Listen to Geno Auriemma; it's time for change
So Geno Auriemma went and did it again. He stepped in it, all right. The same man who was illuminated last March in a terrific Deadspin profile that began with him sitting in his University of Connecticut office rhetorically asking, "Does this look like the office of a f------ egomaniac?" and, before that, used to delight in engaging iconic Tennessee coach Pat Summit in a cold war that had no precedent in their sport -- contemporaries of John Wooden or Dean Smith never openly mocked them like Auriemma did Summit -- that guy went and said earlier this week that women's basketball should think about lowering the rims. Which sent a lot of people to their fainting couches, angry about all he seemingly implied.
Summit is barely retired now, and now here's Geno, indisputably alone now at the very top of the game, essentially offering up what could be construed as an insider admission that the worst critiques the women's game has always had to beat back might actually be true -- that the women's game doesn't measure up to the men's game because it's played below the rim, because they don't shoot as well from the field percentage-wise, because most women can't dunk and the ones who can, won't.
"I'm not advocating lowering the rim so women can dunk -- I could care less about that, I could care less about that," Auriemma repeated Wednesday evening, speaking on a cell phone from a Connecticut airport as he waited to board a flight. "It's not about a guy thing/girl thing/women's game/men's game thing. That is not what this is about at all.
"People need to get off that crap."
Auriemma was still refusing to back up an inch, but he was interested in elaborating on exactly what he did mean. And he deserves to be heard out because, for starters, in addition to his seven NCAA titles and 13 trips to the Final Four, the 2012 Olympic gold medal he just coached the U.S. team to, the record-setting winning streaks and world-class players he's churned out, this is indisputable: One of the bedrock ideas he brought to coaching his UConn teams nearly three decades ago has always been, "I don't coach women. I coach basketball players." That's been his gender-blind philosophy from the day he showed up and the record says it is indeed what he does better than anyone else.
The irony of any suggestion that Auriemma might be a traitor in women's basketball's midst is that his UConn teams are perennially, consistently, and without fail the best example of all the very same traits that women's game actually loves about itself: selfless passing, constant motion, fundamental soundness, unapologetic competitiveness and an insistence on excellence. It should come as no surprise that Auriemma is a great admirer of Red Holzman's great Knicks squads, one of the all-time great exemplars of teamwork in sports. And at times, let's face it, Auriemma has been as neurotic as any female coach about how coaching women rather than men is devalued, and seen as some lesser calling.
But here's the thing I agree with him on. Women's basketball has also been rolling out that old John Wooden quote about how much he preferred their game to the men's for so long it feels older than Wooden was himself. And Auriemma may be the only person in the game with the stones -- not just the stature -- to look at a troubling aside like the last women's Final Four in Indianapolis and essentially tell women's basketball, "Hello? Are you not as concerned about this as I am? It's time to get over ourselves. This is our wake-up call."
"At some point we need to grow the game and we're not -- we didn't sell out the Final Four in Indianapolis, and Notre Dame, which plays right down the road, was in it!" Auriemma said. "So we need to start catching up with our game to some realities." Like? "For one," he shot back, "we're in competition for the entertainment dollar. And the reality is all these athletic directors in a lot of places aren't getting a return on their money from women's basketball. It's cheaper and easier to have women's volleyball or tennis team."
Auriemma says lowering the rim, like his other idea of reducing the shot clock from 30 seconds to the 24-second time limit they use in the WNBA and international game, isn't some half-cocked idea he just blurted out on a TV show Tuesday for the first time publicly. Auriemma says he and Doug Bruno, the women's coach at DePaul, have been kicking around the idea for months and when Bruno first brought it up, "Guess what? I was against it."
So what changed?
"One of my things is, what's been tried in the women's game in the last 10 years that you can point to and say that really brought in a whole new group of fans? Huh?" Auriemma said. "Seriously. I want someone to call me and give me a list of what that's been. They can't. Instead, it's always this stuff about the 'beauty' of the game, the 'sanctity' of the game, the purists saying, 'We don't want to be like the men.' Well, who ever said that? I never said that either! The reason I'm suggesting this is not the dunking -- it's the exciting play around the rim. And we don't have that. And we could. It's about getting exciting players and athletes we have around the net. It could increase scoring. Shooting percentages. All of that."
Yes, I tell him, but you know what people are barking back about you, right? They're saying the full range of what you said was a tacit admission that women's game is "inferior." They're saying here comes another know-it-all guy preposterously telling women what's "good" for them rather than trusting women can determine it for themselves, and acknowledging all the baggage women athletes still face.
"But this is my livelihood too!" Auriemma answered. "Our program is going to stay great no matter what women's basketball overall decides to do. But look: people in all sports are trying to create more excitement in the game. Why? Because that's what the average fan wants. We're in competition for the entertainment dollar and our fan base seems to be shrinking. Lowering the rims is not about diminishing talent of women. It's not cheapening the game. It's enhancing it.
"But I guess the person that lowered the mound Bob Gibson pitched on because he was so dominant -- I'm sure they were stupid too, right? The person that had the idea for the designated hitter -- he was dumb. In basketball not so long ago somebody said, 'We're gonna have a line on the court. And you'll get three points instead of two if you make a basket from here.' Where's that person today? Or the inventor of the shot clock -- same thing. That wasn't so bad. There was a time when they tried to ban dunking in the men's college game [because of Lew Alcindor's dominance]. Remember that? How'd THAT turn out?"
The passage of time and players from Julius Erving to Michael Jordan showed it was sheer folly.
"Things have been done to alter the game, or change games, forever," Auriemma continued. "So why not give women's basketball the same opportunity for that kind of success?
"Anybody that thinks it through is going to agree with me."
Well not exactly. I do agree, for reasons I'll get to in a second. But the stony silence within the game since Auriemma's suggestion to lower the rim from 10 to perhaps nine feet has been telling.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer declined an ESPN.com request for comment. A USC spokesman said head coach Michael Cooper, the former Laker who's been vocal about men's prejudices toward the women's game, would try to call back Wednesday night. He didn't. Varied attempts to reach retired WNBA and Olympic star Lisa Leslie, one of the greatest, smartest, classiest players the game has seen, eventually brought a reply through an L.A. Sparks spokesman that Leslie didn't want to comment. An insider who reps players like Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings and Seimone Augustus never responded to a voice message or emails.
A WNBA spokesman said the league would have no comment, either. Were lower rims ever considered by the league in the past? Again, no comment.
The only actual peep from a WNBA official that I could find in the first 48 hours after Auriemma's remarks was a tweet by Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who wrote: "Lowering the rims can be considered, but WIDENING the minds of many would go a long way too." And she's right. Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, a longtime friend and foil of Auriemma's (they'd have a future as a Mars/Venus comedy team if this basketball stuff ever ceases to work out) also stepped up and emailed back this response:
"I don't think that he's really serious. Perhaps his team is so good that he had nothing to rant about and he got bored. Changing goal heights would be a facility nightmare. Every basketball goal on every court in every neighborhood and rec gym and high school and arena in America is 10 feet tall. The last thing that our sport needs to do is make it difficult for young athletes to find a place to play."
The logistical problem is an extremely valid consideration. It would be a lot tougher to hurdle than women's current use of a one-inch smaller ball at every level from high school to the pros.
But I agree with Auriemma's floating the idea of lowering the rim if only because I agree with Auriemma's basic premise: There is something about women's sports that's a bit broken.
Things are undeniably better than they've ever been. But the great post-Title IX movement that lifted women's sports into something that could be this big and dynamic and provide a professional landing spot for women is undeniably sputtering.
Fairly or not, the perception is the WNBA continues to exist only at the whim of its original sugar daddy, NBA commissioner David Stern. Women's soccer hasn't been able to springboard off the many successes of the beloved U.S. women's team and establish a domestic pro league that has survived for long. The women's golf tour is shrinking here and moving events overseas. Ominous echoes of the old gripes that women tennis players don't "deserve" the same prize money as men have recently been revived in that game, 40 years after Billie Jean King exploded the argument. There are now signs that male tennis players themselves are cleaving away from supporting their female contemporaries' hard-won footing.
Do you know King originally won the argument? By invoking the same word then that Auriemma is borrowing now: She said, "We're entertainers, not just athletes."
And all of this is happening even though women play a lot of sports, buy a lot of sports stuff and consume a lot of sports as entertainment. The NFL's fan base is nearly equally split between men and women. But not enough people watch women's games.
So, after you get past the metrics and the undeniable prejudices and tiresome reminders that many male fans who are exposed to women's sports come away exclaiming "Why, I had no idea, that was great!" -- there is still this: What if the stinging truth is the old politics and attitudes that still swirl around women's games among women themselves are indeed partly to blame?
What if that's also holding the game back instead of slingshotting it forward?
King made a point when she beat Bobby Riggs. But as I've written previously, including here in 2010, I'm tired of symbolic barrier breaking. As the list of athletes willing to challenge themselves in cameos against the men has grown -- Manon Rheaume, Ann Meyers, Hayley Wickenheiser, Annika Sorenstam, among others -- the hoped-for change in the public's or athletes' mindsets often hasn't advanced as dramatically.
Here's where Auriemma makes perfect sense. What's so bad about playing great basketball and not being allergic to putting on a more entertaining show? WNBA and college players routinely dunk in warmup lines. Why not throw down in a game for the same reason you break someone's ankles with a crossover dribble: just because you can?
To me, the example that best supports Auriemma's lower-the-rim remark isn't from basketball at all. It's the memory of the Silver Bullets women's baseball team that briefly went on tour in the mid-1990s. The entire concept was -- how can I say this politely? -- insipidly stupid and offensive at near every turn.
The squad was comprised largely of former female softball players who were asked to compete on baseball fields with dimensions constructed to test the superior hitting and throwing and running abilities of men. They were given a couple of weeks to learn how to hit curveballs or sliders that men had grown up hitting all of their lives before being trotted out on a little barnstorming tour in games against college or semi-pro players, and hoisted up as some authentic yardstick of how "far" women athletes have come.
And I hated it.
Because it was not.
The debate about the height of the basketball rim strikes me the same way. A 10-foot rim is challenging but not impossible for men. The same isn't physically true for most women. That's not a fault to be ashamed of -- that's a fact. So, again, if we're talking theoretically now -- forgetting the logistics Coale mentioned -- what's so awful about making the women's basketball rim more in scale to even the best women athletes' physical abilities? Why is that seen as a failing rather than just pragmatic? Unless -- could it be? -- we've internalized too much of that crap that gets said about us, too. Doesn't history also show that sometimes you have to wade through junk like that to get to something better?
You know what King said way back when, when tennis promoter Jack Kramer sneered, "Nobody's going to pay to watch you birds play?" She said get out of my way.
As Auriemma noted in his original remarks, changes already have been made to the tees and yardages in women's golf, the net in women's volleyball and the basepaths in women's softball, which are 60 feet, not 90.
And even men do occasionally admit their games need fluffing up. It's not a gender high crime. Baseball teams move in outfield fences all the time. The NHL did away with the center-ice red line and it's only made offenses more thrilling. The NFL gets tweaked for getting rid of nearly every last vestige of pass defense, and yet the game's popularity has never been higher. Quarterbacks are racking up pinball-machine numbers.
Auriemma may not be the perfect messenger for all this for some folks' tastes. But the message itself is a provocative and valid one. There are indeed times when women's sports need to ask if perhaps we need to get over ourselves a little. Or if some of the things women's sports cling to are actually part of what's holding things back.
Many men can remember the first day they dunked as easily as they recall their birthday. Yet the women who can dunk feel pressure to shy away from doing everything they're capable of? And that helps well, what exactly? Is that not an artificial ceiling of our own making? Not to mention one that's inoculated the women's game from nothing. Zero. Zilch.
"A lot of these critics saying lowering the rim would 'cheapen' the game are men -- the same guys who couldn't play using a four-foot rim, let alone an eight-foot rim," Auriemma shot back. "So what?"
But as Auriemma keeps saying, this isn't really about dunking at all. It's about whether women in sports need to look at themselves differently.
And if you ask me, it's not so bad that Auriemma was willing to rattle the cage by vowing Tuesday to formally propose the lower rim, plus some other changes, to the NCAA rules committee this spring.
Time was running out on this conversation with Auriemma. He needed to go catch his plane. Before he hung up he said that he's already told his UConn team they're going to test drive playing on lower rims this spring just for fun, and he claimed they're "excited." Then he paused a split-second and acknowledged, "Of course, they may come back to me when we're done and say, 'Coach. You're an idiot.'"
No need to wait for that.
It's covered. Others have already accused Auriemma of the same thing.