How do you truly honor someone as great as Pat Summitt, the legendary women’s college basketball coach who died Tuesday morning at the age of 64 after a courageous battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease? In the past few days, thousands have tried, mostly by sharing stories about their time with the long-time University of Tennessee coach.
These stories — of her going into labor during a recruiting visit, helping a coach she’d never met before find her rental car in an enormous parking lot in the pouring rain, taking over a men’s basketball practice at Tennessee and forced them to run sprints because the guys were goofing off too much — are all an undeniable part of her legacy.
Summitt was headstrong and resilient, demanding but compassionate, and embracing these characteristics are a wonderful way to honor her. But the best way to pay tribute to Summitt is by embracing her insistence that women’s sports — and, by extension, women in sports — are worthy of just as much respect and admiration as their male counterparts.
Pat Summitt, Women’s Basketball Titan, Dies At 64Sports by CREDIT: Wade Payne, AP Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history, passed…thinkprogress.orgJuliet Macur of the New York Times wrote that when Summitt was offered a chance to coach men’s basketball, she responded, “Why is that considered a step up?”
That question right there is, in and of itself, a radical act. And it’s part of her legacy that is still very much a work in progress.
We’ve come a long way since Summitt started coaching the Tennessee women’s team in 1972. (Back then, she had to drive the bus and hand-wash uniforms.) But, for women in sports, there is still such a long way to go. Nowhere was that more apparent than Wednesday morning on ESPN’s flagship debate program, First Take. In an alarmingly rare occurrence, the show featured four female analysts: Kate Fagan, Jane McManus, Sarah Spain, and Jen Lada. The reaction from certain corners of the internet was what you’d expect — sexism, homophobia, and down-right outrage.
But nonetheless, the women used their platform to have an incredibly nuanced discussion about Summitt.
Acknowledging the great outpouring of love and respect directed towards Summitt in sports media over the last few days, Lada asked her co-hosts what would change about women in sports after Summitt’s death. Fagan didn’t mince her words: “Nothing. It stays the same.”
“Yesterday… for the first time, while being on SportsCenter or certain shows, I felt like when I mentioned being a women’s college basketball player and playing in the 2003 NCAA tournament, there was a kind of respect delivered to that,” Fagan said. “And I was amazed. Last night, I couldn’t really fall asleep, and I was like, what an interesting day that Pat Summitt had to die to deliver that kind of respect to women’s basketball and to female athletes.”
Just think about that. Fagan has worked for ESPN for four years, and appeared on countless shows across the network, but it took until Summitt’s death for her to feel like her experience as an elite college basketball player was valued.
Unfortunately, she didn’t think the sentiment would last.
And then I was thinking, yeah, but like so many of the people who were like, ‘Pat Summitt was amazing, respect,’ I feel these are going to be the same folks going forward who are going to be tweeting disrespect about female athletes and sports. And I think what people have to — what I was feeling last night was how sports is so much about a community. And we all are a part of the community when we’re talking about men’s sports and male athletes. And you almost take for granted that when you share a story about it, when you talk about it, people are going to care about what you’re saying.
I actually felt that yesterday in women’s sports. And I knew as I fell asleep that it was only going to last as long as we continue to talking about Pat Summitt. Forty-eight hours maybe, perhaps a week, where it just wasn’t going to be cool to slam female athletes and women’s sports out of respect for Pat Summitt. Then we’re going to go right back to it being very easy to be as disrespectful as you want to be.
Judging by some of the reaction on social media, it didn’t even take that long for the disrespect to return, if it ever even left at all.
The World Cup winning U.S. Women’s National team is still battling for equal pay. Players in the WNBA are still paid so little that they have to go overseas and play during their “off season” just to make ends meet. Greatness in women’s college basketball is dismissed as boring rather than revolutionary. Women in sports media still deal with off-the-chart levels of discrimination and abuse.
And, as Spain pointed out on First Take, only 43 percent of NCAA women’s sports teams have female coaches today, compared to 90 percent back in 1973, the year after Summitt began coaching.
How Title IX Forced Female Coaches Out Of College AthleticsSports by CREDIT: Title IX, the federal law enacted in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in educational…thinkprogress.orgSummitt’s death inspired at least one sportswriter, longtime L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke, to reflect upon his own role in the marginalization of women’s sports. Plaschke admitted that he had never once covered a Pat Summitt game, or met her in person. He also admitted that he rarely attended or covered WNBA games, despite the fact that Los Angeles has a pro team, the Los Angeles Sparks.
“Pat Summitt will be honored this week for advancing women’s athletics — and female empowerment — far beyond the imagination of a sports landscape where the NCAA astonishingly didn’t hold its first women’s tournament until 43 years after debut of the men’s tourney,” Plaschke wrote. “But moving forward, the struggle will be forgotten if the illumination does not continue.”
It’s more than unfortunate that Plaschke didn’t come to this realization when Summitt was alive and coaching her team to eight national championships. But Plaschke’s not alone. So many ignore women’s sports, brush them off as less-than without even giving it a second look. Fans and advertisers, sports journalists and businessmen, all miss the opportunity to experience greatness just because of a gender.
The only way to fix this, the only way to make things better for women’s sports, is to stop dismissing them. To question yourself every time you think of men’s sports as a “step up” from women’s sports. To turn on the TV next time there’s a WNBA game on, watch the women’s Final Four, go support your local National Women’s Soccer League team. Show respect to women in sports.
“When you hear female athletes speaking, maybe consider listening with the same gravitas and respect you gave when you were listening to the stories about Pat Summit, because that’s what women’s sports is,” Fagan said. “She was women’s sports.”