Race, Sports, and Gender Privilege… and WNBA basketballs

Tonight at Notre Dame my office is hosting the first of a four-part discussion series about the intersections of race and sports in America. We have invited to campus a dynamite group of athletes, coaches, university athletic directors, and scholars and analysts to chat with us over the next four weeks about some of their thoughts on the subject of race and race relations in the culture of American athletics.

This evening marks the first discussion, and among our guests tonight is former Arizona State standout and current WNBA star with the Indiana Fever, Briann January. In honor and anticipation of Briann’s visit, I had the idea that I should stop by Dick’s Sporting Goods on the way to campus this morning and pick up a few WNBA basketballs, that is, a few of the signature orange and white official-sized basketballs of the women’s professional basketball league. I thought we could have them sitting on stage during the discussion or we could use them for some kind of publicity purpose.

Come to find out, however, that Dick’s did not carry this particular item: a replica WNBA basketball, that is, the signature orange and white official-sized basketball of the women’s professional basketball league. Of course, Dick’s had basketballs. In fact I counted at least 44 distinct styles, brands, and sizes of basketballs, representing a healthy range of local collegiate and professional teams, leagues, and causes. But they did not carry an actual WNBA basketball, that is, the official basketball of the women’s professional basketball league.

When I asked about it, I was presented with a solution: would I instead be interested in one of the smaller, children’s NBA basketballs? No, I said, our guest tonight does not play in the men’s professional basketball league; rather, she stars in the women’s professional basketball league.

I was then presented with a second solution: would I instead be interested in the pink breast cancer awareness basketball sponsored by the NCAA? No, I said, our guest tonight—while formerly a collegiate player—happens today to star in the women’s professional basketball league.

A couple things floating around in my head about this little trip this morning.

First, seriously, Dick’s? To misrepresent women’s professional basketball so blatantly as to not represent it at all? In this case, women weren’t underrepresented, a term we use a lot at MSPS to refer to groups of people that traditionally have not been well represented in various capacities, thus contributing to any number of social and psychological inequities. Nope, in this case, women weren’t being represented at all. I find it unconvincing that the market for women’s professional athletics less than 2 miles from the campus of the number TWO-ranked University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish women’s basketball team would not support—or want to support if it had an opportunity—women’s athletics and the myriad of current and former members of its own community currently playing professional sports across the country. Seriously?

Second, we talk about privilege and advantage in my office a lot—I think about it almost constantly—but I’m still blown away when I realize how much advantage I can amass as a white, heterosexual male. This morning, I just figured I’d stop on by the sporting goods store, which was going to be open conveniently when I needed it to be, I’d swoop in and pick up what I needed and be on my way. “But what’s this?! You don’t have what I’m looking for?” And that’s only because I happened today to be in the market for a WNBA ball. If I had been looking for an NBA or men’s NCAA ball, well, I’d still be there now sorting through the countless options available for me. Something as simple as going to pick up a basketball on my way to work becomes another example of how much this system has been expertly prepared just for me. I’ve said it before, but it is absolutely a privilege in itself not to have to notice how privilege works for you in your own life. And this one caught me off guard.

And third, I’m having a daughter soon. Like, in five months. If she would like to play professional basketball one day, how can I use this incident to teach her about privilege and how it will work for her in many cases and how it will work against her as well? At the same time, obviously, I still want to encourage her to play professional basketball if she wants to, even if that means she’ll have to drive with dad a little longer until we can find a place that has the WNBA basketball she wants.

I might try to suggest an amendment to the discussion tonight, to get a chance to ask Briann how she has experienced being a female professional athlete in America and how that has impacted her as much as race may or may not also have impacted her. And I did finally find two outdoor-ready WNBA balls. At Dunhams Discount Sporting Goods in Mishawaka. I had been looking for three and I found two, but I guess I can’t be too choosy at this point. Of course, now Dunham’s is completely out of women’s professional basketballs too.