More on Gender and Basketball

If you’ve just tuned in, our debate is currently centered around the following question: Why are there not more female referees, coaches or general managers in the NBA?

And relatedly: Is it legit to criticize a higher-ed diversity institution’s decision to award the league an “A” rating?

Paolo, the “missing truths” that you point out are largely irrelevant, or only serve to illustrate the depth of the problem. I’ll start with your mention of men’s superior athletic capabilities. This may indeed be a reality, but by no means does it follow that men thus make better cops and soldiers. Brute strength may contribute to success in such positions, but there are other, equally important attributes: intelligence, strategic thinking, quick wits, a critical eye are a few that come to mind. It should go without saying that this is true of referees, coaches and general managers as well (these positions actually require little-to-no athleticism, but a lot of analytic and communicative skills).

There’s a lot of literature on how men and women think differently, by way of both genetics and sociology (see, for instance, the debate over women’s jurisprudence). Sports teams spend enormous amounts of energy exploring tiny potential competitive advantages. To the extent that we can agree that women bring different skills to the table, it seems obvious that involving them in a team’s strategic thinking stands to be an advantage. It seems equally obvious that a woman is bound to be the most qualified person for positions that require such diverse skill sets at least some of the time.

A quick digression: It’s worth exploring more carefully how we, as a society, create narratives about what makes for a competitive advantage, and how gender plays into that. This mainstream notion of female competitive inferiority isn’t limited to athleticism — it also figures prominently in how we think about female politicians (Hillary comes to mind: will she make the tough decisions when it counts? Can she stand up to the mockery of sexist foreign officials?), stock brokers, lawyers…Of course, these narratives also influence women’s career decisions. I’ll keep this can of worms closed for now.

Returning to the substance of your response: I’m equally put off by the experience argument, and I think a single example is suffice to counter it: Nancy Lieberman is a proven champion at every level of hoops, and she’s played at high levels with men. Stan Van Gundy, on the other hand, played a little ball in college. Yet it’s still seen as roof-shattering progress when Lieberman manages to earn the respect of a couple D-Leagers. I’m not at all sold that the NBA hires, as you posit, “based on quality alone.”

To return to your first point: Yes, Christian white males generally dominate positions of power. Of course this isn’t just an NBA issue. My problem here is that a higher-ed institution tasked with advocating diversity is handing out an “A” to a league that is still a boys’ club. In theory, this grade should have some weight, signifying that this organization is an exemplar in a fucked-up world; that we’ve achieved our goals of equality. This is not the case. Not even close. It’s bullshit, and I insist on holding both academia and professional sports to a higher standard.


9 thoughts on “More on Gender and Basketball

  1. Kerem I feel like the obvious and logical response to your argument is the problem with society in general. Why aren’t women athletes? Someone says because of genetic differences, you counter that each gender has different competitive advantages, the obvious critique would be that men are bred to play sports whilst women are not. Why are most football players (excluding quarterbacks, for obvious reasons i would think) black? Because the narrative is that sports are one of the few ways that black teens can get out of the ghetto. A few years ago ESPN had a piece on how it was easy for poor black youths to become linemen because their nutrition usually consisted of diets that made them fat. But if they don’t make it as NFL players, then what? They are just obese, undereducated men with no technical skills really. I think genetics certainly has a part to play in why sports are male-dominated, but when it comes down to it, men are also just bred for sports, and certain types of men are bred for certain positions (tell me next time you see a black NHL star)

    • Good thoughts, Chris. But to be clear, one point I’m trying to make is that when we’re speaking of high-level positions such as referees, general managers, coaches & assistant coaches, that athletic edge that men arguably have — either through genetics or what you call breeding — is largely irrelevant. You’re right that sociological factors are at play. It’s not just that women don’t get these jobs, but that they don’t pursue them. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I think Paolo & Norris would argue (and I would agree) that they have more to do with society at large, and pro sports culture in general than they do with NBA politics. That doesn’t let the league off the hook though, and it certainly doesn’t make applauding their relative diversity acceptable.

    • I am fully behind Kerem’s response to this, but despite the irrelevance in this context, I’d like to take a moment to point out that while women ARE athletes, their professional athletic opportunities are far less lucrative, and their careers are frequently abbreviated by maternity (a reality that male athletes don’t need to confront). While it is a widely implemented strategy to “get black teens out of the ghetto,” that also is so predominated getting violent, at-risk male youths out of those situations. The same strategy could get young at-risk women out of dangerous and future-diminishing circumstances by committing them to a healthy activity. Because even by distracting these at-risk young male populations from gang-violence, they’re not distracted from girls, and those girls are just as at-risk than the boys — they’re around the violence, they’re alternatives aren’t great, and whether they choose gang members or athletes with “a way out,” they still often wind up pregnant (more often than a lot of other demographics), which arguably has a much larger impact on their futures and opportunities and goals than their partners’. Not to mention that the mistakes that the at-risk male youths are being distracted from, such as gang violence, drug culture, etc., are troublesome to be sure, but will they necessarily impact their future in the same way that bearing a child affects their female partners?
      So even though realistically women athletes have shorter careers as such than men, I feel like that makes an even STRONGER case for why these women should be encouraged to participate in sports, and have a reasonable shot at other professions within the industry after their time as an athlete is over. Because while maternity could take you out of practice, or give you a disadvantage competing against a younger, trimmer, non-mothers, it certainly shouldn’t affect your ability to fill a leadership role, use a keen eye regulating play, or coach or motivate players, male or female.

  2. Pingback: NBA Receives “A” for Diversity. Bullshit. | hoops, I did it again

  3. Check it out, K.

    I am not at all saying that physical strength contributes to success as an NBA head coach.

    I am saying that a *familiarity with the league* is the number one factor in predicting the chances of someone being hired to coach in the NBA. And the only way to get that experience is to play in the NBA. And thus far, every NBA player has been male.

    Hiring based on familiarity has nothing to do with gender or race. When a restaurant is hiring for an open server position, a reasonable one would hire based on the applicant’s background in serving. Does he or she have experience serving this kind of clientele? Is he or she familiar with the pace of this environment?

    Would you penalize the restaurant for predominantly hiring females? Because according to the Rhode Island 2000 census, 81% of all servers in the state are female. 88% of file clerks are female. 90% of hairdressers are female. 93% of registered nurses. 97.6% of preschool and kindergarten teachers, and 97.7% of secretaries. Are female.

    Is anything wrong with this? Even more glaring than the dearth of females in the NBA coaching ranks is the void of males in the pre-K teaching ranks and the restaurant industry. Considering these career fields don’t even have a semblance of physical requirements, aren’t these discrepancies more worrisome?

  4. Pao, I hear you on your point about familiarity with the league, and I acknowledge, sure, it’s likely a factor in most hiring decisions. But it does not begin to fully account for the lack of women in these positions. The preponderance of coaches who work up the ranks without a significant playing career is evidence enough of this. And when we start talking about GMs and whatnot, I mean, you see guys that run franchises into the ground inexplicably not fired, or worse, given second and third and fourth chances. Are you really trying to tell me these decisions are made impartially, when people like Donald Sterling own franchises (D.S. incidentally has a habit of employing formerly great players who make for terrible GMs & coaches — Elgin Baylor, Mike Dunleavy, Vinny Del Negro. He also is known to sexually harass his employees.)

    And your restaurant analogy is absurd. Do you really believe that restaurants disproportionately hire women for the same reasons that the NBA, a multimillion dollar industry with highly desirable jobs is dominated by men? 95% of prostitutes are women, too. Females occupy such positions because the patriarchal society we live in pushes women into jobs that (a) fit traditional gender roles and (b) are generally lower-paying. This is a result of both overt sexism and subtle sociological reasons that take books to explain. The more I think about this, the less I understand what the basis of your comparison is. How does women being relegated into shitty low-wage jobs justify depriving them of an entire industry of high-paying jobs?

    • Don’t worry, dawg. I’ll roll with the punches.

      OK, so I acknowledge I didn’t know how to wrap that restaurant analogy into a neat little bow and present it in a cohesive way along with the rest of my argument. Putting that aside for now, let me focus on the argument for familiarity in the NBA’s hiring process…

      I went down the list of NBA coaches and read their Wikipedias. 21 out of 29 current head coaches are former NBA players. Now, I’m not fully justifying a teams’ choice to hire solely on NBA playing experience, but I’d like to emphasize how valuable that playing experience is. A coach who used to play in the NBA can relate to his players in a profound and meaningful way – that interrelatedness is embodied in empathizing with the struggles and experiences of an NBA player, having a mastery of NBA-specific strategies, and understanding the league’s unique dynamics.

      Now, of course, not all current coaches have this background of relatedness. I just want to present it as a dominant factor, being that nearly 75% of coaches have player experience, and all of them have some sort of college hoops experience – playing a men’s game that is distinct from the women’s game.

      I will definitely acknowledge that traditional gender roles play an enormous (no “u” before the “r” Kerem) part in the shaping of career paths. Yes, I am aware that females are generally discouraged from playing sports as a whole. But it seems that you are skimming over the fact that sports requires (and is built around) physical strength – the one critical thing that separates the abilities of males and females. I am not saying that men are blessed with physical strength, or anything like that. Just that males are stronger than females, and play sports better than females. This is not a putdown; it is merely a fact. If it seems like I am repeating this fact often, it’s only because it seems like you are undermining it as much as you can.

      This physical disparity between males and females leads to a preponderance of males gravitating toward the world of sports – which leads to a preponderance of males playing sports – which leads to a preponderance of males coaching sports. You cannot just take that last portion – “a preponderance of males coaching sports” – and take that out of context, and tell me that it should be different. Retrace the effect to its cause. This has nothing to do with a patriarchal society. This has nothing to do with gender discrimination. It starts with the pure and simple physical disparity between males and females.

      I believe that the NBA starts with a disadvantage, being a career field that places weight on physical strength to begin with. How can a career that is tailored to the athletic ability of males employ an acceptable number of females? If 98.3% of construction workers are men, would you think more construction workers should be women? Would you think more construction worker supervisors should be women?

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