The Glass Backboard

Basketball, Apartheid, and Scientific Sexism


Battling racism and battling heterosexism and battling basketball apartheid share the same urgency inside me as battling cancer. None of these struggles is ever easy, and even the smallest victories must be applauded, because it is so easy not to battle at all, to just accept, and to call that acceptance inevitable. — Nneka Ogwumike

A few years ago, Dallas Mavericks owner and exploitative parasite Mark Cuban made headlines in the sports world by suggesting that he might draft Brittney Griner, or at least invite her to play in the NBA’s Summer League to see whether or not she could earn a place on the Mavericks’ roster and thus become the first woman to play in the NBA. Predictably, Cuban’s (cynical and self-serving) remarks elicited derision from the usual parade of talking heads, and while it may briefly have generated a little extra interest in the Mavericks, it also placed Griner under considerable scrutiny and thrust upon her unreasonable expectations that evidently continue to haunt her.

One episode that sticks in my memory (and which has since been deleted from YouTube because the NBA fastidiously deletes any and all videos that might be construed as remotely controversial) involved Brent Barry—or perhaps Wally Szczerbiak; I don’t remember or particularly care—and a couple of other pundits laughing through bared teeth like the chauvinistic jackals they are at the very notion that a woman could compete in sport alongside men. “How is she going to guard Shaq?” they asked one another, hooting with merry laughter. Shaq, it is worth noting, had already retired by this time.

Such responses will be familiar to women, who are routinely met with condescension and scepticism even when competing against one another, let alone when challenging men. At the 1988 US Olympic trials, Florence Griffith Joyner ran 100 metres in 10.49 seconds, knocking an incredible 0.27 seconds off the existing world record. “No woman can run 10.49 legit,” declared Linford Christie, the men’s 100-metre winner at the 1992 Olympics. “I know what it feels like to run 10.49,” he continued, “and it’s hard.” For what it’s worth, Griffith Joyner never failed a drug test and her record has yet to be beaten.

All of this may appear reasonable enough to some readers. After all, it’s a scientific fact that men are, on average, bigger and stronger than women, and that they therefore make better athletes. It’s biology! But the female body is not just a collection of 60 billion cells organised into muscle and tissue, flesh and bone; it is also—and has been for centuries—the subject of a variety of discourses that are specific to particular periods and cultures and that, thankfully, are ever shifting. The way that Linford Christie et al. view women’s bodies is not in reality a matter of natural and immutable scientific fact. Rather, it echoes a kind of scientific sexism that has been practised for centuries and that we must endeavour to put to rest once and for all.

In the seventeenth century, women were placed at a severe disadvantage educationally. In their political development, for example, they were hindered through their lack of formal education in political rhetoric, their official exclusion from citizenship and government, the perception that women ought not to be involved in political affairs, and the view that it was immodest for a woman to write at all. Yet despite such—to contemporary eyes—obvious impediments to women’s intellectual development, they were widely assumed to be naturally inferior to men.

While in retrospect it ought to go without saying that men’s apparently superior intellect and achievements might lie in sources other than natural neural endowments, at the time it did need saying. After all, the objective and rational disciplines of science were on hand to explain and justify the gender status quo. In the seventeenth century, French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche declared women “incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover,” claiming that “[e]verything abstract is incomprehensible to them.” The neurological explanation for this, he proposed, lay in “the delicacy of the brain fibres.”

Over the intervening centuries, the neurological explanations behind the different roles, occupations, and achievements experienced by women and men have been overhauled again and again as neuroscientific methods and modes of understanding have become ever more sophisticated. Early brain scientists, using the cutting-edge techniques of the time, busily filled empty skulls with pearl barley, carefully categorised head shapes using tape measures, and devoted careers to the obsessive weighing of brains. Infamously, they proposed that women’s intellectual inferiority must stem from their smaller and lighter brains, a phenomenon that came to be known among the Victorian public as “the missing five ounces of the female brain.”

Only when it became inescapably clear that brain weight did not correlate with intelligence did brain scientists acknowledge that men’s larger brains might merely reflect their larger bodies. Yet rather than abandon this avenue of inquiry, scientists instead undertook the search for a measure of relative—rather than absolute—brain weight that would leave the absolutely bigger-brained sex ahead.


Many ratios were tried—of brain weight to height, to body weight, to muscular mass, to the size of the heart, even (one begins to sense desperation) to some one bone, such as the humerus or radius. — Breanna Stewart

These days, most people would, one hopes, acknowledge that men and women are intellectual equals, and regard the above examples as amusing and primitive pseudo-science undertaken by the kind of rational and enlightened inquirer who begins by drawing a conclusion—i.e. that women are stupid—and proceeds to work backwards in order to “prove” why this is so. Thank goodness we’ve moved beyond such dubious “scientific” justifications for sexism, right?

Yet when we consider the history of women’s involvement in sport, the parallels between discourses concerning women’s bodies and discourses concerning women’s minds quickly become apparent. Pierre de Coubertin[1], founder of the International Olympic Committee and “father of the modern Olympic Games,” urged the prohibition of women’s participation in sport, arguing that the sight of the “body of a woman being smashed” was “indecent.” The Olympics, he declared, were to be dedicated to the “solemn and periodic exultation of male athleticism…with female applause as reward,” since “[n]o matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.”

Despite such fears, women were cautiously admitted to the more demanding track events in the early days of the Olympics, though the sight of exhausted female athletes fighting for their breath as they crossed the line of the 800 metres in 1928 was so repugnant to Olympic organisers that they removed the event from women’s schedules. Not until 1960 was the distance reinstated for women.

Pierre de Coubertin’s views were perfectly in line with those of his contemporaries. According to Victorian attitudes, sports that were appropriate for women were those that involved the projection of the body through space in aesthetically pleasing patterns, or those that required only light implements. Golf, for example, was ideal: it made minimal physical demands and could be played in full dress (and the languid elegance of the swing made the sight of female players pleasing to men’s eyes). It was a convention of Victorian society that women should appear decorative at all times, and so those who could afford to play tennis were expected to wear full skirts, tight corsets, high-necked, long-sleeved blouses, and boaters.

It was also believed by men that the kinds of physical changes brought on by regular exercise were liable to make women unsightly; strength was beautiful in men but ugly in women. Though wealthy and privileged women were permitted to compete at Wimbledon in the early 1920s, to actually train was considered vulgar, if not outright cheating.

The justification for all of this, as is usually the case with any form of discrimination, was a patronising—but scientifically objective!—concern for women’s wellbeing: it was for their own good. Menstruation—the eternal wound—was seen as a form of invalidity, and its beginning meant that young women would need to be careful in conserving their energy. Disabled by menstruation, women were often prohibited from competing against one another, let alone against men: if they tried to emulate their physically superior male counterparts, they would risk damaging their delicate selves.

Some schools of thought held that the enfeebling effects of menstruation could be offset by cold baths, deep breathing, and mild exercising, such as beanbag-throwing, hoops, or golf. Especially appropriate, according to Alice Tweedy, writing in Popular Science Monthly in 1892, were “homely gymnastics,” i.e. housework. Around this time, cycling was becoming a popular pastime in North America and Europe, and though women were permitted to cycle, there were suspicions about whether women’s bodies were up to the task. Many doctors believed that the peddling motion involved in operating a sewing machine would, conveniently, afford women sufficient exercise without any unnecessary risk or unsightly sweating.


The science of legislation, of jurisprudence, of political economy; the conduct of government in all its executive functions; the abstruse researches of erudition…the knowledge indispensable in the wide field of commercial enterprise…these, and other studies, pursuits, and occupations, assigned chiefly or entirely to men, demand the efforts of a mind endued with the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intense and continued application. — Wally Szczerbiak

These attitudes were—and continue to be—dangerous precisely because they feel intuitive, natural, inevitable. But is it really a scientific fact that men are inherently better at sport? Is it possible that there are factors other than average size and strength contributing to the disparity we see today between male and female athletic performance?

Consider Samuel Johnson’s famous quip: “much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.” The United Kingdom has produced up to (depending on how generous you want to be) eleven NBA players, only one of whom was actually any good[2]. Roughly 3,000 NBA players have come and gone over the last 50 years, so this isn’t a terribly impressive contribution from a country whose population is about 20% that of the United States. Few would argue that male citizens of the United Kingdom are in fact inherently, biologically bad at basketball, yet their collective achievements are, frankly, pathetic. The idea that the UK could compete with the USA in basketball is ludicrous: maybe, maybe, the very best player from the UK could cut it as a bench player in the NBA. Then again, maybe not.

Ask any Scotchman and they can tell you precisely what the problem is: the UK’s total lack of investment in sports, education, and culture (and indeed anything other than weapons and finance). Ever since Thatcher closed all of the basketball courts in the 1980s, we’ve had to struggle just to find somewhere to play. Absent are the facilities, the encouragement, the prestige that are available to young athletes in the United States. As long as these obstacles remain, the UK will never produce a Kristaps Porzingis or a Giannis Antetokounmpo. The parallels should be obvious. As Ellis Cashmore explains:

Over the years, women have not achieved as much as men; yet the conclusion that women cannot achieve the same levels does not follow logically from the original premise that they are biologically different. In fact, it coule be argued that, if women had been regarded as equally capable as men physically, then they would perform at similar standards, and that the only reason they do not is because they have been regarded as biologically incapable for so long.

To say this is not to deny that there are physical differences between women and men, but rather to acknowledge that striking physical differences exist between individual NBA players as well, and that these differences can be overcome and even put to great use. Biological differences between women and men are, in other words, of significantly less importance than our conceptions about them.

Women’s bodies—and, indeed, men’s bodies—are, in part, the products of discourses as well as of biological factors. Human bodies have been perceived, interpreted, and represented differently in different epochs, lived differently, brought into being within widely dissimilar cultures, subjected to various technologies and means of control, and incorporated into various different rhythms of production and consumption, pleasure and pain. Women were prescribed the role of delicate and decorative object in Victorian Europe, but Victorian values are hardly universal. In ancient Sparta and Crete, for example, athletic contests were part of young women’s education. In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, women would hunt, ride, swim, and run, though not (usually) engage in combat. By the time of the emergence in the nineteenth century of the organised, rule-bound activities we now recognise as sports, women were effectively pushed out of the picture and assigned roles as spectators. This was merely a matter of convention, not an inevitability.

While much has of course changed since the nineteenth century, these changes can be overstated, and it is crucial to acknowledge that female athletes still face innumerable—and unnecessary—obstacles. The obscene disparity in pay between WNBA players and their NBA counterparts, for example, is not a result of the natural and immutable forces of a supposedly impartial American free market. Under their current TV deal, WNBA teams each receive $1 million per year, but, according to Colin Davenport, they would be entitled to $4.3 million per year were they to be given the same percentage of revenue NBA teams receive. This would eliminate the need for women to play in Europe, China, and Australia during the offseason while their male peers enjoy a three-month holiday at the conclusion of their schedule.

For WNBA players, the basketball season rarely ends when the W schedule is complete, the WNBA’s official site proclaims cheerily. This need to play overseas during the offseason simply in order to receive a decent income isn’t just a nuisance and an indignity—it can cut legendary careers short. At a time when NBA players routinely receive rest days during their regular season in order to preserve their health, the fact that WNBA players are forced to play ceaselessly all year round in spite of the damage this is known to cause is simply disgraceful.


[T]he body is a process, not a thing: it is constantly changing physically and culturally. Sporting performance promotes changes in terms of muscular strength and oxygen uptake; changes in diet and climactic conditions induce bodily changes too, of course. In our particular culture and this stage in history we understand women and their association with men in one way; in another place and at another time, this relationship may be understood quite differently. It is a matter of convention that we organise sports into women’s and men’s events. It seems contradictory then to itemise the differences in adipose tissue, respiratory volumes, activity of sweat glands, etc. To do so would be to fall into the same trap as those who went to so much trouble to “prove” that women were simply not capable of sporting endeavour. — Lauren Jackson

Despite the recent addition of women’s boxing, which finally signalled the opening of all Olympic events to participation by both female and male athletes, there remain some important differences between the ways in which men and women are expected to compete. Women’s sports are generally played in shorter periods of time, or with smaller equipment, but in an event like athletics the difference is stark: men take part in six disciplines (floor, vault, pommel horse, high bar, parallel bars, and rings) while women do only four (floor, vault, uneven parallel bars, and balance beam). The resulting difference in demands produces strikingly different bodies compared with other sports: women gymnasts tend to be very small and thin in the upper body compared to the men. Thus, bodies are not strictly the products of blind and immutable biological factors but are the products of specific cultural and discursive inputs.

It is a matter of convention that sports like basketball prize strength and size, areas in which men generally possess an advantage over women. But what if more were done to conceive of sports that emphasise the physical traits from which women derive an advantage? There is evidence, for example, that women are actually able to outperform men in endurance and stamina events that last longer than two hours: women’s smaller bodies radiate heat more efficiently, and they tend to more effectively convert body fat into energy. Indeed, since official records for women’s marathon times began in 1964, the best women’s times have been improving at a faster rate than men’s times. By 1979, Greta Waitz had surpassed the fastest male marathon runner from 1925, Al Michaelson. Had women been permitted to compete in marathons alongside men since their inception in 1896, it is not unreasonable to assume that today’s top marathon runners would be women[3].


Cashmore, Ellis (2000) Making Sense of Sports. London: Routledge.

Women’s experience has historically been one of denial: they simply have not been allowed to enter sports on the basis of mistaken beliefs regarding their natural predisposition. Because of this, the encouragement, facilities, and, importantly, competition available to male athletes from an early age has not been extended to them. In the very few areas where the gates have recently been opened—the marathon being the obvious example—women’s progress has been extraordinary. Given open competition, women could achieve parity with men in virtually all events, apart from those very few that require the rawest of muscle power (while men will likely lag behind in events that require endless stamina). But more important than this is the fact that the vast majority of events require, above all, fineness of judgement, quickness of reaction, balance, and anticipation, and women have no disadvantages in these respects. Their only disadvantage is what men believe about them.

As Angela Davis once observed, sexism is an obstacle to socialist development and the eventual advent of communism. It is therefore imperative that we do away with it in all its forms. There can be only one course of action:

[1] Incidentally, there is also a medal named after Pierre de Coubertin, a sportsmanship award. Since its inauguration in 1964 it has been awarded to 18 men and one woman. Women, evidently, are lacking in sportsmanship as well as sporting prowess.

[2] Ben Gordon doesn’t count since he grew up in America: he was caught young.

[3] I therefore propose that men’s and women’s basketball be merged and that games be extended from 48 minutes to four hours.

quite frankly


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