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State of the Game: Of course the girls have a basketball team -- didn't they always?

Article from Clay Kallam, Publisher
Full Court Press, the Women's Basketball Journal

I can remember, back in 1973, going to cover my first girls' high school basketball game.

It was, of course, an abysmal affair, played by willing girls with no experience and no skills, and coached by p.e. teachers who seemed to have little to recommend them as teachers of the game.

But high schools around the country were starting girls' teams then, fueled by Title IX and a rising tide of feminism. There were few who were willing to speak against girls participating in sports, and the old arguments -- 'They're too fragile,' 'It's not lady-like' -- carried weight no more. (Of course, had opponents of girls and sports possessed the data on the higher incidence of ACL injuries, girls might never have gotten the chance to play basketball.)

By 1977, the revolution was in full swing, and by the '80s, girls' basketball, and girls' volleyball and softball, were all staples of the high school experience. The local papers, in general, gave them coverage, though usually not as extensive as for the boys. But if the girls played for a regional title, or a state championship, the community and the local media rallied around the flag.

Today, that's ancient history. High school girls would be shocked at the world of the '60s, where prep athletes were all male, and girls could try out for cheerleader -- but only if they were both pretty and popular. Sports for girls was like embroidery for boys: giggle-inducing at first mention.

Today's high school girls, instead, are too busy playing to worry much about what life was like way back when. They play basketball and soccer and volleyball and softball, mainly, and basketball is usually the queen.

The reason is the WNBA and ESPN's coverage of the women's NCAA tournament. Girls grow up seeing one sport on TV, and that's basketball. As long as hoops has that kind of media stranglehold (which means, as long as the WNBA and office pools survive), basketball will have an advantage at the prep level, over and above its intrinsic merits.

But what does that advantage mean? What is girls' high school basketball like? Where does it fit in the sporting consciouness? And what does it mean for the game in general?

To answer the last question first, high school basketball is the sine qua non of women's basketball. Without those millions of girls running liners in practice, putting on uniforms and pouting at the ref, women's basketball would dry up in a heartbeat. High school basketball is the base of the pyramid; the WNBA is the tip -- and without a broad base, the top of the pyramid would not rise very high above the ground.

High school basketball is also the grassroots for the game's fandom. Parents follow their daughters to games, and there, more than anywhere else, the sporting public is exposed to the game for the first time.

And what do they see? For the most part, they see a steadily improving game. Players acquire more skills every year, and coaches are only getting better and better. Some are women who grew up playing the game, and some are men, but overall they are more sophisticated and more demanding than coaches of five or ten years ago.

The casual fan, however, doesn't notice this. All he sees is a bunch of young athletes struggling to master a very difficult game. He will also notice distinctions between schools that are much greater than on the boys' side. The good girls' teams are much better than the bad girls' teams than the good boys' teams are compared to the bad boys' teams. There are more routs and fewer close games.

And, of course, there are fewer dunks. Boys don't exactly soar above the rim in the suburbs, but given an opportunity, the ball is going to get thrown down. That will get the fans buzzing, both in the stands and at the hardware store, and that won't happen in a girls' game. The boys, in short, are more athletic, and more spectacular, and to an unsophisticated audience, that counts for a lot. And by definition, the high school audience is unsophisticated.

Even worse for the girls, that audience is usually split. Boys and girls play on the same night, but most often at opposite sites. You'd think the fans would just stay home and watch whoever was in town, but the truth is that the fans -- and students and cheerleaders -- follow the boys. The girls get their families, friends and a few boyfriends, but in general, they play to smaller crowds than the boys. In fact, they play to smaller crowds than the boys' junior varsity.

Which leads to the single change in high school basketball that could make a major difference for all levels of the women's game: Mandate that the girls play before the boys.

This, of course, is heresy -- to both sides. Boys' coaches want their JVs to play just before the varsity, so they can watch the younger kids for a half or three quarters before getting ready for the 'real' game. They also don't want to have a girls' team with a pretty good record playing right before a boys' team with a mediocre one. That just puts the struggles of the boys' team, and coach, in a much harsher contrast than any rational person Would desire.

Many girls' coaches, too, dislike this idea. They feel having the girls play first puts them in a subservient position, and acknowledges that the boys are more fan-friendly. Both statements are true, but the long-term value of having the girls play first outweighs its ideological weaknesses.

First, if the girls start at 6 p.m., say, and the boys at 7:30, then there's a pretty good chance a lot of fans will wander in a little early, given the chance to see the varsity girls (assuming they are any good at all). If it happens to be a big game for the girls, then they might even get there at 6:30, or maybe 6, to make sure they have a good seat.

Either way, the girls play the second half of the game in front of a lot more fans than they would ever see at the opposite site. They get a chance to show off their skills to the entire student body and the entire community. They expose more people to the game, and to the idea that girls can compete and play just as hard as the boys.

In the long run, this exposure is much more valuable than any implied putdown of female athletes. The object is to promote the game, and at this point in its development, it's simply not as entertaining as the boys' game. But no one will have any idea how entertaining it can be if no one outside a select few ever sees it -- and playing the boys at one gym and the girls at the other, many miles away, pretty much guarantees it will be played in relative anonymity.

For the good of the game as a whole, supporters of women's basketball should agitate at the local, school board level, to make this change. There is no other action that would result in more people seeing more females playing basketball than this simple shift of schedule.

One other minor change that would help would be for the 45 states that don't use the 30-second shot clock to adopt it. The issues of cost are real, but far from insurmountable, and the result of putting in the shot clock is a faster-paced game that emphasizes more basketball and athleticism and less coachly strategy. And the more girls actually play the game, the better they'll play it -- and the better they play it, the more the fans will enjoy it. The more the fans enjoy it, the more the media covers it, and the better the game gets as more talented athletes and coaches get involved.

But in general, girls' basketball at the high school level is in what business students call a 'mature phase.' Growth has stopped, as almost every high school has a girls' basketball team, and what's left to do is improve what already exists. Players and coaches should continue to get better, if only incrementally, so the biggest need is better promotion, and more exposure, which as I outlined at some length, will develop best if girls' varsity games precede boys' varsity games.

Beyond that, girls' basketball is what it is. There is still some consciousness-raising to do in various parts of the country, but for the most part, an outstanding team will get plenty of recognition in its community, and be an important part of the fabric of the community's athletic life.

When feminist reformers witness the struggles of the WNBA and WUSA, the dismal ratings for women's basketball, and despair, they should comfort themselves with the fundamental, and irrevocable, changes that have been wrought at the high school level. In 1973, there simply were no sports for girls in the vast majority of high schools in this country; in 2003, they are as much a part of the experience as the yearbook and the drama productions -- and we are all the better for it.

Visit the website: Full Court Press, the Women's Basketball Journal

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