Niesen: There's an unfair bias against WNBA

Niesen: There's an unfair bias against WNBA

Published Jun. 11, 2012 2:23 p.m. ET

MINNEAPOLIS – Maya Moore is not Michael Jordan. She never will be.

Moore could average 30 points for her career. She could lead her team to the WNBA Finals year after year. She could flash championship rings, pro titles after college ones. Jordan did all that, but she will never be Jordan.

Maya Moore is a woman. Maya Moore is, due to biology and genetics, a different type of player. Maya Moore will never dunk frequently in games. Her muscles will never bulge like Jordan's, and her jump will never explode so high.

And all of that is okay. No one should watch Moore expecting to see Michael Jordan. She's still one of the best players in the history of women's basketball. She's still talented beyond measure. If people could just accept Moore and the WNBA for what they are, something separate and different, even something enjoyable, this could all be a little less mean, devoid of condescension and sexism. There'd certainly be a lot less unwarranted Internet vitriol.

This is not about female equality. This is not about Title IX. This is not about forcing people to care. This is not about sexuality or politics or feminism.

It's about unfair comparisons and biases. It's about giving women opportunities and subsequently demanding that they use those opportunities to do impossible things. The WNBA is not the NBA. It never will be. But these women are still talented athletes, in better shape than 99 percent of the people who cheer for and against them. Their successes and accomplishments mean no less than those of their male counterparts.

There's a two-pronged problem with the way society can at times view the WNBA. The first is a broad generalization about athletes' sexuality, the sweeping statement that it's a league for homosexual women and that therefore something is wrong with it. That's antiquated and crude and so far from the truth. It's so easily refutable upon meeting a team of these women and learning their stories that it deserves no more mention than this.

The bigger problem with society's perception of the league is more complicated. With Saturday's game between the Heat and Celtics drawing the highest ratings of an NBA playoff game since cable ratings began being recorded, society has made its statement. It loves basketball, loves watching it, talking about it, breaking it down. But then it turns to the women and their version of the sport and chastises them because they're not the men.

It's bad basketball. No one dunks. They're not very strong. The nonsense accusations go on and on.

Watching the Lynx, the WNBA's hottest and best team, it's possible to see the genesis of this ridiculousness. These women are good at basketball. Really good. They make great shots. Their passes are crisp, on point. They're the best the league has to offer, and their game isn't that different from the men's. They come so close to transcending gender, but they fall short, and because of their dominance and talent we criticize them for not playing like something they're not.

There are less talented teams in the WNBA, of course, whose play is messier. Maybe they aren't as fun to watch as the Lynx, but really, were the Bobcats not painful to view as well this season? No one looked at them and used their failures to insult a sport.

The WNBA isn't perfect. It's hardly a bastion for female equality in sports – just look at its television exposure. Look at how much these women are making and how hard they work. The circumstances are as different as the biology, so why must we impose this universality to the game?

Seimone Augustus' arms have averaged 18.1 points and 3.9 rebounds this season. They're among the most accurate and feared in the league. They're covered in tattoos, which impose a gruff strength, but if you look past the body art, they're movie star arms. They're the kind of arms most women would kill for. These are not he-women, not even close, not with their creative hairstyles and painted nails. These are strong, talented, athletic women. Why do we have to see them as anything else?

Here's what's interesting, though. The people who have given these athletes a chance, who have shelled out the money for tickets t-shirts – they're into it. Really into it. These aren't NBA crowds, but there are moments when they sound like it. There are fewer bored dates sipping beers and picking at their fingernails in the stands, more people wearing homemade, customized gear. These people care.

At the Lynx game on June 3, the seventh win in their nine-game streak, a male fan would occasionally chant: “It's not the NBA." It was quiet, at times lost among the applause, but the words were undeniably clear. At first, the man seemed to be yelling it only to protest bad refereeing calls, but as the game progressed, there appeared to be little justification for when or why he'd begin the chant.

The assumption, of course, was that he meant it negatively.

No matter that he'd bought a ticket, that he'd devoted his Sunday night to watching the reigning WNBA champions. There's no reason for that assumption, other than society's general apathy toward and dismissal of the league.

It's a statement that rings so true, though. This isn't the NBA, and it shouldn't have to be. This is entertaining. This is talent and competition and the oh-so-human stories that make us care.

So start caring. Or don't. Just stop being unreasonable.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.