The Golden Age

Former Fillies center Tonyus Chavers watches from the sidelines as women's pro basketball hits the jackpot

In that same Sports Illustrated piece, Minneapolis Tribune general columnist Robert T. Smith ducked criticism of his paper's coverage by blaming the "conservative lifestyle" of Minnesota for the Fillies' poor drawing power. "The women of this state are frightened by [women's] liberation and anything that goes with it," he said. "Their attitude is: 'What are those women doing playing a man's game?'" Smith did sense a change coming though, due to Title IX and the increasing numbers of girls playing sports. "Men like sports they have played. Girls will be like that now. You can't like something you don't know anything about. When they grow up, these girls are going to be the damnedest fans you ever saw."

Chavers recognizes a lot of truth in Smith's prediction (if not his prognosis on Minnesota women). But she also believes that with more attention and the eventual assist of players like Cheryl Miller, who was starring at USC at the time, the WBL could've prospered. Chavers claims that what WBL fans lacked in numbers they made up for in vehemence. "These [today] seem like they're watching a movie sometimes, y'know? They need lessons. This is a place where you can let it all hang OOUUTT!" Her shout arcs up over the arena hum. "Man, back in the day, whenever you went to Chicago to play the Hustle, that was one of the most frightening places in the world. It sounded like thunder all the time. They clapped the whole game. Woo-hoo! I loved going there."

Still, as the Lynx cut through a road-weary Sacramento defense and the 10,000-plus fans finally make their presence known, it's hard not to be swept up into the excitement of this moment--and to feel, with Chavers, that somehow the fates are smiling where they weren't two decades ago. "It wasn't meant to happen then," she declares, with no bitterness. "It's on so much of a larger scale now. It's like the Women's World Cup. So many millions of people watched that--I thought it was awesome. And then to have the soccer team going around to the WNBA All-Star game"--the winning team was honored at the July 14 ESPN-televised contest--"that was so cool. It's all coming together at the same time."

Indeed, inspired by the World Cup triumph, pundits from former Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder to President Clinton are jumping up to celebrate--and take credit for--the explosion in U.S. women's sport participation and viewership. Despite House Republicans' best efforts, Title IX is on every newscaster's lips; what's more, statistics show that one in three high school girls played sports in 1996, versus one in 27 when the legislation was passed in 1972. Team play teaches girl players how to lead, Schroeder asserts in the Los Angeles Times, and coaxes viewers away from prejudices about female frailty and beauty. Sports encourage female risk-taking, bonding, strength, and self-acceptance, Mariah Burton Nelson oozes in Newsweek. Mia Hamm is much more inspiring, Margaret Carlson cries in Time, than any female presidential candidate.

How easy it is to get caught up in these effusions, and in the success American women athletes have been enjoying since the Albertville Winter Olympics, when they took home all five American gold medals. Not to mention the delightful vision, closer to home, of Lynx forward Brandy Reed starting to put her trickiness and speed in the service of her teammates with pinpoint bullet inside passes; against Sacramento, her assists are even prettier than her shots. "This is the golden age of women's sports," one friend told me. Chavers agrees: "The millennium is the bomb. Sure, it's only going to get better. But there's nothing like being there and seeing the history unfold."

 

Like most legendary sport "golden ages," though, this one is being seen mostly in soft focus, through the lens of nostalgia. If it seems impossible that we could be nostalgic about present-day events, consider this: Commentators keep admiring the "squeaky clean" women's soccer team, as if no player ever had a thought that was less than Ivory pure. What will happen when news leaks out, as it invariably will (because they're human), that one player is pissed about her playing time, or thinks Hamm gets paid too much, or--horrors!--shows herself to be not a heterosexual? Right now, goalie Briana Scurry can get away with cheating (on her game-winning World Cup save), but will sports audiences always be so forgiving--and so ready to credit women with sportsmanship (sic) they don't credit to men?

From the tone of the articles by Schroeder, Nelson, and Carlson, it would seem there are plenty of women in their 30s and older who experience the successes of U.S. women's soccer and basketball teams as a kind of personal revenge: You, the masculine world, said we were weak. You said we couldn't work together. You said no one cared what we did anyway. Well, EAT MIA'S SHORTS! It is very satisfying that the World Cup Final drew such big crowds that the nation's media were forced to notice (as they didn't, say, with the U.S. team's 1991 victory). The danger, per Carlson's words, is in overestimating the social impact of what is, after all, entertainment. Through the Nineties, the music world has been agog at the chart dominance of female singers. That hasn't changed the fact that the U.S. Senate seats only nine women senators.

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