Wednesday February 17th, 2010

Have women's sports ever been so much in the news? Lindsey Vonn was ordained the very face of the Olympics. Danica Patrick's incursion into NASCAR has been all the vroom-vroom of motor sports. The showdown between the two great mares, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, overshadows interest in the Triple Crown. A bowler named Kelly Kulick whipped all the men in the Tournament of Champions. Serena Williams' victory at the Australian Open matched the headlines given to Roger Federer.

But notice something unique about this exceptional focus on women athletes?

All of them are in individual sports. Although more and more American schoolgirls grow up playing team games, those sports just don't attract commensurate attention at any level. With women's team sports, there is still a glass grandstand. All the more amazing that right now, the women's basketball team at the University of Connecticut may well be the most overwhelming power ever to dominate any major sport... but to most media, the Huskies are but a stealth bomber.

There is, significantly, a considerable emotional difference between team and individual sports in that teams represent an entity -- a school, a college, a city that we identify with. That's why Jackie Robinson, with the name "Brooklyn," across his chest, was so much more a symbolic cultural breakthrough than, say, were Joe Louis or Jesse Owens.

Even now, we do not yet seem prepared to accept women teams as our representatives. The only female group we ever truly embraced was the U.S. soccer team of 1999, but that was much more a case of nationality than gender -- more like the celebration of the U.S. men's ice hockey squad of 1980. Women's soccer immediately faded into the green room, waiting to go back to obscurity. But then, few women's teams draw crowds in any sport. Certainly women themselves do not seem wired to support their gals as men the world over cheer on their guys.

And here's the ultimate put-down: while Las Vegas will take bets on almost any game men suit up for, only at NCAA tournament time can you bet the women's game. Then, ironically, almost no women bet -- just hard-core male gamblers. You may not like gambling, but the sports that fans can bet get the most attention. As Dick Vitale would holler on ESPN: "Certification, baby!" Ladies, to help your athletic sisters, you have to descend on Las Vegas and demand the right to lose good money betting on games, just as men have, forever.

Meanwhile, UConn remains in a league of its own. It has won 65 games in a row -- and, incredibly, all 65 by double digits. In their last game, Monday night, the Huskies played a very dicey game against 12th-ranked Oklahoma on the road and still won by 16 (and, per usual, the national media barely noticed). In Maya Moore and Tina Charles, UConn may very well have the two best players in college. When has that been the case, in any sport?

There are a lot of reasons girls from all over the country decide to go play their college basketball in a chilly little backwater called Storrs, Connecticut, but a prime one is simply that UConn women's basketball is so popular. Teams that get absolutely destroyed there nonetheless come away somehow honored to have been part -- even a losing part -- of such appreciation (and such majesty). The home games at both Storrs and Hartford sell out. The glass grandstand has been smashed. The players are celebrities. They are treated, well -- they are treated like men.

But UConn remains the prime exception. Even as more and more women participate in sports, not enough of us, either sex, seem to want to watch, to care, when women play in groups.

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