WNBA athletes trapped in unfair comparisons with men

This series will cover the WNBA’s 21st season with at least one story on the league weekly from the season’s May 13 opening to its closing on September 3 and through the 2017 playoffs.

Comparing women and men basketball players is like comparing apples to oranges. Yet among “uneducated” male fans, media, and television broadcasters, this unfair practice is a continuing insult.

The unfair comparison was in play before and after this year’s WNBA Draft in regards to top pick Kelsey Plum, who some compared to NBA’s James Harden sans beard. “I do want to be compared with Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird,” she said in an ESPN.com piece by Michelle Smith. “For people to come out to watch me and expect that I’m going to be like James Harden, or any current NBA player, it’s not realistic. I don’t want to emulate them. I want to play like me.”

Shelley Patterson (Photo by Sophia Hantzes)

Why, some of us ask, can’t Plum’s game be compared to veterans Taurasi and Bird? Smith deftly pointed out that male hoopsters are the only reference point for fans and media when talking women’s basketball.

“We don’t say we are drafting this player because she’s like Steph Curry,” reiterates Minnesota Lynx Assistant Coach Shelley Patterson. A particular player’s game might instead be “Sue Bird-ish” or have “a little Tamika Catchings in her,” Patterson notes.

Patterson points out that such unfair comparison practices are not done by her and others involved in the women’s game: “It’s media,” she says. “It’s what they know or don’t know. They have to be educated.”

“Hopefully, I think you will see less of people comparing WNBA players to NBA players, because there is a plethora of great WNBA players so that you have a group you can compare her to,” says longtime local color analyst Lea B. Olsen. But even she admits, “Sometimes [W] players do remind you of certain [male] athletes in just how they pass the ball, their style in the way they do it.”

The W is now a year into its second decade, so by now the unfair comparison should be a thing of history, surmises Olsen. “Ten years ago it would have been easy to do that. I think this is something that people continue to do with the WNBA no matter what.

“I definitely agree we are at the point in the WNBA that we have the players” to stop such nonsense and do more woman-to-woman hoopster comparisons, says Olsen.

Lea B. Olsen (Photo by Sophia Hantzes)

In the latest installment of the WNBA’s season-long “Watch Me Work” campaign, NBA players Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas and Klay Thompson pay tribute to the Lynx’s Maya Moore, last year’s MVP Nneka Ogwumike, and other W stars. Perhaps this can serve as an anti-unfair comparison model.

Same for a 2016 Sports Illustrated profile of Golden State’s Draymond Green, when he paid homage to WNBA basketball: “I learn more from the WNBA. They know how to dribble, how to pivot, how to use the shot fake,” he points out.

This reporter often says that the best shooter among the Timberwolves and the Lynx during her time here was Katie Smith. No one makes bigger big-time shots consistently than Moore and Seimone Augustus. Along with Lindsay Whalen, their championship play is evidently much better than fellow arena mates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who haven’t yet led the Wolves to post-season anything. And Rebekkah Brunson is the best rebounder in the building.

Bird told Smith that unfair comparison sometimes feel like a trap — “I think the fact that we have to keep doing this at all says less about basketball and more about society and how society views female athletes,” she observes.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.