Becky Hammon, Basketball, and Gender Politics

By Cat Ariail

On May 5, ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a “Woj bomb.”  The Milwaukee Bucks intend to interview Becky Hammon, a fourth-year assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs and, of course, the first woman to serve as an NBA assistant coach, for their vacant head coach position.

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon.

Instantly, I was excitedly imagining my NBA dream scenario – a ABC Saturday night match-up between the Hammon (and Giannis)-led Bucks against the Spurs, with Gregg Popovich, the patron saint of basketball progressivism, providing his blessing on his protege, as well as on a more gender-equitable NBA world. Of course, Becky’s Bucks would beat the Spurs (Kawhi Leonard or not). All the more, Doris Burke and Kara Lawson would have the call in the booth, with Rachel Nichols, Michelle Beadle, and Chiney Ogwumike in studio. Ramona Shelburne and Cassidy Hubbarth would be the sideline correspondents.

Then, anxieties quickly quashed this dream, as I feared the pressures Hammon would face, not only as the league’s first woman coach but as the coach also charged with the precious and precarious task of guiding Giannis Antetokounmpo into his prime. Hammon – or, more reductively, a woman – readily would be blamed if Giannis decided to take his talents beyond Milwaukee.

Hammon’s opportunity to become an NBA head coach, whether in Milwaukee or somewhere else, raises interesting questions about gender, progress, basketball, and legitimacy. Questions that are much more illuminating and complicated those about her qualifications. Pau Gasol eloquently answered those.

The hopes and fears that I, a feminist scholar of women’s sport, have invested in the prospect of Hammon, or another woman, becoming a head coach in the NBA relies on an assumption that is not expected to be held by someone like myself – that women’s basketball is “less” than men’s basketball. Of course, I am not unique in thinking this. However, it is interesting that I, as well as other ardent supporters of women’s basketball, do not question that women becoming recognized sources of authority in the NBA represents the pinnacle of progress in regard to women in basketball. Curiously and contradictorily, those most committed to advancing women’s basketball are, simultaneously, perpetuating the perceived “lesser” legitimacy of women’s basketball by privileging the accomplishments made by women in the NBA as the most important indicator of progress.

For instance, the WNBA, as well as women’s college basketball, is populated by a talented cohort of women coaches. In April’s NCAA National Championship game, Muffet McGraw (aided by the #mambamentality of Arike Ogunbowale) led Notre Dame to victory over Geno Auriemma, the presumed best coach in women’s college basketball. In the WNBA, Cheryl Reeve captains one of sports’ most impressive dynasties in the Minnesota Lynx, effectively helming a loaded roster to four WNBA titles in the last seven years. Her point guard Lindsay Whalen will follow in the footsteps of University of South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, coaching the University of Minnesota’s women’s basketball squad during her WNBA offseason.

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Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and point guard Lindsay Whalen.

Yet, before she even coaches a preseason game, the first woman head coach in the NBA will have notched an accomplishment celebrated as more impressive that those of these women. Already, Becky Hammon, who may or may not be a better coach than Cheryl Reeve, likely is understood as a better coach than Reeve because of the fact that she coaches men. The presence of women in the NBA thus presents provocative questions.

Yes, the NBA is the greatest basketball league in the world, but does this mean the greatest achievements of women in basketball – whether on the court and sidelines or in the booth and front office – must be achieved in the NBA? How then can the greatness of women in women’s basketball be recognized? Can women achieve greatness in women’s basketball? Or, does greatness for women in basketball always require crossing the gender barrier?

The emotion expressed by Doris Burke upon learning ESPN would promote her to a full-time NBA analyst is understandable. As she told Andrea Kremer on a February episode of HBO’s Real Sports, “I cried. You pour your heart and soul into something, and you’ve taken steps and you get somewhere, I don’t know that I consciously allowed myself to dream that, but it happened.”

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ESPN commentator Doris Burke.

Yet, it is unproductive not to interrogate what Burke’s reaction suggests about the understood legitimacy, or understood lack of legitimacy, of women’s basketball.

Can the gains realized by Burke and others be celebrated without implicitly reinforcing women’s basketball as secondary? Does more women in men’s basketball or a wider appreciation of women’s basketball represent gender progress? How can I, and others, appreciate the entry of women into the NBA, while, at the same time, appreciating and enhancing the legitimacy of women’s basketball?

The potential of Hammon or another woman becoming an NBA coach illuminates the slipperiness with which gender progress in basketball is considered. Hammon herself exhibits this slipperiness. As detailed by Louisa Thomas in her excellent profile of Hammon published in the New Yorker, Hammon is both ardent and evasive about her potential pioneering status. Thomas writes:

Many people speculate that Hammon will be the N.B.A.’s first female head coach, not least because she has Popovich’s support. Talking to Hammon, though, I was struck by her ambivalence about her role as a pioneer. She recognizes that she is an inspiration for many young women, and a target for many wary men. At the same time, she resists the attention to her gender. “If you don’t want a female coach, don’t hire one!” she said, with some exasperation. But, she continued, if “you want to hire somebody who’s qualified and will do a good job, then maybe you should consider me.” Like Popovich, Hammon believes that coaching involves more than drawing up plays or breaking down defensive schemes. “You shouldn’t get into coaching unless you care about the people you’re leading,” she said.

But while Hammon and others can insist basketball is basketball, coaching is coaching, and leading is leading, US society still categorizes the people involved with the basketball coaching and leading as men or women. The significance of gender identity, in sport or society, can be evaded. Yet evading it cannot make it irrelevant.

The relationship between the achievements of women in men’s basketball and those of women in women’s basketball is representative of the problematics of contemporary feminist politics more broadly. Should we break glass ceilings or build new buildings? Both! Of course! Yet, thinking about women in basketball highlights how complicated it is to do both. If you break the glass ceiling, do the shards then damage the buildings you’ve built?

In context of the long struggle of women’s team sport leagues in the United States, the endurance of the WNBA, while imperfect and uneven, is a milestone. And the women (and men) who contribute to its sustainability are doing important, pioneering work. Yet, do the heights achieved by Becky Hammon and Doris Burke, unintentionally but unavoidably, diminish the work of Cheryl Reeve and LaChina Robinson?

The repeatedly re-emerging question about the ability of an exceptional woman basketball player to compete in the NBA –  from Brittney Griner to Chamique Holdsclaw to Cheryl Miller to Nancy Lieberman – represents a related, but different, strand of this phenomenon. Such questions perpetuate the supposed illegitimacy of women’s basketball, suggesting that only by playing in the NBA can a woman basketball player be considered a “real” basketball player. As described by espnW’s Sarah Spain in a recent column, the frequent presence of women’s basketball stars as visible and respected sources of basketball knowledge in Kevin Garnett’s “Area 21” segment during TNT’s Inside the NBA has the potential to encourage a perspective of basketball and basketball players that goes beyond the male-female comparative binary. For regardless of ability and expertise, the genetic limits of biology has prevented the likes of Griner, Holdsclaw, Miller, and Lieberman – and likely will prevent Gianna Bryant – from choosing to test their talents against men.

Women coaches and broadcasters, however, can choose to attempt to enter positions long-held by men. Pat Summitt always resisted this choice. As reported by the Los Angeles Daily News’ Mark Whicker:

More than once, Tennessee’s athletic bigwigs considered asking Summitt to coach the men instead. With each crash-and-burn it became more obvious that men couldn’t handle this particular job and that Summitt would be the safest hire available. She considered it but kept turning it down.

“I think women should help women,” she said.

A good reason, but there was a better one.

“I wouldn’t want people to think I looked at the men’s game as a step up.”

Although I ardently applaud the words of the late, great Tennessee Lady Vols coach, I also respect and root for the ambitions of Hammon and Burke, as well as Kara Lawson, Stephanie Ready, Michelle Roberts, Lauren Holtkamp, Michelle Leftwich, Becky Bonner, Natalie Nakase,  and the other women looking to making a career in the NBA in various capacities. Heck, who wouldn’t want to interview LeBron when he improbably notches ring number four in a few weeks? (Go Cavs!) Furthermore, while these women technically have a choice, it is a choice that involves navigating a path strewn with manifestations of sexism (and, depending on the woman, racism and homophobia) that range from mundane to malicious. Pat Summitt is right, but Hammon, Burke, and their colleagues certainly are not wrong.

Whether or not Hammon gets the job in Milwaukee will not solve this conundrum. Yet, rather than an opportunity question the qualifications of a woman in a men’s sport, her qualifications raise more provocative, pertinent, and productive questions about gender progress and feminist politics for women in sport.

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During my time contributing to this blog, I frequently have reflected on the gender politics of basketball. While we all know sport can serve as insightful window into social dynamics, I believe basketball offers the most penetrating perspective into modern society. Basketball features comparable opportunities for men and women. It also features male and female players from a spectrum of racial, ethnic, class, and sexual identities, at least compared to other major American sports. Most especially, basketball is understood as a progressive sport – the sport of the multiracial, open-minded millennial America.

As such, basketball best offers an opportunity to go beyond reductive and repetitive analysis of the myriad of ways in which sport makes visible entrenched assumptions about race, gender, and/or sexuality.

Modern basketball culture involves the complex intersection of identity politics. Along with interrogating the feminist conundrum raised by Becky Hammon’s pioneering potential, the sport provides the opportunity to examine contemporary notions of racialized masculinity, the content and extent of progressive politics, and gendered perceptions of bodily intelligence. In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to continually querying and questioning the ways in basketball can illuminate the intersection of the politics of gender, race, and sexuality in ways that are critically nuanced and productively confounding.

Cat Ariail received her PhD in history for the University of Miami. Her dissertation, “Sprints of Citizenship: Black Women Track Stars and the Making of Modern Citizenship in the United States and Jamaica, 1946-1964,” analyzes how black women track athletes illuminates the re-thinking of the raced and gendered boundaries of citizenship in the postwar era. She can be reached at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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