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It Was a Pleasure to Watch Them Play
My first season as a basketball fan
It was midnight and everyone on the bus from Berlin to Krakow was sleeping. Except for me. With my headphones on, clutching my phone, I was watching snippets of the NCAA championship game, quietly pumping my fist in the air when the Iowa women’s team scored.
The connection was spotty and I frequently lost the video feed. For most of the game I was refreshing the ESPN app, trying to keep track of what was going on. My dad tried to ask a few questions, but he wasn’t actually interested. He told me to let him know who won and closed his eyes. But I kept watching, and even when LSU pulled ahead and it was clear Iowa couldn’t come back, I was still thrilled by watching the game — the athleticism, the joy, the emotion, the unbridled and unapologetic confidence. What a joy to watch this, I thought. What a pleasure.
Like so many people, I’m a new fan of women's college basketball, one of the record-setting 9.9 million who watched the championship game.
I grew up watching my father watch football. He was a Dallas Cowboys fan, and every Sunday in the mid-’90s, we’d gather for what he called “religious programming.” It was a thrill then. That was when Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and Deion Sanders were on the team. In a house where TV wasn’t allowed, watching football was like a portal to another world. But I was an ancillary character in that world. We weren’t allowed to talk much during the game. Too many questions would get us banished to our rooms. The television was muted during commercials. The only women on the screen were the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who seemed to be an entirely different species than the exhausted mothers and mouthy sisters in my life.
Later, in college, I’d go to Buffalo Wild Wings with friends and sidle up next to men as they watched other men, and I’d sip my Blue Moon and watch them all, feeling like a background character waiting for my own storyline.
When I got married, I’d go to baseball and hockey games, but only under strict instructions not to ask too many questions or to drink more than one beer. Once, on the Fourth of July, I got to go to Fenway park and watch the Red Sox play. It was a hot day, and after one beer, my then-husband told me not to get any more drinks or to spend money on a hot dog. Angry and sweaty, I pulled a book out of my bag and read for the rest of the game. “You don’t belong in this stadium,” he said.
He was a Vikings fan, so every Sunday during football season he’d turn on the game and I would disappear. It felt like men were always watching men and I was always watching them. Even after I got divorced, sports were a thing for men to explain to me, talk down to me about. There wasn’t room for me in this world
There is another story about my involvement in sports — the one where I’ve always been trying to play. I was always playing soccer and kickball growing up. And I started running in high school, on my parents’ treadmill and then sometimes outside with friends who were on the track team. In college, I lied and said I had run track in high school so I could play club rugby. I played for a whole year, until I got a concussion. Then it was back to running. Why? I just loved it. I loved pushing myself and challenging myself. I loved the way my brain quieted when I ran and moved. It was just pleasure. The pleasure of movement and muscles. I loved the muscle-tired, skinned-knee feeling of having played and played hard.
Despite that, I’ve never thought of myself as athletic.
That all changed last year when my daughter joined the swim team.
I watched her throw herself into her swims like I threw myself into my runs. After swim practice, she’d heave herself into the car, red-faced, exhausted and exuberant. “Look at my muscles,” she’d beam, flexing. She’s 11 and in the throes of puberty, so I’ve always felt that every day she is proud of how her body looks is a gift. I talked to her about stretches and she taught me kick turns in the water. We watched YouTube videos of women swimming in the Olympics, women with bodies like hers. Women with muscles, red-faced and exuberant with the sheer joy of the sport. When we watched together, we weren’t women watching men watching men; we were women playing. It was our bodies out there. Our bodies on the line. Our bodies moving and gliding. Our points on the scoreboard. Our victories being celebrated.
Watching her, I wondered how it would have been different if I hadn’t spent so much time trying to be a part of something that was excluding me and instead was asked to join in.
So maybe that’s why, when my friend Molly asked if I wanted to bring the kids to a basketball game earlier this year, I said, “Okay. Why not?” I’d never watched much basketball. Another world I felt I hadn’t been invited into. I spent most of the game fetching my kids snacks. But I loved watching. And after the game, in the car, as my son rattled off facts and statistics, my daughter said swimming is still her sport but she loved seeing girls who look like her “absolutely own.”
In a New York Times story about a sports bar in Portland, Oregon, called the Sports Bra— which only shows women’s sports — one woman commented, this “is a place where I can watch basketball with other women who know the sport as well.” A place “where there aren’t men there who are trying to explain the game to me.”
So many stories about women (especially queer women and trans women) are stories of loss — loss of bodily autonomy, loss of life, loss of rights. Drag shows are being outlawed. Trans girls are not allowed to compete in their sports under their gender identity. Reproductive rights are being stripped. What a joy it is to watch a different story, one where women win. One where they are cocky, confident, celebrated, and full of joy.
When we watched together, we weren’t women watching men watching men; we were women playing. It was our bodies out there. Our bodies on the line. Our bodies moving and gliding. Our points on the scoreboard. Our victories being celebrated.
Women’s sports is still filled with stories of abuse, racism, and misogyny. But they are often filled with triumph. A place where women can control the game and control the narrative. After the final game, LSU’s Angel Reese was criticized for making a gesture at Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. The gesture was an “I don’t see you” motion that Clark often makes to opponents, except Reese also pointed to her hand to indicate the championship ring. In response to the outsized backlash, Reese said, “I don’t fit the narrative. I don’t fit the box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. When other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing. So this was for the girls that look like me. For those that wan’t to speak up on what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you. And that’s what I [did] before tonight. It was bigger than me tonight.”
The world of professional women’s sports is often marginalized. U.S. women’s soccer has spent years battling for equal pay and against systematic abuse. NCAA women’s basketball players have recently highlighted the inequality in the funding, equipment, and investment between their teams and the men’s teams. The logic is that people don’t want to watch women’s sports so they aren’t worth the investment or the money.
But the sheer number of people watching the NCAA women’s championship game this year challenges that narrative. Maybe people want to watch, want to be a part of a game — they just don’t know how to find a way in or a place to fit. Maybe people want to watch women win. Maybe they want to be part of something bigger and are looking for a way in.
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