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Inequities in basketball: Women punished for displays of emotions

10/12/2021, 2:45pm EDT
By Kayla Yoegel

Kayla Yoegel (@kyoegel)

“And-one!” 

“Get that bleep out of here!”

“Go home!”

“That’s ____!” (Fill in the blank)

Those are only a few examples of common phrases that may be heard in the men’s game that warrant no warning or technical foul from referees. That hype and excitement is simply a part of men’s basketball, and unless taken to an extreme, referees don’t get involved with that aspect of the game. In sports, emotion and intensity are common, as well as vital pieces that make a sporting event what it should be — fun and exciting.

At various levels of basketball, women's players and coaches have found that they can't always display the level of emotion seen above. (Photo courtesy Penn Athletics)

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However, these characteristics — and who is allowed to show them — highlight just another area that differs from the men’s game to the women’s. 

Some inequities and dissimilar treatment between the men’s and women’s game at all levels of play are evident and have been in the spotlight more than others. Between the vast differences in the resources and accommodations compared to the men, fans across the nation saw the disparate treatment in the 2021 national championship tournament. Still, after the debacle went viral on social media networks and various news platforms, it took until August of this year for the NCAA to finally announce it would allow the women’s tournament to use the influential “March Madness” branding, along with the men. 

Crazy, right? 

As a collegiate basketball player myself, for D-III Moravian University, I could go on about the obvious inequities that are often seen and heard in the media, but I won’t. Instead, I’d like to focus on another overlooked inequity — women not being allowed to show emotion on the court.

Louisville’s women’s coach Jeff Walz feels similarly. 

This past March, Walz Tweeted: “Please allow women’s basketball players to show emotion after big plays! #helpgrowthegame.” Walz’s tweet and even his hashtag are spot on and is a topic that is rarely talked about by players, coaches and reporters, among others. While the emotion and intensity in the men’s game are on full-display, the women’s game continues to fall behind in another realm.

Two people who agree with Walz? Former West Chester University women’s basketball coach Deirdre Kane, the winningest coach in Golden Rams’ history before retiring in 2014 following a 27-year tenure, and Steph Flamini, former Guilford College (N.C.) women’s basketball coach and current Senior Associate Athletic Director at the University of Hartford.

“I’d stand up to say something and [the refs would say] ‘sit down coach,’” said Kane, who ranks third all-time in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference history in coaching wins and 55th all-time in NCAA Division II. “You know, that happened to me a lot throughout my career and I’m like, really? I just feel like the men's coaches got away with riding the officials much more than women. I mean, I’ve definitely seen that my whole career.”

So has Flamini. 

“I’ve had a ref turn around and completely yell at the team and I am standing there looking at him like ‘really?’” Flamini, who reached 287 career victories in her 18 years at Guilford, recalled. “I mean all they did was get excited about a play, you can’t even jump up and clap.

"We’re just held to such a different standard.” 

The different standard that Flamini mentions applies to the various expectations female athletes and coaches face that fly under the radar — expectations about what it means to be a female coach or athlete, as well as what type of emotion and how much is “acceptable.”  

“Even coaching, if you’re a coach and you’re excited and vocal, they look at that like you’re a pain in the ass,” Flamini said. “You also are looked at as you’re unprofessional. Same with players, people don’t like you when you’re too emotional as a player, even other players get mad, but that’s just because other players that get mad are mad because in the moment you’re probably losing; you know someone got excited or this player’s really good and people are mad about that. 

“When you’re even-keeled or not showing emotion, you’re not threatening and I think that’s weird, because when a guy shows emotion it's ‘oh he really cares, he’s really into it’ but we show it and we’re like a threat, it’s weird and we’re not taken seriously.”

This is a sentiment that Kane believes has been around since she first started coaching at a high level, one that exists partially because of the outdated belief that sports are an inherently male space.

“It’s harder because in the sports world, it is a more male-dominated world and you know you are passionate about what you do,” Kane added. “Even when I first started coaching and playing it was like ‘oh, you’re not supposed to get all excited or upset like that,’ and as a coach I would’ve coached that way for either gender. To me, there was nothing wrong with showing happy emotion.”

Murray State's Lex Mayes was assessed a technical during a February 2020 for pointing towards a teammate who had assisted her basket. Mayes' coach, Rechelle Turner, was ejected from the game when she questioned why Mayes was assessed the technical. (Photo courtesy of Murray State athletics)

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Kane is right — the sports world is a more male-dominated industry and, as she stressed, “happy emotion” can be vital to the game, as it can greatly affect a team’s momentum. 

Flamini also emphasized how crucial momentum is to the game and the positive advantage it brings to a team when the group is performing well. 

“I think that’s where you get your momentum from, it’s so important to be able to show emotion because if you're doing well and there is nothing there, no one is getting excited,” Flamini added. “It takes away the advantage for a team that’s doing well, because the advantage is you have people getting excited and that continues to motivate you.”

There are plenty of examples that demonstrate the lack of enthusiasm and emotion female athletes are allowed to show, not just in basketball but for all women in sport. 

In a February 2020 matchup between Murray State and Morehead State, Murray State’s Lex Mayes hit a 3-pointer and afterwards pointed at teammate Macey Turley, who had assisted on the play, and, as a result, was given a technical foul. Then, when head coach Rechelle Turner questioned the unwarranted technical, she was given two technicals and ejected from the game. 

Speaking by phone in late August, Mayes — then a sophomore, now a senior — shared her account of the technical that brought much confusion for players and fans. 

“I make the three and I just point to (Turley) like saying ‘thank you’, you know, and I see the ref give a technical and I’m just like ‘oh, who did that?’ knowing I didn’t do anything — I was too busy shooting, so I was like ‘oh man, who got a technical’?” Mayes said. “And then I see him call my number and I was just like ‘what, like four on white? ‘On our team or the other team?’ 

“I was just so confused because I didn’t piece together what he had called. I didn’t do anything, I didn’t say anything, I was confused.”

Not only did Mayes express her confusion towards the situation, but she was quick to note how similar her confusion was to that of the fans, even her parents. 

“In the video you watch and the crowd is quiet for most of the time and then they realize what is going on because even they didn’t know what was going on and then you hear all them yelling and it’s like we were all equally confused,” Mayes said. “Everyone in that building was confused.”

For Turner to be as vocal as she was during the moments when Mayes received the technical, it epitomizes the standards that female coaches are held to, as well — the idea that they are supposed to be “ladylike” — a stereotype that Mayes sees often on the floor. 

“I think most of the time with our coach being a female head coach — and there are more and more female head coaches coming through at all levels — but I feel like (the refs) aren’t as patient with female coaches,” Mayes said. “It’s kinda like they jump to be a little more reactive because you know, you’re supposed to be ladylike … male players, they can block your shot and scream in faces and they can wag their fingers, they can shush the crowd and it’s nothing.”

When it comes to perceptions of how female athletes should carry themselves on the basketball court, the message is clear and present at all levels. I’ve seen similar situations at the Division III level. In one particular instance, no one received a technical, escaping with a warning, but it was still a “huh” moment for myself and my teammates.

In celebration after a 3-point play during a conference victory, myself (on the court) and some of my teammates (on the bench) motioned the signal for an and-one call, after the whistle was blown and the call was made. As my teammate stepped to the free-throw line, one referee then made a comment to myself and my teammates: “No signals.”

My teammates and I were shocked. Sure, we may have been a little extra enthusiastic, but our explanation was simple: we were excited. As Walz said, allowing female basketball players to show emotion after big plays is necessary to grow the game. A part of the development of the women’s game is the imperative change of leniency to allow female players to add that “hype” factor. 

But these types of situations are not confined to women’s basketball. 

In September 2018, in the U.S. Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, Williams was fined $17,000 for three separate violations, the largest of which was $10,000 for “verbal abuse” of a chair umpire. Williams used the words “thief” and “liar” to describe the chair official, which resulted in her having to forfeit a game. During a press conference afterward, she expressed her frustration with the disparity between what the female and male players are allowed to get away with. 

“For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark,” Williams said, at the time. “He's never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief,’ for me it blows my mind. But I'm going to continue to fight for women.”

Tennis legend Billie Jean King came to Williams’ support in a Tweet and advocated for change against the double standard women face when showing emotion.

Kane, Flamini, Mayes, Turner, Williams, and King have been supporters and voices for change, even though those changes haven’t necessarily come to fruition. Specifically, Flamini spoke about her concern with the amount of control on the women’s game and Kane spoke about the lack of changes and adjustments. 

“I don't know why they want to hurt that because that is the coolest part of the game is watching the excitement of the players,” Flamini said. “I just think it’s such a shame that they control women’s sports so much more than men’s sports, I just think it’s crazy. We have to be controlled in so many aspects of our game. I think it’s bad in that there’s been articles that women are judged for too much emotion and not enough emotion, so what are you supposed to do?” 

“No, it’s stagnant actually. Obviously I’m out of it for seven years now, but no, I don’t feel that it has changed,” Kane said, of the possibility of progress. “I still think there’s expectations that women are supposed to behave a certain way.”

From a player standpoint, Mayes spoke on how treating the women like the men on the court could propel female sports ahead from an audience and fan perspective as well.

“I think it will probably help grow an audience and maybe it would help more girls want to play sports and understand that you don’t have to be ‘ladylike’ all the time,” she said. “I am ladylike and I make sure I have manners but when we are playing those 40 minutes all that stuff that mom taught me, my parents taught me, that goes out the window for 40 minutes.

“I just think there is such a stigma that you know you need to be a lady — like, you’re still a girl, you’re still a woman, and that shouldn’t mean anything, it’s 2021. We put just as much work in as any male athlete … so if they can show their emotions, we should be able to, too.”

It is yet another double standard women face in the sports world. In society, there are deep-rooted discussions about expectations for how women are supposed to carry themselves. The sports side of the conversation brings an eye-opening perspective for what it is like to be a woman in sport and the “rules” and “expectations” that come with it. As more and more inequities become clear, it is apparent how much work there is to be done and changes that need to be made. Allowing women on the court, on the bench, and coaches in the women’s game to show emotion is a must.

While Walz’s tweet did not gain the same amount of traction that perhaps other women’s sports stories have, it is clear that the topic at the heart of it needs to be addressed. Emotion is a part of the game — not just in basketball, but in sports in general. 

Kane put it best: “I just think we keep searching to be equal, we want the weight rooms to be equal, we want the uniforms, the travel money, the hotels, and everything else, but we also want the way the game can be played and the amount of passion and emotion we can show to be equal. It shouldn’t be any different.”


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