It began as an idea to bring in new viewership to the WNBA. It sparked a battle about feminism and empowerment.
In an interview with New York Magazine earlier this month, reigning WNBA MVP and Chicago Sky player Elena Delle Donne spoke her mind on a variety of different topics, including how the media refers to players. She said, among other things, that she hopes she and her fellow WNBA players will be referred to as "basketball players" and not "female basketball players". She said the sexism female athletes deal with on a daily basis far exceeds the trolling male athletes receive, and that she constantly gets comments about her looks, even in professional interviews.
"I just can’t wait for the day where people want to talk about your skills on the court and not your looks. I wonder how many times a Tom Brady is asked about how handsome he is, or a J.J. Watt," she said. "It’s something that us female athletes have to deal with all the time."
Delle Donne said that increased exposure of female athletes will allow people to see their athletic skills, which will help decrease the amount of comments athletes receive regarding their looks. The struggle, however, is increasing the fan base.
Delle Donne Proposes Lowering The Rim
One of the ways Delle Donne proposes increasing the audience size is by lowering the rim in the WNBA, allowing for more action above the rim. More specifically, it would allow for more dunks, something Delle Donne says would show off the athletic abilities of the players.
“I think it would bring a whole different aspect to the game and bring viewership as well and show the athleticism of our women,” Delle Donne said at Nike’s Innovation Summit earlier this month. “We do every single thing on that court that the men do, other than the dunking. And, obviously, there is a handful of athletes who can dunk.”
Delle Donne's argument is that other sports, such as golf and volleyball, make adjustments that allow for a more enjoyable experience for both the athlete and the viewer. There have only been 16 dunks in the history of the WNBA, but each time a dunk occurs, the highlights get features on shows such as SportsCenter. Delle Donne thinks more dunks would equal a more exciting game, but also admitted it would be a controversial move.
“I might even get pushback from fellow WNBA players,” she said, “but I stand by it. It would bring a whole different viewership to the game and it’d be fun. It’d be so exciting.”
Diana Taurasi Hates The Idea
Pushback is exactly what Delle Donne got, and by one of the greatest players in WNBA history.
Diana Taurasi, the 2009 MVP and 7 Time WNBA All-Star, did not mix words when asked to comment about the debate. Being quoted in an article by ESPN's Kate Fagan, Taurasi said “Might as well put us in skirts and back in the kitchen.”
Fagan, a former collegiate basketball player in her own right, agreed with Taurasi's assessment. She agrees that lowering the rims would be a step in the wrong direction, and that it would be harder for young women to adjust to the game, especially since many of them played in mix gender scenarios as kids.
“Most young players grow up playing in mixed company." Fagan wrote. "The best women continue playing against guys their entire careers. In fact, the longer girls and boys play together, the better they become. The worst thing for the growth of women’s basketball would be creating an additional logistical hurdle between boys and girls, one that forces young girls to take their ball and go find a different, lower hoop.”
Taurasi famously sat out the 2015 WNBA season at the request of her Russian basketball team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. Taurasi, who at the time was among the most famous WNBA players actively playing, made 10 times the amount of money in Russia than she did in the United States. The league maximum for a player is currently $107,000, while Taurasi made $1.5 million in the Russian Premire League. Many saw Taurasi's decision as exposing the financial troubles even the most visible female athletes have to deal with in the United States.
Delle Donne Doubles Down
Delle Donne fired back at Taurasi, saying that other women athletes have made changes to their games relative to their male counterparts and still receive praise for their athletic abilities. She specifically mentioned Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson Of The Year when she said "and if you want to talk about Serena Williams, she plays less sets than the men so are you going to tell her to put a skirt on and go back to the kitchen?”
While Delle Donne understood that there would be many that would disagree with her idea, she took particular offense with the wording Taurasi decided to use against her.
“For Diana to say something like ‘put your skirts on and go back to the kitchen’, that’s tweets we read every day of what people say to us when we’re just trying to play our sport,” she said. “That’s what’s frustrating about it. It’s a time to empower women athletes, not to bring them down.”
Delle Donne also directly responded to Fagan's comments, saying that she has experimented with adjusting rims before, and that it took her "within probably 20 shots" to adjust to the new height. Delle Donne's hypothesis is that shooting percentage would actually increase at a lower rim height.
Delle Donne took to Twitter to clarify her remarks, and she insists that a lower rim height isn't just about dunking.
"Lowering the rim isn’t just about “the dunk.” Its about the future of the game."
Depending on how long this battle plays out, it could potentially have an impact on the US Olympic Team. Both Delle Donne and Taurasi are expected to be named to the team, and they both could potentially be seen as leaders. The plus side, however, is while the feud between Delle Donne and Taurasi may seem heated, there is a ton of substance that is being openly debated. While other feuds take place in other sports leagues over personal lives and how people engage in social media, Elena Delle Donne and Diana Taurasi are discussing the future of their sport and how to make the WNBA a viable sports league. Agree or disagree, their voices deserve to be echoed on the largest stages, in hopes that people take notice of the passion these players have for their sport.