A winning streak is a winning streak

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2010 - 8:48 AM

Dismissive reactions to UConn's record say much about continuing gender disparities in sports.

University of Connecticuit's Maya Moore drives past Stanford's Kayla Pedersen during the first half of an NCAA women's college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., on Dec. 23, 2009.

Photo: Bob Child, Associated Press

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The University of Connecticut women's basketball team recently broke a Division I college record for most consecutive victories. That old record, 88 games, was set by the UCLA men's basketball team in 1974.

While the men's feat saturated the news, the women's achievement received scant attention by comparison. After UConn's record-breaking win, some sportswriters chose to deride female athletes.

"Comparing men's and women's basketball isn't like apples and oranges," one sportswriter wrote. "It's more like apples and meatloaf."

Another writer claimed UConn hadn't surpassed the UCLA streak: "These are two different sports," he argued, though both were college basketball teams.

During the 1940s, my father, a gifted athlete, coached high school sports. His 1948 football team was undefeated, as were his 1946 and 1947 girls' basketball squads.

When I entered the same school decades later, only two sports were offered to girls: basketball and track. Softball was added my senior year, but we had no uniforms. Boys, on the other hand, could choose from football, basketball, baseball, track and golf.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Years earlier, in 1972, Congress passed a law called Title IX that prohibited sexual discrimination in federally funded educational programs.

So while the UCLA's men's basketball team was winning its way into the record books, women were fighting for the chance to attend medical schools, law schools and play sports -- opportunities routinely denied them.

Our girls' team knew about the Title IX critics who said that giving us opportunities only undermined boys' sports, as if boys had a God-given right to play and we didn't. They resisted change and objected to giving up anything for the girls.

At my school, the boys had the best practice fields, uniforms, playing times and equipment, including a weight room, which girls were prohibited from using. Boys were also showered with press coverage, booster club support and other perks girls didn't receive.

A similar disparity played out in college, where I played varsity sports. The clear message being sent by schools and society was: Male athletes are important -- very, very important. Females were getting crumbs, and some Title IX critics deemed even that too much.

Still, we were thrilled to be playing. We didn't complain much back then, though we winced at our goofy, feminized team names. At my high school, the boys were "Tigers," so we were dubbed the "Tigerettes." A Catholic high school in Milwaukee unintentionally provided comic relief to the gender-bending. The boys were "Popes," so the girls became "Lady Popes."

Title IX opened opportunities for females that never would have existed otherwise. In 1970, only 1 in 27 American girls participated in sports. Today, 2 in 5 do, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.

Thankfully, my parents encouraged me, despite critics who said female athletes weren't as skillful or strong as their male counterparts.

My mother, a dainty woman, giggled at the gasbags who said sports made girls too masculine. She'd played on a championship volleyball team during her stint with the U.S. Army Nurses' Corps during World War II.

Some schools did, indeed, shut down their boys' wrestling programs to create programs for girls. Outraged wrestling fans blamed Title IX. A 2008 government study said other factors contributed to wrestling's decline, such as an upsurge in the popularity of lacrosse and soccer.

Since Title IX became law, several Minnesota women have soared to wide acclaim, including skier Lindsey Vonn, recently named the Associated Press 2010 Female Athlete of the Year. The University of Minnesota Gophers 2003-04 basketball squad reached the NCAA Women's Final Four.

Several players, including the great Lindsay Whalen, went on to play professionally in the WNBA, though without the same salaries, media attention, accolades or fan base as their male counterparts.

Sadly, the disparities are still great. Men's sports are enormous revenue generators that women's teams can't come close to matching. Without better media coverage, women's sports will remain static, predicts tennis legend Billie Jean King.

The media reaction to the UConn women's winning streak is a measure of both how much and how little has changed since the enactment of Title IX.

To those who belittled UConn's feat, journalist Laura Pappano wrote: "That a women's team may overtake a record held by a men's team merely reflects the fact that athletic dominance doesn't have a gender."

Added Mike Bambach of USA Today: "Not to give them credit is just shameful chauvinism."

Well said. The UConn women stretched their streak to 90 games on Tuesday with a 85-42 victory over the University of the Pacific before a sold-out crowd of 6,000. Tonight, they'll face Stanford University, the last team to beat them.

That was in 2008.

Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune digital producer/editorial writer

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