Friday, September 5, 2008

A Patriot Is Not a Weapon

I'm sorry I haven't been around at all, dear readers (if I had any). I did, in fact, write about Olympic basketball, a bit: a USA basketball player primer and a post about Team Spain. I also wrote about the WNBA brawl and made an analysis-free picture post. I've got a few more non-basketball posts at the Ladies... here. The offseason kills me bad. We're working on a NCAA preview, so I'll link to that once we get started.

Regarding this post, I can't seem to phrase what I'm trying to say correctly, but I'll work on it in future. I started writing it nearly a month ago and just finished it tonight.

A reporter on CNN held up Sarah Palin's high school basketball championship ball, and my heart dropped.

I'm generally happy with anything that brings basketball to the fore. But, in the way that a fan/player brawl does a league few favors, Palin's basketball experiences invite comparisons that I, personally, have no desire to hear.

I've read many people question why, if Palin was so good in high school, did she not play in college? This question, and this sudden interest in women's ball, reveal a lack of understanding of one of the largest and deepest disconnects between men and women in this country: athletics.

I'm not speaking in terms of play; a direct of comparison of men's and women's basketball is a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that the top levels of both can be comparable in skill and enjoyability. No: the difference lies not in the athletes themselves, apart from the obvious; the difference lies rather in how the two groups are treated.

A skilled female athlete, basketball or otherwise, can do well in high school. She can gain power over herself in a way few high school girls can, and power over others in a way few of those girls do: a high school's fans, after all, are guaranteed. And the most socially powerful girls in a high school generally are athletes in some form or another. But there is no prestige waiting in the higher levels for a moderately skilled female player, whether in soccer, softball or, more to the point, basketball. A woman that stars at the highest college level - UConn or Tennessee, still - will receive as much media coverage as a player for a small mid-major; if she's lucky, she may even get as much air time as a mid-level professional golfer.

Put simply, there is no reason for a woman to play college ball but for love of the game.

The pro prospects are poor. The odds of making it to the WNBA are, simply by virtue of the number of teams, a third of the tiny number that the NBA can offer. Once there, the women can aspire to reach the upper middle class, and perhaps have their games broadcast on national television two or three times a season. The only money and prestige to be had are in far-off lands, playing on the dimes of Turkish shipping magnates and Russian oil billionaires. Money is money, and there's lots of it for skilled women players overseas, but what American really wants to be a hero to little Russian girls everywhere? Basketball is America's sport, and that WNBA Logo is red, white, and blue. But it lacks the weight of its older brother, and there, then, lies the crux of the matter.

There are ways - not many, but several - for young women to gain power in this country. All of them are valid, and the means to gain power are always complex. For all but a few, perhaps three women at a time, that power does not and can not come through sports. That is the deepest difference, not talent or skill or drive or even watchability, between men's and women's sports in this country: fame. Fame, and the power it brings; fame, and the power to bring it to oneself, and the power to keep it.

No. If a woman is attractive, intelligent, and athletic, she is far more likely to use mostly the first route than the second or third to gain fame, and therefore power. And well within her rights to do so, and understandable; after all, as I said, women can only easily become powerful in a limited number of ways, and the power of attraction is the easiest of them all to gain.

Which brings us back to Sarah Palin, and the choice to play or not play basketball at the four colleges she attended to gain her BS degree in journalism. She is not, of course, an ideal example of this phenomenon; there was no WNBA then, and presumably even more stigma attached to being a female athlete, so her case isn't directly comparable to a modern player. It's also, presumably, difficult to maintain an athletic career during a tumultuous academic career. However, she is an excellent example of the beauty-intelligence-athleticism triptych (though the second may be in question, and the third is only partly verified). She initially chose beauty over intelligence, in her brief but seminal turn as an Alaskan beauty queen; it can be argued that, once she actually started a career, it played the largest role.

Famously, Michelle Robinson's brother Craig told her that a person's character could be judged by what kind of player they were. So, when she got serious with young Barack Obama, she asked her brother to play a game of pick-up ball with him, and the rest is history. A person's character can be revealed by how they play basketball - but a person's character is also revealed by the choices they make.

Any woman can be beautiful, or at least focused on her own appearance. It's a peculiar aspect of our current society: that women are allowed to be beautiful and sexual in a way that men generally aren't, yet, at the same time, they can not not be beautiful. To balance the two impulses - to desire and enjoy being pretty, while chafing at the societal need to be - is a daily fact of life for most American women. To be intelligent, to be talented, to be beautiful; all are valid, and matter. Yet all of us, man or woman, are people first, and attractive and sexual beings second - a fact that should not have to be stated.

But as we watch Sarah Palin flounder prettily in the national limelight, that long-ago choice to gain power via her skills of attraction, not her intelligence or her athletic skill, takes on new meaning. And as questions about her judgment justly arise, those early choices - to trade being an athlete for trying to become a sportscaster, to trade skill with a ball for hunting with an assault rifle and a helicopter - may reveal more about her character than they would for most young women.