Things they’ll never tell you about basketball – and sexism

sexism in basketball

Peg plays basketball in a mixed team of men and women. And she’s got questions. Lots of questions.

I play basketball Monday nights.  It’s an all-comers thing, but mostly who shows up are students –  team members of the high school in whose gyms we play.  The boys’ team.  And there’s a handful of older guys, some ex-students, and some acquaintances of the coach/teacher who ‘runs’ the night.  And there’s me – and two other women.

When I first showed up and saw that I’d be mainly be playing with young guys, I prepared myself for a good cardio-vascular challenge.  I wasn’t prepared for everything else.

First of all, there was the way in which the coach divided us into teams.  He’d carefully put one tall person on each team. He’d also split up the senior hotshots, the over-twenty men, and the new and clued-out grade nines and tens.  Then he’d put one woman on each team.

I wondered why our gender disqualified us from the height/skill/age categories.  Certainly the attributes were not exclusive: one could be a woman and also be over or under 5’8″; one could be a woman and also be skilled or unskilled.  But our height/skill/age was irrelevant – our being women was all that mattered.

This view was also held by most, if not all, of the players there.  Once in teams, two teams per gym, we’d face our opponent team and sort of pick who our ‘man’ would be (we always played a one-on-one game).  The tall guys picked each other, the hotshots paired off, the nine/tens stood together, and it was always assumed that the two women would guard each other.

When I objected one night, I was told no, no, it’s not because you’re both women, we decide on the basis of height.  Bullshit.  One of the hotshots is the kind of player I used to be: a speedy little guard that lasts forever, with great reflexes and superb co-ordination – the terrier of the team.  He’s about 5’6″.  Audrey’s 5’1″.  I’m 5’4″.  Did you guys fail arithmetic or what?

Furthermore, when there wasn’t a woman on the other team, they’d match me up with the youngest newest littlest grade niner.  So I knew the matching was on the basis of perceived ability. Not only were the women perceived to be of equal ability because we were women, we were perceived to be of lower ability than the men.  Any of the men.  All of the men.  How humiliating.  I mean, come on!

I set six track records at my university. I used to lift weights and coach gymnastics. I’m still a dancer (so among other things I can run backwards, quickly).  Even without all of that, a thirty-five-year-old body has a cardio-vascular and muscular system much more developed than a thirteen-year-old body.  They’d never think of matching Jack with a kid (Jack’s about my age.)

Not only is their perception/practice humiliating and unfair, it leads to a wilfully ignorant situation.  What happens is this.  When two perceived-to-be-poor players are matched up to each other, they have nothing to do but play a great defensive game, simply because their team-mates never pass them the ball.  Not having to worry about anything else – like getting the ball and scoring – Audrey or Bobby guards me so closely I can never get clear. As a result, my team-mates never pass me the ball. So I never get to shoot. So I’m perceived to be a poor player. So I get matched with Audrey or Bobby…

A couple of times I managed to match with one of the hotshots.  Was he ever pissed off.  See, usually another hotshot is guarding him, and that other hotshot is so busy trying to get the ball that his man is often in the clear.  So of course he gets the passes and the shots.  I, however, stuck to him like glue, having nothing else to do, so no one passed to him.  And if they did, he was too far away to make a good shot.  Goodbye hotshot status.  I have also frustrated a tall player, with my superior speed and/or co-ordination and/or endurance – and anticipation.  That’s what should be happening.

The best defensive players should be put on the best offensive players.  But of course it would be humiliating for any male player, most especially the good ones, to be paired with me.

I must say though, that at least in the beginning, it might’ve seemed wise to match the women with each other because our playing style was so different.  In fact, for a few months I was a poor player. That’s because the way I played, the way I was taught to play, just didn’t work when playing with men.

For instance, girls weren’t taught how to do a jump shot when I was in school. Perhaps it was assumed that we couldn’t develop sufficient leg strength. Our feet either stayed on the ground or we jumped as we shot. We never practised, let alone mastered, the ‘jump, then while elevated above your opponent, shoot’ kind of shot.  Consequently, all my shots were blocked merely by someone’s raised hand. (Remember that most, not just some, of the other players were taller than me.)

Furthermore, I was taught to shoot from the chest, not from over my head. It was probably assumed back then that girls didn’t have, couldn’t develop, the necessary upper arm strength.

However, I adapted.  I figured that since it was hopeless to try to shoot from within the key (it was even hazardous to play in there because of the elbow-in-face possibilities), I’d learn to shoot from outside the key.  I quickly developed a pretty accurate three-point shot.  My hand-eye co-ordination has always been pretty good and with a few weeks of dumbbells and push-ups I regained enough shoulder power to support that co-ordination for the two hours of play.

Well, it worked.  Because I kept making the three-point shots from the baseline, I was finally accepted as an okay player.  Not good, mind you – just okay.  Note that I had had to develop above-average ability (most of the guys can’t shoot as consistently as I can from the three-point line) just to be considered okay.

Then again… no, actually, it didn’t work at all.  You need the ball before you can shoot.  And my team-mates just wouldn’t pass it to me.  No matter how much or how often I was in the clear.  They’d rather make a risky pass to someone else than a safe pass to me.

Like, guys, am I invisible?

Yes.  We’re not the second sex, or even the silent sex.  We’re the invisible sex.

And this led to another ridiculous situation.  Eventually, when I realised I was only going to get the ball a few times, I’d make a shot every time I could, even if it was a bad shot.  After all, it might be the only shot I’d get all night.  Of course, making shots that were likely to miss made me seem even more of a poor player.  And so they passed the ball to me even less.  I hardly even got the chance to dribble.

Without in-game practice, I couldn’t improve; without improvement, I wouldn’t get the ball for in-game practice.  Eventually I reamed out a few guys for not passing to me.  And, eventually, a few changed and began to include me in the game.  It’s too bad it had to take a display of anger but, well, ‘When you understand another language, you just let me know!’

Another difference between the way basketball is taught for men and women is strategy. The guys seem a lot more devious.  The feint I learned, way back when, was a very obvious pretend chest pass in one direction then a real pass in the other.  I see guys feinting with their shoulder, their eyes – it’s second nature to them to pretend to go up, wait till their guard is in the air to block the shot, then as he’s coming down, they go up.  And shoot.  And score.

I was never taught to do that.  Then again, were they taught or does such ‘deking out’, such deceit, just come ‘naturally’?  Do stereotyped boys’ games involve more deceit than perceived girls’ games?  Good question.  Playing house requires imagination.  Skipping, hopscotch – these are games of pure skill.  But ‘cops and robbers’?  There’s cunning needed to catch the other guy, no?  And hockey and soccer involve strategies of deceit similar to basketball.  Hell, poker positively depends on bluffing.

There were other differences in basketball for men and basketball for women that worked to my disadvantage.  For instance, their ball is bigger.  I didn’t even know that until just last year, when I saw one guy discard, with some disgust, a ball he had chosen from the cart.  It had GIRLS written on it.  I couldn’t believe it. I said ‘What’s the big deal, for god’s sake, if a ball has the word GIRLS written on it?  Afraid you’re going to get pregnant or something?’  He said ‘It’s smaller.’  I picked it up.  It was smaller.  Though of course that doesn’t explain the disgust accompanying his discard.

I used the smaller ball for shooting practice that night.  Wow.  My accuracy jumped from 50% to almost 80%.  So, apart from the disadvantage of playing with a ball differently-sized from what I’d been taught to use for ten years, given my hand size, a larger ball is simply a bit harder to dribble, pass, and catch with any speed.

(I’ve often thought NBA games have become so boring because the court size, net height, and ball size haven’t changed in proportion to player size and height.  I mean, if I could play on a court I could cover in what, ten strides, with a ball I could grip with one hand, shooting at a net I could reach just standing under it – well, my stats might be a little more impressive too.)

And then there’s the bit about shirts and skins.  It’s always taken as a given that the team with the woman on it had to be shirts.  That really bothered me.  I started playing in September after spending several months shirtless (it’s legal now).  And then suddenly it’s a big deal – I have to keep my shirt on.  So I spoke up.  I said ‘I resent the fact that your upper body is considered acceptable for public display, and mine is considered obscene.’  One guy chided me with ‘ah, let’s not hear any of that!’  ‘Any of what?’ I asked.  He didn’t reply, as if my question was rhetorical.  I was about to ask then if they’d object to my being shirtless if I’d had a bilateral mastectomy – but they had started the game, dismissing my objection, dismissing me.

And legs.  I wore long pants the first year, mostly because my short track shorts simply didn’t fit like they used to.  Then I bought another pair of shorts – the boxer style had come into fashion.  And I wore them in spite of my increasing dismay with my legs. As long as I felt they had a half-decent cut, I’d previously had the guts to go unshaved. Now, for the first time in my life, I felt a little self-conscious of their increasing, and I imagined, comparative shapelessness.  Well, no, of course they still had shape! Just a different shape than they used to have.

Part of it is simply the extra layer of fat that many women have,  I told myself, and part of it is age. Part of it is simply not running forty miles a week or lifting weights anymore.  But my legs look exactly like a lot of other legs out there on the court,  hair and all.  Seventeen-year-old legs and thirty-seven-year-old legs.  Male legs.  And it occurs to me, of course!  Why should we expect a female leg and a male leg to be shaped differently, why should we even expect a big difference in hair?  And I’ll bet they’re not self-conscious about the shape of their legs.  Learning that, knowing that, helped to take away my own self-consciousness.

I learned a lot, about myself, playing basketball Monday nights.  I thought I had overcome most of the negative aspects of my feminine conditioning, and I realised I hadn’t.

I was still waiting to be noticed, not making myself noticeable.  It’s not enough to be in the right place at the right time. You have to yell about it and wave your arms.

I was still waiting for someone to pass the ball, to give the ball to me. Instead of just taking it.

And I was still being nice, still being polite.  I’d let a player go by rather than interrupt, rather than block his path.  When both of us were running down the court I didn’t cut in front to block potential passes. I almost said ‘After you!’

Even for rebounds, it was still hard to butt in, to step in front of someone; I had to be there first in order to be in front.  And I didn’t reach out for the ball, grab it, and hold onto it. If it didn’t come right into my hands, it didn’t come into my hands at all.  I certainly didn’t grab the ball if it was intended for someone else. I went after it only if it was a ‘free’ ball.

I learned it was my habit to share, to co-operate.  I recall a rule, hopefully from gym class and not from team play: ‘When dribbling, you can’t bounce the ball more than three times without passing it to someone else.’  And so I’d pass the ball to another player more often than try to move in and take the shot myself.

And I learned I’m still… tentative.  I mean, the guys pass the ball harder, grab it more aggressively and play with more conviction.  I see a guy who was a grade nine and worse than me last year, trying moves this year that I still don’t dare.  Where did he get the confidence?  From being male?  From being encouraged?  (Are the two related – still?)

Lastly, I learned I was still deferring to men.  Men half my age, for god’s sake.  When a ball went out of bounds and I retrieved it to pass it back into play, or when I had it to bring up the court, often one of my team-mates would say, in a helpful tone, ‘Here, I’ll take it’.

For a long time I automatically handed it over.  I mean, someone asked me for something (no, they didn’t ask). Something I could give to them. So I did.

But why should the other player take it?  Doesn’t he think I can throw a ball to someone and get it remotely close to target?  Doesn’t he think I can bounce a ball and run at the same time?

So now I say ‘No.  I’ll take it.’

And I do.  I take the ball.  And I dribble it.  And I shoot it.  And I score.

See author Peg Tittle’s published books on her author profile.