The semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Final Four were held at Target Center on April 1, 1995. Stanford was making its fourth Final Four appearance in the ’90s, with two championships.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer was set to lead the 1996 U.S. Olympic team in Atlanta (eventually to a gold medal). Her Cardinal arrived at 32-2 and was loaded with talented players: Kristin Folkl, Kate Starbird, Olympia Scott and Kate Paye.
Stanford was a semifinal favorite over UConn, which would leave two nights later with its first national women’s basketball championship. The Cardinal played as if it was the arena’s primary tenant — the pre-Kevin Garnett Timberwolves — and was humiliated 87-60.
In the next day’s Star Tribune, I made considerable sport of Stanford’s effort … something about a team moving in the manner of its mascot, the Tree.
My feeling was the women’s Final Four, in its 14th year, was at a point where sugarcoating was not required; instead, Stanford deserved the same candor a men’s semifinalist would have faced.
Not everyone agreed.
The next day I was walking down a corridor toward a news conference for the UConn-Tennessee title game and was confronted by upset members of the Minneapolis host committee. These women suggested I had offended “our guests” from Stanford.
A quarter-century later, that same standard for coverage is often applied.
A month ago, I was in Oklahoma City with the Gophers softball team that had made an improbable run to the Women’s College World Series. On the eve of the opening round, Gophers junior pitcher Amber Fiser had been honored as a first-team All-America.
The next day, Fiser had the task of facing UCLA, which would go 5-0 and win the title. She allowed a home run on her fourth pitch to leadoff hitter Bubba Nickles in what became a 7-2 loss.
There were several questions in the formal postgame news conference and then I asked Fiser about the effect of allowing a home run to UCLA’s first batter. A couple of reporters from softball websites who had avoided the topic in previous questions glanced disgustedly in my direction.
This is not intended as a tribute to hard-nosed journalism. It was a routine question and Fiser answered it in that manner.
It’s just this: 47 years after Title IX, 38 years after the NCAA became involved in women’s athletics, we’re still often treating women’s athletic competition with a caution that helps no one.
Why is Serena Williams the most famous woman athlete in U.S. history? One reason is there’s no caution in covering or following Serena. As a tennis player, she is a wonder for the ages, as well as controversial and challenging to all preconceived notions. You can say or write what you want within boundaries of decency about Serena.
A handful of thoughts on this subject from recent events:
• The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was held last weekend at Hazeltine National. I was expecting Minnesota would defend its reputation as a golf-watching mecca with crowds of 10-12,000 on Saturday and Sunday. It wasn’t close to that, so I wrote it. The fraudulent excuses that followed included suggestions the event had not been properly publicized by the media. The Star Tribune, for one, covered the Hades out of it.
Congratulations do go out to Karen Stupples, an NBC commentator, who showed much progress in the area of candor by bellowing, “What’s going on here?!” after a series of poor shots from contenders on Sunday.
• The NCAA volleyball Final Four was held at Target Center last fall. The Gophers were favored to get there, but lost to Oregon at home in an upset in the final 16. That could have been written as failure. Instead, it was offered up as heartbreak, not because it was women competing, but because of an epic 41-39 loss in the second set after the Gophers thought they had won. It was the best sporting event I witnessed in 2018.
• A major challenge faced by women’s sports in the quest for coverage will be the ever-increasing mind-set in the media that it’s all about hits on the internet. Presumably, outlets such as this one will continue to realize there’s more to it than that and use five reporters and two photographers to cover a women’s golf major.
• Websites (and other homers) dealing with men’s sports — particularly college — have moved relentlessly toward the same cushy coverage that has marked women’s sports. These acolytes are fed information on recruiting and other matters as long as they spin it properly and continue to root, root, root for the home team.
Oh, well. I still feel it was my duty to point out that Stanford moved like trees back in ’95.