March Madness Made Me Question My Feminist Credentials

While the Syracuse University men’s basketball team finished their run in the 2012 NCAA March Madness tournament against Ohio State, I watched with a heavy hoops fan’s heart at a bar on campus with hundreds of other Orange fans. As a feminist, though, my enthusiastic support for my school’s basketball team feels problematic at times.

I cheer and cry for the same program that is currently associated with the allegations against former assistant coach Bernie Fine for molesting multiple ball boys. And in June 2011 Fab Melo, SU’s starting center (who was ruled ineligible for the 2012 NCAA tournament), was arraigned in Syracuse City Court for being involved in a domestic dispute with his former girlfriend. According to the police report, Melo was physically violent with his girlfriend four or five times since they began dating, and she claimed they had a “volatile relationship.”

In 2007, a female student accused three Syracuse basketball players—Rick Jackson, Jonny Flynn and Scoop Jardine (a graduating starter in the 2012 season)—of sexual assault. The charges were eventually dropped, but the players were found responsible for behavior “that threatened the mental health” of the woman.

These incidents make me confront this question: Can I effectively engage as a feminist fan of Syracuse’s men’s basketball program? Why not switch my allegiance to women’s college basketball?

If I went to the University of Connecticut, it wouldn’t be an issue. The UConn Huskies, Syracuse’s basketball rival, draw great interest for both men’s and women’s teams. Head coach Geno Auriemma has led the women’s team to seven national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, and more than 30 Big East Conference Championships. The team also holds the longest winning streak in NCAA college basketball history, men’s or women’s, at 90 consecutive games.

But not all college women’s basketball programs are so successful and so highly regarded and respected on campus. And the fact is, except at certain schools with elevated women’s programs, we live in a culture that prioritizes men’s sports in the mainstream media and on campuses–especially when it comes to basketball in March.

It’s not always easy to become a fan of women’s collegiate basketball: Schools don’t always spend the same amount of money and marketing efforts to promote women’s sports; it’s more difficult to find games broadcast on television (let alone at a campus bar); and President Obama was the only person I saw fill out a bracket for the women’s tournament this March. Feminist website Jezebel, rather than hyping the women’s game, makes light of March Madness by creating a tournament battle between random pleasures: This year it was sex vs. chocolate.

But as a student, it’s difficult to break away from the dominant narrative of men’s basketball fandom. When the entire student body rallies together behind one team, it can feel alienating to not join such a significant part of campus culture.

So how does one navigate the ambivalence of identifying as a feminist but enjoying men’s college basketball when players or coaches are bad actors who assault women or children?

Popular culture smacks us in the face from the moment we wake up in the morning, so it’s critical to think about what we choose to participate in and how. Bringing a critical, feminist lens to problematic experiences helps us learn the ways in which patriarchy operates on a systemic and individual level.

The great feminist theorist bell hooks has written, “A phrase like ‘I advocate’ does not imply the kind of absolutism of ‘I am.'” I take that to mean that I can resolve my feminism and my love of the men’s college game by not forgetting the advocacy part of feminism.

After recognizing the faults of men’s college basketball programs and problematic ways in which they are represented in our society at large, the next step is to move toward advocating for gender equality in sports through collective action. After a disappointing loss last Saturday night, SU’s campus acted as if basketball season was over entirely and the only hope was to wait for next year’s men’s team to make another run for a national title. Meanwhile, the women’s basketball team won four straight games on the road and made it to the WNIT semifinals before barely losing [PDF] to James Madison University. My feminist sisters, were you watching?

Student athletes, especially on men’s basketball teams, can use their celebrity status on campus and in local media venues to encourage students toward a women’s sports fandom. Indeed, there was Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin, Jr. front and center at the Baylor-Stanford game in the NCAA Women’s Final Four last night–kudos! He’s a model of how male players–as some often do–can turn their attention to women’s teams with a Tweet, Facebook status update or, best yet, appearing at a game. School administrations should also demonstrate their efforts toward prioritizing women’s college sports with well-funded and supported marketing campaigns.

Since this issue extends way beyond Syracuse’s campus, other famous basketball fans should rally behind women’s college basketball in the same way that Bill Clinton and Spike Lee sat behind Syracuse’s men’s bench in the Big East tournament. Famous women, too, should adopt a college team and support it! If students see people in the spotlight prioritizing women’s games, then more fans might operate under the assumption that women’s college basketball is something worth paying attention to.

I will always “bleed orange,” as the saying goes at Syracuse, but I won’t stop bringing a critical lens to my fandom. My internal struggle over problematic components of men’s college basketball has driven me to embody responsible attitudes about culture consumption.

But I can say, without ambivalence, that you should watch the NCAA men’s basketball championship tonight (Kentucky vs. Kansas) and don’t miss Tuesday night’s women’s championship matchup between unbeaten Baylor, with player of the year Brittney Griner, and feisty Notre Dame, with point guard of the year Skylar Diggins. Play ball!

Photo of UCLA guard Darxia Morris from Flickr user JMR_Photography via Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. Re: famous women supporting women’s teams, Condoleezza Rice was also at the Stanford-Baylor game, and I get the impression she’s a frequent attendee at Stanford’s games.

  2. It’s a weird paradox, how we want women’s teams to be more successful and more high-profile yet we don’t make the effort to support them ourselves. I’m not pointing fingers – I do the same thing. I’m trying to change it but you’re right, there are some mighty big obstacles to overcome on the way to showing support for women’s teams.

    As far as supporting the men’s teams – I think it’s important for feminists to remain fans of their sports teams, regardless of the bad behavior of some of the players and staff. I’m a big fan of not ceding the things we love to the worst elements of society, like misogynist sports fans and secretive athletic organizations. I think that if we truly believe in and enjoy something, we have a responsibility to fight for it.

  3. I like the way you reconciled your (and mine) conflicting feelings. I hope it works!

  4. I’m doing an article soon regarding the effects of sports and women, in particular having participated at the college level, do women who have been involved/competed in sports become better community leaders and actually make a difference in the world around them. The statistics really show a big difference for the athlete, but I’m looking for how this affects the community and ultimately the world.
    I actually was more interested in the women’s bracket than I have been in years as I think the men’s gets kind of boring after the first rounds, my alma mater, the University of Northern Colorado made it to the dance last year and being beat by Kansas I was glad when they lost.
    I think part of it is I’m pretty good at watching sports as I played and I played a lot, the men’s game is pretty much the same and who executes the best.
    Where in the women’s game I see more planning, strategy, athleticism and genuine heart. I see the men’s game as a route to make money, sorry but your Fab Melo fits the mold as do some others.
    Whereas Brittany Griner decided to stay in school.
    I’m working with some organizations working with the Title IX studies and the research is phenomenal. What I see in women’s sports is they play with their heart and have passion for what they have. I see true teamwork, I see respect, for themselves and others, sure there are incidences but in general. In what they are doing they show the true/real them.
    Regarding the other situations, it’s hard to root for anyone who does those things. Having worked with these sexual assault issues with adults (mainly women) and children (male/female, parents and adult survivors) or almost 40 years, I know people around those people may have no idea its even going on.
    With that said, one of my main issues with men’s sports as with most of the world and is male athletes believe they are privileged with regard to sexual situations and it too needs to stop.
    As I get older and perhaps since I played, I find I am watching sports for the art, the great catch, the great team win and not just the athlete performing well. I know I am in the minority, unless of course it’s my orange team, Go BRONCOS!!!

  5. I think one of the major obstacles that sexism has constructed on women’s sports is the ridiculous notion that women’s sports are “boring” or somehow the players are “less talented” aka “less than” men. While women’s sports fans, and likely feminists in general, can acknowledge that notion is far from the truth, it nonetheless seems to be the pervasive narrative within the societal consumption of sports or the response you get if you ask the bartender at the sports bar to please turn on the women’s tournament game. Even the dialogue we use to discuss sports…it’s “March Madness” vs. “Women’s March Madness” not “Men’s March Madness” vs. “Women’s March Madness”…continues to other women and segregate them from the “real” or “legitimate” tournament. In my opinion, until we’re able to find a way to successfully debunk this myth and change the way we project sports into the public women’s sports will continue to be an afterthought.

    I absolutely agree that we as feminists should advocate for women’s sports and even forge stronger partnerships with the institutions that manage and promote women’s sports, but I also think that one of the reasons this endeavor hasn’t been more powerful beyond achieving the legal Title IX is the complicated relationships sports have with advertisers and consumerism. I strongly believe that while male athletes are certainly talented athletes, men’s sports are only as popular as they are because of how they’re marketed and that probably a good portion of the so-called fans would not be interested in men’s sports if not for the marketing. While men’s sports are full of sponsors who seem to attract viewers/consumers by selling macho culture and misogyny, this isn’t an attractive strategy for women’s sports and likely contributes to the unfortunate lack of public interest in women’s sports (and even more so the lack of funding for women’s sports). In my opinion, as feminists to bolster support and recognition for women’s sports we’ll need to come up with an alternative method to hype up women’s sports and somehow develop a strategy that deals with the problematic relationship between sports and advertising that doesn’t undermine the talent of the athletes.

    • I also think that one of the reasons this endeavor hasn’t been more powerful beyond achieving the legal Title IX is the complicated relationships sports have with advertisers and consumerism.

      I think this is a really good point, and maybe explains why attempts to sell women’s sports – that is, attempts that don’t rely heavily on the sex angle – is that there is still a reluctance, both on the part of advertisers and audience, to accept a style of femininity that is physically strong and aggressive. For instance, it’s weird to me that we are in the 21st century and yet still people are disturbed by the sight of women with muscles.

  6. Funny that you bring up UConn. I grew up in Connecticut, hero-worshipping those committed young women and memorizing their names (and now here I am looking back in astonishment on the fact that they’re younger than I am now, and probably trying with difficulty to get their homework done on time and maintain social lives). It was most likely why a geeky, awkward, chubby kid like me reluctantly agreed that basketball was an acceptable sport when my parents prodded me to get more activity in my life — and then loved it and the teammates and friendship that came out of it for five years, though my athletic skills never really improved. I never grew up believing that women were in any way less skilled, less strong, or less capable in that area or that it conversely made them any less a woman. I had proof that that wasn’t the case.

    And then I moved to Louisville, where there is in fact a pretty awesome women’s NCAA team who …very few people watch. I headed into high school having to argue that women’s basketball wasn’t innately easier. Moving out of CT for me was like complete culture shock.

    I don’t think women’s sports are free of their own problems – see the ‘no lesbians’ scandal at Penn State for one, and the entire stereotype of the ‘butch athlete’ which, in an effort to combat, can lead to some seriously homophobic behavior, as well as the issues of exclusionary behavior on both men and women’s teams towards nonbinary or trans people – but I do agree that we need to go out of our way to support women’s teams if we’re going to expect them to get the funding and spotlight they deserve, not to mention if we want it to be easier to BE a fan.

  7. I think one of the first steps we need to take in this particular fight is to address the attitudes of our youth towards gender in sports. As a junior high basketball player our girls’ team had a far better record than that of the boys’ team. We went to the playoffs and the boys didn’t. We still faced ridicule and belittling from the male players and their coach because the girls’ games were generally lower scoring which, of course, equals boring. I got the guys off my back about it by joining their pickup games on the playground when none of my other team mates would and showing them how hard I could play. After that, the guys all started rallying around me. They started INVITING me into their games. I played hard and took a lot of hits from guys twice my size. Soon, some of these guys were showing up to watch our practices. Then more of them. They started telling their coach about our defensive strategies that our *gasp* female assistant coach had devised. Pretty soon, their team was using them too. Too late to save their season though. By the end of that year we students had the coaches of both teams talking, working together. We even coordinated a boys-against-girls game to finish our season. We kicked their asses in an edge-of-your-seat game where they outnumbered us 3-to-1 because they still couldn’t score on the very defence we had taught them.

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