By Charles Glover, Jr.
On Monday, March 31, 2014, the women’s University of Connecticut Huskies and Notre Dame Fighting Irish will continue their individual pursuit for perfection this basketball season. With the women’s NCAA tournament underway, both UConn and Notre Dame need two more victories to setup an unprecedented showdown between two unbeaten teams for the national championship. UConn is hoping to repeat as national champions while Notre Dame is hoping to finally reach the zenith in their sport. As phenomenal an event this would be to watch, this potential outcome has generated very little buzz.
Women’s collegiate sports has seen tremendous advances since the passing of Title IX in 1972 – the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal assistance. In the wake of the recent ruling that allows for Northwestern football players to unionize, it is helpful to remember the struggles that female college athletes have faced when trying to earn fair opportunities.
In women’s team sports, there have been fewer stars with sustaining power when compared to male team sports. There was momentum building in the mid 1970’s with interest in women’s basketball due to Lusia Harris from Delta State University in Mississippi. She helped bring the sport to the forefront with a silver medal finish in the first ever women’s basketball tournament in the Olympics in 1976. The president at Delta State would later decree a Lusia Harris Day by describing Harris as a “basketball star, world traveler, Olympic medalist, and All-American.” Harris would continue to make history as being the first and only woman officially selected in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft by the New Orleans Jazz in 1977. She never played in the NBA but her Olympic exploits helped propel women’s basketball into the next decade.
In the years following Harris there were two women’s college basketball players who gained major interest and excitement, Nancy Lieberman and Cheryl Miller. Lieberman earned the nickname “Lady Magic” as a reference to playing like Earvin “Magic” Johnson. She led her Old Dominion Monarchs to the national championship in 1979 and 1980. Miller, older sister of NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, was the first to make the family name famous while dominating at the University of Southern California.
“That’s something you’d remember forever,” remarked her high school basketball coach, Floyd Evans, as he reflected on the night she scored 105 points in a single game in her senior year.
The NCAA decided to sponsor the women’s basketball tournament in 1982. Miller led the Trojans to the NCAA championship in 1983 and 1984 while being named tournament MVP in both years. Miller also led the U.S. women’s team to the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. Miller was so dominant in her run at USC that the school retired her #31 jersey in 1986, becoming the first basketball player, male or female, to receive such an honor from USC at that time.
The struggle women’s team sports has had in sustaining popularity for their players who became popular in college is that there were few professional women’s league that had long time sustainability. Things changed in 1996 when the NBA financially supported the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA). Since its inception, the WNBA has had several women transition from college basketball recognition to WNBA stardom. Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker, Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, and Skylar Diggins represent some of the biggest names to enter the WNBA since 1996.
While women’s basketball continues to have a professional league, it is not the only team sport women have excelled in. The U.S. women’s soccer team has been a powerful force in team sports, gaining immense success since the early 1990’s. They won the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and won again in 1999. Also, they won the Olympic gold medal at all but one of the summer games since 1996. Those teams were led by Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, and Mia Hamm. Hamm would become one of the biggest soccer stars in the sport. Donna de Varona, chair of the 1999 Women’s World Cup Organization Committee described the period:
“You saw 90,000 people packed in the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California…fathers, daughters, families…cheering on these great players.”
While the achievement gap between men and women has closed when it comes to performance in team sports, the gap between financial reward remains far apart. Women’s team sports still struggles to attract the fan base that can bring advertising dollars to their sports. It is clear that the distinction between individual and team sports for women changes the earning potential. For example, the average salary for the U.S. National Women’s Team (Soccer) is $25,000 a year whereas MLS salaries start at $32,000 per year for the men and often rises to the millions.
A more extreme example comes in recognizing that the maximum paid salary in the WNBA is $107,000 per year compared to the $30 million Kobe Bryant earned this season in the NBA. There is no doubt that these women are as exceptional in their profession as their male counterparts are in theirs. Hopefully, in the near future, women’s team sports will receive the proper recognition and see their revenue grow to a level that allows for most female athletes to live comfortably in team sports.–OnPointPress.net–
Charles Glover, Jr. is a sports aficionado and management training consultant. Follow me @OpenWindowMES on Twitter.com.