Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for Show More
As we enter the Final Four weekend in women’s college basketball and prepare to enter the 20th season of the WNBA, a debate about the height of the rim has been raging among some of the biggest names in the game.
Is it ridiculous to think that lowering the rim could raise the interest in women’s basketball? And, more importantly, is it somehow sexist to even consider doing so?
One of the most outspoken opponents to lowering the rim from 10 feet has been Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who last week told espnW: “Might as well put us in skirts and back in the kitchen.”
The implication here is that in lowering the rim for the women’s game we are making some kind of statement about them being inferior or subservient to men, rather than simply acknowledging the reality that they are just not as tall.
The average height for a WNBA player has hovered around 6 feet the past three seasons, while the average height in the NBA this season is 6-7. Women already play with a smaller basketball than do the men and have a closer three-point line. Lowering the basket, say by six inches, would let the players showcase their athleticism and perhaps infuse new interest in the game.
Which is the point of all this talk anyway. While the women’s game has made great strides the past 20 years as far as the skill level of the players and the quality of the basketball, the audience is not growing at the same rate. And a number of big-time basketball names, including Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and Big East commissioner Val Ackerman, think those who love the game need to start thinking outside of the box to get it to reach a wider audience.
Ackerman, the founding commissioner of the WNBA, believes the game has “hit a plateau.”
“It’s a good plateau, but what would it take to go to the next level, to reach a new level of interest?” Ackerman asked in an interview with Newsday last week. “I think some innovative ideas aren’t done just because the men don’t do them. Sometimes that mind-set is very prevalent in college sports. If the men do it, so we have to do the same thing.”
Before taking over as commissioner of the Big East, Ackerman served as president of USA basketball and was hired by the NCAA to study the game for six months and come up with suggestions to improve it. Ackerman’s report, which was issued in the fall of 2013, came up with several suggestions to speed up the women’s game — such as going to four, 10-minute quarters — that already have been adopted. It also made the suggestion of establishing a “rules laboratory” that could test out radical rule changes such as lowering the rim or adopting a new scoring system that would award extra points for winning quarters.
“Lowering the rim is controversial, and there’s pros and cons to it,” she said. “My regret is that we never tried it in the WNBA. It was rejected out of hand, even though volleyball has a lower net. The players can spike it more easily. It wouldn’t have to be a drastic lowering. It would just be 6 to 4 inches to help with some of the shooting percentages.”
Volleyball isn’t the only sport with rules differences for men and women. Women golfers hit off a tee that is closer to the green, and in Grand Slam tennis tournaments they play best-of-three sets while the men play best of five, though there’s been some recent talk about changing that.
Basketball, however, seems wary of differentiating from the men’s game. And there is some history behind that. Only two generations ago, high school girls in many states were considered too dainty to withstand the rigors of the boys game. Instead, they played a restrictive form of six-on-six basketball, where only the three forwards were allowed to shoot, only the three guards played defense and no one was allowed to cross midcourt. As recently as the 1990s, schools in Iowa and Oklahoma still were playing six-on-six.
For the women in today’s game, however, that is ancient history. Many of the girls who take the court today grew up with mothers who played sports because of Title IX. In basketball, they aren’t so much worried about keeping up with the men’s game as they are about finding a unique — and marketable — identity of their own.
“Lowering the rim isn’t just about the dunk. It’s about the future of the game,” tweeted Delle Donna in reaction to Taurasi’s apron and kitchen comment.
I don’t know if lowering the rim could raise the interest in women’s basketball. But we’ll never know if someone doesn’t try it.