I am cheering for Mo Isom. After reading her story in a long Grantland piece by Jordan Conn, I think most people can't help but root for her; she's battled an eating disorder and a car accident and the death of her beloved dad, she's the best goalie in Louisiana State women's soccer history, and now she's trying to make the LSU football team as a backup kicker. I hope she makes the team - she was trying out, as of this writing. I hope she gets the chance to run out of the tunnel in Death Valley, if even just once, because if life was fair we'd all get to run out of the tunnel in Death Valley, just once.
If Mo - everyone seems to call her just Mo - if Mo makes the team, she'll be the most famous special teams player in college football, and it's at least conceivable that she still won't play a single snap. Even so, she'll be a participant in a line of women's athletes in men's sports that stretches back through Annika Sorenstam and Billie Jean King to Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a group of women who walked men's fields and courts as equals, some of the most celebrated female athletes of all time.
It makes for great copy, this story. But it also highlights a question that I get more confused about with every season that turns the pages on the calendar: why do women's sports, especially the WNBA, struggle so mightily for legitimacy in the sports landscape?
If anything, on the heels of the Olympics, this question seems even more confusing. The most popular Olympic sport in the USA, near as I can tell, is women's gymnastics; it dominates NBC's coverage of the Games every Olympiad. I'll bet you can name four, maybe all five, of the USA women's gymnastics team from this Olympics - and I'll bet that you can't name a single USA male gymnast. Over in the pool, Missy Franklin was just as compelling and just as big of a story as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. And the USA women's soccer team is, post-2011 World Cup and 2012 gold medal, arguably approaching the popularity of the men's national team.
Women's sports, come Olympics time, are seemingly just as popular as men's sports. But when the Olympics ended, we all went back to our usual summer pastime of ignoring the WNBA. The Lynx are 18-4, have already clinched a playoff berth, and just finished destroying Seattle on national TV on Tuesday night. Yet the sense I get (and this could be only my perspective, but bear with me) is that the Lynx are, even now, somewhere in the very lower echelon of the local sports consciousness.
Why? I watched the game on Tuesday, and as a basketball fan of long standing I can tell you that the Lynx are playing seriously good basketball. Popular opinion seems to have coalesced somewhere around this clip from Family Guy, but anyone who can watch Lindsay Whalen run the fast break, or watch Maya Moore shoot jumpers off a pick and curl, and still believe that the WNBA sucks, is frankly too stupid to have his or her opinion count.
Ask around, and you're likely to hear some version of the old "men don't want to watch women's sports" canard, but this strikes me part of a whole mishmash of begging the question. It's treated like truth - that, for some reason, men won't watch any sport with women, out of some misogynistic dislike for women in athletics. But to quote the Washington Post on this subject, "study after study confirms that female sports fans tend to watch what male fans watch," and it's a stretch beyond the bounds of credulity to suggest the same misogynistic or chauvinistic tendencies in female sports fans. Besides, if the Olympics prove anything, it's that both men and women will happily watch women's sports if those sports are presented to them, yet overall women's sports still seem like an afterthought.
If attention is paid to female athletes, they tend to be either curios in some way - Mo Isom kicking for the football team, Missy Franklin winning five Olympic medals before graduating from high school, and so on - or they're famed as much for their physical attractiveness. USA forward Alex Morgan will probably be equally famous for posing in body paint for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue as she will be for scoring one of the most epic goals in American soccer history, something that I've already written about and that frustrates me to no end.
It's explainable, of course - beautiful women get more attention in lots of different areas of popular culture, not just sports - but it doesn't begin to explain why women's sports aren't more popular. Take the WNBA, which is currently the highest-profile women's sports league in the country. The league has all of the best women's players in the world. It's played in the summer, when there is no basketball of any other kind to distract basketball fans. As mentioned above, from a purely basketball standpoint, it's good basketball; it's different from the NBA, sure, but men's college basketball is different from the NBA too and that's one of the five biggest sports in America.
I don't have an answer for you, down here at the bottom of this article, I really don't. Nor do I have an exhortation to go watch more women's sports, because some doofus internet writer isn't going to convince you do that. All I can ask is why - and in some ways the same question, directed at the basketball fans who don't watch the WNBA: why not?