Women’s Basketball: Back to the Roots

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The attendance at the women’s basketball exhibition game.

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The women’s volleyball game against Wisconsin was well attended.

In the last two weeks, I attended various athletic events at the University of Michigan: women’s basketball exhibition game and volleyball and the men’s basketball exhibition game against Wayne State and their open practice. It was more than striking that the men’s exhibition game was way more attended than the women’s pendant, although the latter was free. Does this observation support the widely spread opinion that women’s athletic events are generally less attended and offer a worse atmosphere? The women’s volleyball game against the Wisconsin badgers, however, proved the opposite: a women’s athletic event needn’t to be less attended as a male one and is able to create an awesome atmosphere. But was drives the difference between women’s and men’s basketball?

At the beginning of the chapter “Being a Women and Other Disabilities” by Mika LaVaque-Manty, he addresses that in the early 20th century, no spectators were allowed at female athletic events. This fact captured my attention and I asked myself why especially women’s basketball still experiences less attendance than its male counterpart? During my research activity, I found a very interesting article on the history of women’s basketball which was really helpful and on which the following information is based.

The father of basketball James Naismith

But first of all: back to the roots of basketball! In 1891, basketball was invited by James Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor at a Springfield Massachusetts YMCA school, in order to create an athletic activity which can be played during the winter period and offers an opportunity for his male students to get rid of their energy. The important point in this context is that basketball was originally designed for male and their surplus testosterone: a sort of anti-aggression training. Thus, the original idea of basketball may help to understand why it is a mostly male dominated discipline.

The mother of basketball Senda Berenson

The “mother” of women’s basketball, Senda Berenson worked at the physical education center at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts and read about Naismith’s new discipline. She transformed the actual rules into a “women friendly” kind of sports: the court was divided into three sections and the athletes weren’t allowed to leave their designated one or holding the ball for more than three seconds or dribbling it more than three times were also forbidden. All this rules should increase the safety of the game and ensure that the women don’t risk “losing the grace and dignity and self-respect”. This feared potential risk of the loss of femininity might be one of the reasons why male spectator weren’t allowed to attend the first game in 1892.

Basketball class of 1902 at Smith College

This observation also points out the “stigmatization of gender” in sports addressed by LaVaque-Manty in his chapter: “the stereotype of excessively masculine women” might distort the classical gender associations and for this reason, may be irritating. Women’s basketball violated the deeply embedded norms of perception of females. Consequently, the women had to constantly “balance their femininity with their athleticism”: it took quite a long time until the women were allowed to wear more sport-friendly clothing than floor-length dresses. Furthermore, it was often forbidden for women to call their teammates by their last name or chewing gums during the games in order to maintain femininity. Again, we can see how sports reflect the values and the social environment and how they cause inequality in the role of gender which can be also observed in other fields than politics.

The Michigan women’s basketball wolverines in 2013

Despite all that struggles with the seemingly risk of losing femininity by playing women’s basketball, this discipline was already played all over the country in 1895 – only three years after its introduction. However, all that discussion about potential rules that might increase femininity lead to a lack of standard set of rules and techniques. Therefore, women’s basketball was a very unstable and controversy discipline what might also explain the weaker acceptance in comparison to the male version. It was not until 1938 that the three-court system was abandoned and not until 1971 (!!) that the women played a full-court game and in 1997, the WNBA was established (for the whole historical timeline, click here): all this step show not only the progress in the field of sports but also in our society towards the acceptance of the possible balance between femininity and athleticism. And when you observe the women’s basketball wolverines on the court of the Crisler Center, you can see how those two aspects can be combined.

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2 comments

  1. mcarozza · November 13, 2014

    This was a very interesting article and I feel that it could be applied to many sports (when comparing men’s sports to women’s sports.) It’s interesting that Senda Berenson, a women, who seemed to be trying to give women the chance to play basketball, made the rules of women’s basketball so very different from men’s basketball. Since it was a women making these rules, I wonder whether she made the rules so different in order to make men more comfortable with the idea of women playing basketball (by making women’s basketball almost into a different sport), or if she thought that women were not ready to play the same sports as men (and thus created a variation of men’s basketball)?

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  2. prvalera · November 14, 2014

    I thought that this blog post was very interesting. I did not know that basketball was originally a form of anger management to help men control their testosterone levels during the winter. The entire timeline of the development of women’s basketball seemed to progress very slowly in my opinion. The WNBA was not created until 1997 which is very late when compared to the 1946 creation of the NBA! The rules for women’s basketball in the past were preposterous. Not being allowed to chew gum or call teammates by their last names because those things would cause the players to look unfeminine is ludicrous.
    Your blog post had great facts, but I was still left wondering why there was a lower attendance at the women’s basketball? How exactly is the development of the sport of women’s basketball a factor in the amount of people that watch women’s basketball games?
    All in all, this blog post caught my attention and brought to mind all of the inequality that still exists in sports today. Our society still has much to do before we can claim that we do not have gender discrimination in the field of sports.

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