The Man In The Crosshairs
After authoring a controversial column, Jeff Pearlman talks with SLAMonline in hopes of clearing the air.
by Stephen Litel / @stephenlitel
Yesterday, as most were discussing the upcoming Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the online presence of the WNBA was up in arms. Jeff Pearlman wrote a piece that did not sit well with most fans, sparking conversations regarding the league’s place in the sporting world and the ‘haters’ who continue to mock it, seemingly attempting to keep it as the topic of jokes.
“I like the WNBA. Seriously, I do,” said Pearlman via email. “I don’t think the caliber of play is as high as it should—and I don’t mean that as a dig at the players. But the season is short, so you don’t get the cohesiveness that’s probably desired. A team needs to build and develop, and by the time that happens a WNBA season is over. Just because I think people aren’t interested in the league doesn’t mean I hate it.”
Although it seems at times that there are either WNBA ‘lovers’ or ‘haters,’ there is an entirely different group to throw in to the mix: people who have given the league a legitimate shot to win their hearts—and dollars—and just do not find it appealing on a large scale. That is not a bad thing, as the league is reaching most people and acquiring the opportunity to win their support, but, as is the case in everything, the decision is the consumers alone.
“I’ve actually gone to many WNBA games in my life—especially when I lived in the city and the Liberty had Rebecca Lobo and T-Spoon,” said Pearlman. “I can’t say I’m the world’s biggest WNBA expert, but I certainly know more about the league and its players than 98 percent of Americans. I wanted Cindy Blodgett to make it big. I thought Jackie Stiles was gonna be a superstar. I saw Sheri Sam at Vandy and was thrilled by her success and Betty Lennox is the kind of scrappy, hard-edged player I dig. I’m not dropping names to sound smart—just to show I do have some base knowledge.”
When articles such as this are published that bother fans and, more importantly, the WNBA itself, it should be looked upon as an opportunity, rather than ‘just another hater.’ When this opportunity comes around—and, let’s be honest, it’s rather frequent—it is a chance to open a dialogue and learn where the league can make improvements or how a majority of the general public feels about your product.
“I just think—come day’s end—people like watching men’s basketball more than women’s,” said Pearlman. “I don’t 100 percent know why, but it’s obviously true.”
While it is difficult to argue that a majority of the basketball-watching public prefers the men’s game to their female counterparts, the question inevitably comes up: Isn’t the ‘hatred’ over the WNBA somewhat of insecurity over strong, independent women? That is a topic discussed on countless message boards and in WNBA circles.
“Well, I think it’s silly, but I understand the perception,” said Pearlman. “I’m married to a strong, independent woman and I want my daughter to grow up and become one. I just don’t think people care about women’s professional basketball. That’s all.”
After all, just a heartbeat ago, we were on the verge of having either a female President or a female Vice President (and that continues to be a real possibility in the near-future). We all know women have come a long way in the quest for true equality and also have many areas where the fight remains. So, it can’t only be the fact that the athletes are female, can it? There has to be more to it.
“Honestly, I was reading the New York Times the other day and saw the WNBA standings on a corner of the agate page,” said Pearlman. “I turned to my wife, who follows sports, and said, ‘Did you even know the WNBA season is going on?’ She didn’t—and neither do the majority of American sports fans. There’s just no denying that. It got me thinking: If a league is around for 14 years and has the financial/promotional backing of the NBA and it’s still invisible, well, that’s no good. And it’s an interesting topic to write about.”
That grouping of people who gave the WNBA a shot, but the league was unable to capture their attention should not be lumped in to one category as ‘haters.’ There are some who are just irresolute. Some actually take the time to have discussions and attempt to figure out why they feel the way they do. This is where continuing the conversations in a productive manner can give results to those who want to help solidify the WNBA in the hearts and minds of many more people.
“I don’t want it to dissolve. Not at all,” said Pearlman. “I was talking to Russ Bengtson about this last night and we agreed. Something about the WNBA feels really dishonest. Not the players or the coaches or the GMs, but the way the NBA pushes it and pushes it and pushes it, without letting people see their hands. It’s like the NBA is the ventriloquist, and the WNBA is the dummy. The NBA is this voice—a man’s voice disguised as a woman’s—saying, ‘Sisters are doing it for themselves!’ When, in fact, without the NBA, the WNBA wouldn’t have lasted beyond three years. Just look at the ABL.”
The strong language in Pearlman’s article may be the biggest area where fans took issue with the piece. In it, Pearlman stated that it is “impossible” for the WNBA to emerge from its current standing in the sporting landscape to a place of being truly equal to the NBA or other professional sports. As someone who sees the value of the league although it doesn’t appeal to him greatly, but also covers sports, Pearlman believes the language chosen for the piece is spot on.
“Impossible. It won’t happen because not enough people will ever care,” said Pearlman. “Look, the NBA puts oodles of money in to this league. The teams play in the best arenas, have all the stars, an ESPN deal, etc … etc—and 500,000 watch the finals? Critics have said, ‘Oh, look how long it took the NBA to catch on.’ Terrible example, because the NBA was pre-all the media exposure the WNBA has received. If, in 2010, with 14 years behind you, your league isn’t making it big, it won’t happen.”
That also doesn’t mean the WNBA is going anywhere. Maybe it is currently a ‘fringe entity’ and will always be one. Maybe the league made it through the rough economy and will always be a fixture on the fringe. There are numerous entities in the same vein in America, such as professional bowling, lacrosse and—since it is easy right now—professional soccer. There is nothing wrong with that and, in fact, makes the experience of being a fan of the WNBA even more of an important thing. You literally help to make the league what it is. It is yours. It is something that is important to you and your life and that is all that matters. You are the reason the league still exists.
“I’m not saying the WNBA is worthless or dumb—because it’s neither of those things,” said Pearlman. “I’m just saying it will always live on the fringe, which it will. If the NBA and WNBA accepted it, the whole endeavor would feel much more authentic.”
By continuing to find opportunities to have a dialogue with those who do not support the league in the same manner as you, there are things to learn. If the bias is not because the athletes are of the female persuasion and they have every right to have a professional league to earn a living, what is it? It is a difficult question for anyone to answer, whether you support the WNBA or not, but there are clues out there. Look at women’s college basketball. It has a much greater fan base than the WNBA and there aren’t as many of the ‘cheap shots’ of the collegiate game. The women in college get the respect they deserve.
“Without question and, to be honest, I think it’s a significantly better product,” said Pearlman. “Obviously the WNBA has the most skilled performers, but it often seems sort of messy. I think that comes with a short season. In college, the top teams play together for long periods and for many years. There’s a cohesion and flow the WNBA can’t replicate.”
So, it seems as if it all comes back to the tone in the article because many questions still remain about the WNBA. The point to be made is that nobody knows the answers at this point. Not President Donna Orender, not this author, and not Jeff Pearlman.
“The tone I use is just my voice, I guess,” said Pearlman. “Which maybe is kinda snarky, but I am naturally stuffed with snark and cynicism. Honestly, my average column for SI.com results in anywhere between 30 and 300 emails. For this one, I’ve received three…which sort of makes the point.”
Maybe supporters of the WNBA didn’t appreciate the tone or the over-the-top metaphors, but it is a good thing to fight through and have conversations in order to better understand of the perception of your league. Only then can you begin to work-out the kinks that still exist and market to a wider fanbase…that is, if that is indeed the goal.