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Women’s basketball and the fury of fragile masculinity

If you’ve ever said anything positive about women’s basketball online, you’re likely familiar with the inevitable stream of replies: Get back in the kitchen. Nobody cares about women’s basketball. I could beat you in one-on-one.

Not even the best women’s basketball players in the world are exempt from the sexist vitriol. Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA MVP, is sick of watching her mentions inundated with cooking jokes and amateurs claiming they could block her shot. She’s noticed through the years that most of these commenters have something in common.

“It’s a high percentage of men. High,”  Donne told ThinkProgress after the Washington Mystics’ practice on Tuesday. “It’s weird. There’s a lot of anger. They seem very angry at our league.”

I’ve written at length about pretty much every women’s sport, so relying on years of anecdotal evidence, I feel confident in saying that women’s basketball triggers a disproportionate amount of disdain in casual male sports fans. And when anyone from within the women’s basketball community speaks up, or asks for better pay, increased media attention, or basic respect? The disdain turns to outrage.

Last week, Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson — the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, and a dark-horse MVP candidate — ignited a firestorm on social media when she tweeted in awe at LeBron James’ $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, and noted that WNBA players are still paid well, well, under a million dollars. Wilson made it clear multiple times on social media that she was talking about percentage of revenue, and wasn’t attacking LeBron. But of course that didn’t matter. Her mentions were filled with hateful, sexist bile. The Federalist really capped it off with their article, “WNBA Players Should Stop Complaining. If Anything, They’re Overpaid.” 

A few days into the news cycle, as Wilson continued to stand up to the trolls on social media and refused to apologize for her comments, Imani McGee-Stafford, a center for the Atlanta Dream, chimed in.

“Yall really so tired with the ‘WNBA on the cooking channel’ ‘get in the kitchen’ yada yada. I’ll have you know I love to cook,” McGee-Stafford tweeted. “I’m hella domesticated lol. But I’m also killing you in any one on one game and my muscles prolly bigger than yours.”

A few minutes later, after her tweet went viral, she added: “Keep your fragile masculinity out of my mentions.”

Indeed, the men who most feel the need to express their contempt towards a group of strong, successful, athletic women appear to be talentless nobodies who last played organized basketball in high school. Meanwhile, the biggest stars in the NBA — including LeBron James — have been among the most reliable supporters (and fans) of the WNBA and its players.

When I spoke with McGee-Stafford on Tuesday, she said that her social media had been flooded with homophobia, racism, and kitchen jokes this past week, even more so than usual. She was, she said, all about fragile masculinity.

It’s the thing about privilege, right? Because me just trying to be who I am, doing what I want, is encroaching on their privilege,” McGee-Stafford said. “So the fact that I can say that I can be better than you in something you think is only a men’s sport, and get paid to do it, too? That hurts you’re heart. Now you’re angry.”

But she believes — as do many other players I’ve talked with — that it isn’t just sexism that provokes the anger about women’s basketball. It’s the fact that the majority of the league is women of color, and many are openly queer. That exacerbates the hate.

We’re women that are independent, college educated, most of us are women of color, most of us identify as [LGBTQ], so we have all of that, and we’re proud to be that!” McGee-Stafford said. It is, in essence, an amplification for where we are as a society.

“It’s hard to sit there and say that we’re progressive as a nation, that we want women to be in power, and then hate the WNBA. You can’t say you want to raise powerful women and then not support something that is pushing women to be better.”

You simply can’t talk about the hatred women’s basketball receives without talking about homophobia and racism, too. Black, queer women and nonbinary people are some of the most marginalized people in our society. And yet, women’s basketball — and the WNBA in particular — gives these women power, visibility, and a platform. These women both avail themselves of that platform, and have the tenacity to continue to demand more recognition. They’re not just satisfied with what they have.

No wonder the fragile men are angry.

Of course, when confronted with charges of sexism, many of these same people insist their beliefs are not about gender, sexuality, or race at all. It’s just about economics. It’s about business. But that argument, too, fails to hold water. It pretends that business decisions happen in a vacuum, that sexism, racism, and homophobia are separate from the business and economic world, that these biases have not been influencing market decisions for all time.

That’s why Mo Currie, a forward for the Washington Mystics, often finds these conversations so frustrating. They focus so much on the hate, and not enough on what needs to be done to push women’s basketball forward. Because at the end of the day, nobody is asking for WNBA players to be paid millions of dollars overnight; they’re asking for the proper investment and respect to be given to the league, so that it has an opportunity to grow to the point where those million-dollar paychecks are justified.

I think a lot of people, executives, are pushing for women’s rights, equality, but they’re not backing those things up with the programming they’re putting out there,” Currie said. “The producers that are in the rooms are not pushing for women’s events to be on television, and although I know it’s a business and money is the end goal, it’s hard for people to enjoy a product they don’t know about.”

Ultimately, haters notwithstanding, the league is moving in the right direction. The WNBA’s ratings are up this year even as most other professional leagues watch their ratings decline. Maya Moore is on the cover of SLAM magazine, and the talent is better than it’s ever been. (Seriously, watch a game. You won’t regret it.)

“Our league is growing every year. So as much as people want to troll, at the end of the day we’re growing and we’re getting bigger and better,” Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams told ThinkProgress.  

I mean, we’re not going away,” Currie said. “Our league is here to stay.”

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