This essay was first published on Medium.com – September 4, 2016
I discovered Diana Taurasi in her second season at the University of Connecticut. I am not a person who believes that an athlete should be labeled a hero or proclaimed a role model simply because she has mastered the craft of her sport. However, I wholeheartedly appreciate the fierce competitiveness, the smarts, the power, and the grace of a world class athlete. I became a dedicated Taurasi fan after just one game.
My daughter, Julia, was eleven years old and looking for a sport to fulfill her middle school athletic requirement. So I invited her to watch a UConn game and, like me, she was hooked. Although she would go on to play volleyball through high school, we remained fans of Taurasi. When DT turned pro, Julia quickly requested and received her very own Taurasi Phoenix Mercury jersey which she wore proudly. When the Mercury flew into DC to play the Mystics, we went to see Taurasi play. Watching this amazing athlete made for some wonderful father-daughter moments.
During the first week of the Rio Olympics, I got a text from Julia, who is now 26 and living on her own. She asked if I was watching the US women’s basketball team. I was and we shared some thoughts about the game. She then asked if I had any pictures of “little Julia” in her Taurasi jersey. “I would totally tweet it at her.” I promised to look.
In the meantime, I began to think about all of the time I’d spent being a fan. It might be pretty cool if I got my own Taurasi jersey. Julia and I could get a shot of the two of us in our jerseys to tweet. But that’s when the problem began.
I went to the WNBA website, credit card in hand, to buy my jersey. But I couldn’t. There were no jerseys available for men. This couldn’t be. I went directly to the Mercury site which led me back to the WNBA. Could it be that the WNBA didn’t believe their sport and players were credible enough to be worthy of marketing them to a male audience? To be fair, there were hoodies and t-shirts but they have to know that none of those items rise to the level of wearing the jersey of your favorite player.
For comparison’s sake, I went to NBA.com. There I found an entire section where women could buy the jerseys of many male stars.
I tried a different sport. At DallasCowboys.com I found merchandise for women. Not only did they have jerseys for the women, they had them especially cut for the female figure.
I found this all incredibly disappointing, but I had one more avenue to try.
The US women’s basketball team, led by Taurasi, was handling its competition with relative ease. They were a team of superstars and surely TeamUSA.org would have their jerseys on sale — even for men. But I am sad to say that they didn’t.
But the more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that this was in the category of more of the same. The same sexism. The same minimizing of the female athlete and her accomplishments. My jersey issue is surely the bottom rung of a skyscraper height ladder of disrespect. Maybe this is why NBA players sign contracts that take our breath away while Taurasi and her teammate Brittney Griner end up in Russia during the WNBA offseason playing for real money. Maybe this is why NBA star Derrick Rose’s wearing of a t-shirt with the words “I can’t breathe”, in support of African-American Eric Garner who died in police custody, brought a mild refresher about the dress code, but also respect from the commissioner. However, when WNBA players wore plain black shirts during the warm up period to raise awareness about rising tensions between some African-Americans and police, they were quickly fined. The players publicly questioned the discrepancy and stood their ground. Said fines were eventually withdrawn, but wait…not until after NBA star Carmelo Anthony joined the chorus of protests, publicly stating his support for the women.
Since I didn’t have Carmelo to run interference for me, I decided to call the WNBA and raise the issue. On August 18, I spoke with a press officer who seemed genuinely taken aback by my question of why there were no jerseys available for men. She responded by stating that I was raising “a valid question.” She promised to get back to me with an answer.
Three days later, the website had been changed. The label “women’s jersey” had been removed. Now there was no label, leading one to think that what was a women’s jersey three days ago was supposed to be, I guess, unisex. There was even a men’s section in which the same unisex jerseys were copied and pasted, but they don’t look like any jersey I’ve ever seen a male wearing. That section has since been removed. I suppose there’s some progress here and I should be satisfied, but I’m not. This was a hasty and not very smooth or permanent fix to a problem that is deeper than the jerseys and they know it. The WNBA should believe that its players are worthy of being marketed to both men and women. It seems a gross failure to ignore the huge male sports market. Maybe they don’t think any self-respecting guy would lower himself enough to put a female athlete’s name on his back. Maybe they’re wrong. I want to support the WNBA and its amazing players and I want my Diana Taurasi jersey.