecticut, which went out and won its fourth national championship in four years while dominating like few other sports teams ever have. Or South Carolina women, who drew more than 14,000 fans per game this past season.
So it’s not about success. It’s not about audience. Theoretically, it should be just as important, storywise, to cover collegiate sports for women as it is for men.
So then there’s that Pat Summitt question again: “Why is that considered a step up?”
I would urge everyone in the sports media to ask that question when evaluating which stories to cover or give the most attention. If you always put the men’s scores first in a roundup, ask yourself why. If you can write about an epic story in women’s basketball or the seventh man on the men’s team, exactly what is keeping you from that women’s story?
Consider what Tamika Catchings, a Summitt disciple who is on a legacy tour she’s now named after Summitt during her final WNBA season, had to say about her former coach.
“Everything I do now, I learned from Pat,” Catchings said in a conference call last week. “I think the thing for me is to have integrity in everything that I do, but also to finish strong.”
Those who missed Summitt can go watch the physical embodiment of Summitt’s ethos whenever the Indiana Fever come to town. I watched Catchings lift her Fever teammates, almost mystically, to a victory against the New York Liberty in a deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals, a game no one thought the Fever had any business winning.
Those who want to spend time with a groundbreaking women’s coach whose sharp wit and tactical genius lead to championships need to go no further than Minneapolis, where Cheryl Reeve’s Minnesota Lynx have won three championships in five years. Reeve will give you as much time as you need and fill your notebook with pithy, insightful quotes. Some day, those who knew and covered her will be saying the things about her that they’re saying about Summitt right now.
These are two of so, so many. The remarkable thing about Summitt isn’t that she was unlike any other, though to a degree she was. Instead, she’s one of the first who bounded through the door opened by Title IX and got the chance, more than those who came before her, to show just what women can do in sports if they make their life’s work about helping women.
When she was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, she said: “I think God’s plan for Pat was somehow I needed to make a difference for young women, and my avenue — and hopefully it was the right avenue — was through the game of basketball.”
The beauty of covering women’s sports is that it gives everyone the opportunity to honor Summitt’s legacy and to address massive inequalities that exist in our media for no good reason.
It also gives you the rare ability to experience the Pat Summitts who are pushing the world forward right now.
Pat Summitt’s legacy includes 1,098 wins and eight national titles at the University of Tennessee.