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'Ten time NCAA National Champions in Women's Basketball: UCONN' / via TrueBlueUConnPardon me, Dear Reader, for another off-topic post. As an alumnus of the University of Connecticut, things have reached the point where I just can’t help but weigh in on this topic. So here goes:

In case you didn’t know it, there’s a big basketball tournament underway. No, not the NCAA men’s tournament; I refer, instead, to the women’s NCAA tournament (WebCite cached version). Over the last few years there’s been a lot of grousing in the sports world over UConn’s dominance of this sport. They’ve won the last three national championships in a row, but even more than that, have been dominating in the games they play. Lately they’re 120-1 and have won all of those 120 by at least double digits. They haven’t just won a lot, they’ve blown people away … staggeringly. The main reason for this is that Breanna Stewart — who’s been called the best collegiate athlete in the country, male or female, in any sport — plays for them. But as someone who’s watched them since the 1980s (when they were really bad), I can tell you, it’s not just “Stewie.” The UConn women’s basketball team has a full complement of excellent players. There are no significant holes in their lineup.

At any rate, several years of consistent blowouts has led many in the sports media to wonder if the UConn women’s basketball team is “ruining” their sport. Among the latest sports media figures to do so was Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who tweeted a week ago (cached):

Now, Shaughnessy’s sports beat is the Boston Red Sox, so expecting him to expound cogently on a women’s college basketball team is probably asking a bit much. Later on, he said he wasn’t really blaming the Huskies for what they were doing — even if the text of his tweet clearly says otherwise (i.e. “they are killing women’s game,” emphasis mine). He just objected to how lame the other teams are, I guess. UConn coach, Geno Auriemma, responded by telling Shaughnessy it’s fine if he doesn’t watch (cached). Since then, the rest of the sports world has weighed in on the matter. Some of it is ridiculous, such as these comments by Fred Toucher of WBZ-FM — on whose show Shaughnessy appeared, in an effort to rehabilitate himself after the tweet (cached):

Do you understand that you’re not allowed to have an opinion on something in your hotel room while watching something on television? It exists, so you must like it. That is what’s going on now.

“You don’t like it; you’re a hater!”

“Oh, you don’t like women’s college basketball?! You’re sexist!”

Nice to see how he was able to turn this into a childish, anti-political-correctness tirade. Well done, dude! You must be so proud!

As much as Toucher would like it to be otherwise, this isn’t about whether or not someone likes women’s basketball, and it’s not about misogyny. It’s about whether or not a Division I basketball team should be permitted to play to its full potential, against opponents who — by and large — simply don’t match up to them. You see, as this piece from Deadspin (cached) makes clear, the UConn women’s team itself pretty much doesn’t care. They’re going out to play … and that’s all there is to it. They’re not about to slow down, or worse, purposely throw a couple games, just to satisfy a bunch of whiney sports writers. Nor should they! This is the kind of professionalism that’s gotten them where they are, and it will help those on the team who get to the WNBA.

As I said, this isn’t about the UConn women’s team. What they’re doing is what they’ve been doing for over 20 years now, which is to go on the court and play their hearts out. And that’s precisely what they should do. No, the problem is the rest of women’s college basketball. Aside from a very small number of other teams which are really good (e.g. Notre Dame, Stanford, Baylor, South Carolina), women’s college basketball teams are really afterthoughts in the minds of athletic departments. Very few resources are assigned to them. It’s a program they’re obligated to provide by virtue of Title IX, but it’s not something they’re invested in.

Now, one factor here is marketing and television revenue. Few schools have contracts covering their women’s basketball games, aside from a handful each year that ESPN might pick up via conference contracts. UConn has a contract of its own with New York sports network SNY, which picks up all the women’s games not served by the American Athletic Conference contract with ESPN. Prior to that, this contract had been with CPTV, Connecticut’s public television outlet. It’s a luxury many schools don’t have … but it’s not something they can’t exploit, if they wanted to.

Another consideration here is that, back in the 1980s when Auriemma was hired, UConn women’s basketball was lousy. Auriemma and the rest of the athletic department built it up over the course of years. A tipping point came with the recruiting of Kerry Bascom (cached). UConn began its consistent run of NCAA tournament appearances once she was on board, and it hasn’t let up since. But before that, there was nothing to speak of. If little UConn, out in the wilderness of eastern Connecticut, can build a relentless women’s basketball powerhouse from literally nothing, there’s no reason other schools can’t do the same. Their athletic departments just have to work at it. Nothing can stop them, if they wish to. Some schools are doing this: South Carolina is the most recent example I can think of. There’s talent out there to be had — UConn can’t take on every McDonald’s All American every year. Schools just need to hire good coaches, then go get the athletes.

The bottom line is, it’s time for people like Shaughnessy and his friend Toucher to stop bellyaching that women’s college basketball isn’t interesting because UConn wins too often. That they win a lot isn’t the problem. That other schools don’t try as hard to compete, is. They need to get off their asses and work at it … just as UConn has done since 1985 when Geno Auriemma was hired.

I won’t even get into the fact that dominance of any given sport by a team is something the sports media usually likes. For example, they’ve largely praised the Golden State Warriors, who are nearing the end of a possibly record-breaking season (cached). Each year there’s talk about which college football teams have been unbeaten. And on and on it goes. But they just can’t seem to view UConn the same way. Is it because it’s a women’s sport we’re talking about? Maybe. There are a lot of people who think all women’s sports are, by definition, lame. Is it because of geography? A lot of Americans can’t place Connecticut on a map. For some reason, New England sports teams get little or no respect in other parts of the country (I can’t travel outside the region with Red Sox, Bruins, or Patriots garb, without putting up with some nasty comment or other). I seriously wonder if that has something to do with it, as well.

But really, it shouldn’t matter. People who work in the sports media ought to be above their own petty subjective tastes. The problem is not with the sport of women’s college basketball, it’s how schools run their programs. And it needs to change — the sooner, the better.

Update: The UConn women’s basketball team defeated Syracuse, by a score of 82-51, last night to end the tournament (cached). It’s their 11th national championship, their 4th in a row, and it capped their 6th perfect season. Seniors Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck have played to 4 championships, something no other college athletes have done before.

Photo credit: TrueBlueUConn.

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