On Wednesday, we briefly mentioned the Tuesday night fight that broke out in the final minutes of a game between the WNBA's Detroit Shock and L.A. Sparks. In the following days, more than one sportswriter has opined that the publicity surrounding the brawl, which resulted in the suspension of league star Candace Parker and 9 other players as well as the suspension of Shock assistant coach Rich Mahorn, could ultimately be positive for WNBA. ESPN's Jemele Hill argues that while fights shouldn't be condoned or encouraged, they are an understandable, and even necessary byproduct of professional, high-contact sports played at the highest level. "The fight, which, by the way, isn't the WNBA's first, showed that squaring up isn't a man thing," Hill writes. "It's a sports thing. It's an athlete thing. It's an I'm-so-ticked-off-that-Candace-Parker-just-drilled-me-in-the-chest-and-the-refs-didn't-notice thing."Hill continues, "We treat girl fights like a novelty, when they shouldn't be seen as such. News flash to those still using sticks to create fire: Female athletes are just as competitive as men and when some are pushed to the edge, they'll exhibit the same lack of control." Salon's sports columnist King Kaufman agrees that the fight could ultimately be a positive for the WNBA, but for slightly different reasons. "The old truism says there's no such thing as bad publicity, and people who don't normally talk about the WNBA are talking a lot about it this week," Kaufman says. "[Though] it's worth noting that a big part of why Malice at the Palace II is getting so much attention is because it was so rare. As a brawl, it wasn't much. Ron Artest can get in a worse fight than that when he's alone in a room. But it stood out because that sort of thing isn't supposed to happen in the WNBA, land of role models." And honestly? I agree with both of them. I've been watching men's basketball for over a decade, and if a similar fight went down in the NBA, nary an eyelash would be batted. It would occupy maybe an inch of column space. Why should the WNBA be held to some pristine standard? Is it because people are so freaked out by angry women, and even more freaked out by angry black women? And the argument that people are reacting to this fight the same way they react to any fight in sports is hogwash. Take this touchy-feely commentary from ESPN's Mechelle Voepel, who wonders about the emotional motivation of Plenette Pierson, who was one of the main brawlers in the scuffle. "Why…did Pierson seem to be so angry all the time? It's something only Pierson and those closest to her can probably answer," Voepel said. When men in sports get into fights, no one tries to psychoanalyze them or explore their "feelings." In post-game commentary, Lisa Leslie, who was accidentally shoved to the ground by assistant coach Rick Mahorn, said she was disappointed about the fight because, "As a role model this is not the way I want to represent myself. I'm a mom, this is not the way I want to represent myself in front of my daughter." While Leslie is right on one level, the thing about role models is that they aren't infallible. One fight in the over ten years of the WNBA? I don't think Leslie's or anyone else's role model status is in question. WNBA Brawl: Bad, But Good? [Salon] In Real Life, Female Athletes Lose Their Temper, Too [ESPN] "Bad Girls" Mind-set, Pierson And Parker A Volatile Mix [ESPN]
I think that the real problem here is that professional sports still isn't really a common career path choice for women, so they're still in the phase where they need to present themselves well and show young girls that playing the sport they love professionally is respectable. Men's sports have sort of "paid their dues" and no matter which big stars get into brawls, there will still be boys who dream of being professional athletes. In the early days of the NBA, fights were treated the same way this situation is being treated and the players were often scolded for engaging in such public displays of poor sportsmanship.
Where the NBA is riddled with superstars whose names even people who don't follow the sport would recognize, the WNBA is still a league struggling to find its niche as a place where an emphasis is put on team sports over individual big name players. I played competitive basketball for many years and know that I definitely threw elbows and shoved excessively during big games, as did all my teammates (our coach even gave us tips on how to foul hard without making it look intentional), but to someone who hasn't played the game and can't relate to the pressure, this sort of situation could appear to showcase unsportsmanlike behavior. One of the WNBA's main selling points was always that it was real basketball, not just a superstar going 1 on 5 with the defense and dunking but a game more akin to college basketball where fundamentals are praised and flashiness is rare. This sort of fight takes away from that image, and while I don't think this one instance makes these women any less of role models, I also can't fault the public for being interested in the sort of frustrations and emotions that could bring players who are so sportsmanlike and team-minded to getting into a fight that ultimately only hurts their team.