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The fight for equality in women’s basketball carries on
Former star player and basketball administrator, Sally Phillips provides a first-person account of her own experience in pursuing equality in her basketball journey.
13 September 2022.
I remember the moment that drove me to begin writing, what would eventually become this piece.
In 2021, news came out of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in relation to the gym —or should I say lack thereof— that was provided to female athletes participating in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament that year, which made for a stark contrast to the one provided to the male players. It was then that I felt compelled to share my thoughts on the state of play for women playing elite sport. Why are things like these still happening in this day and age? I began writing, but the story would sit idle in my drafts folder, until mid-September 2022.
What eventually motivated me to move this story from draft to completion, was Sidelined.
That night, I arrived home after attending the premiere of the Deakin Melbourne Boomers’ documentary, Sidelined: The Fight for Equality in Women's Basketball. Set against the backdrop of the 42nd season of the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL), the Boomers took their fight beyond the basketball court to overcome gender inequality, lower pay, balancing a sporting career with other work, racial discrimination, and the constant pressure to justify their existence as female athletes in a sporting and societal landscape dominated by men. The documentary provided impetus for me to look back on my own journey. And while things are better than they were, we are still far from where we need to be.
Rewinding back to 1990
Between 1990 and 2000, I managed to hit the WNBL’s hardwood over 193 games across those 10 years. I would eventually decide on prematurely hanging up the sneakers at 27 and opt for retirement. Why, you may ask? Playing national league basketball as a female athlete was not easy. Put simply, the grind just overwhelmed me and saw me fall out of love with something that had been my whole life since the age of seven.
The life of a female athlete in the 90s was extraordinarily difficult. To highlight just how tough things were, in my last season I would rise at 5:00am most days to be at practice by 5:45am for a 6:00am start. From practice, it was a quick shower and off to work -- full time, 9-5 kind of work. After work it was back to practice, which would include weights, fitness, shooting or swimming. Sound exhausting? It was. And then, you would go on repeat it again the next day. Five days a week. I feel tired now, just recalling how hard it really was.
At that time, I started to question how I could possibly continue to build my off-court career —the thing that was going to pay the bills— if I kept the grind up for a little bit of 'pocket money' earned playing in the WNBL? How long would my full-time employer remain understanding on times when I needed to miss work on a Friday to go on an interstate road trip? How was I going to fit in time to study? There was never time for family and friends. And the biggest question of all: how long was I going to wait to start a family? The WNBL's Parental and Pregnancy Policy —which was eventually introduced in 2018— was not even a consideration back then.
Perhaps, deep down, I knew something needed to change. This feeling was reinforced when I started to try for a child, I encountered some significant health issues and difficulties, that had I kept playing and left any longer, would have had disastrous effects on my ability to go through pregnancy.
Sidelined had me thinking that not enough has changed for women playing elite sport in 2022 compared to my days as a player through the 90s. Women everywhere are facing the exact same obstacles I did some 30 years ago. Those same challenges will also be those of my daughters, and the daughters of others, and that is just not okay.
Fast forward to 2021
Sedona Prince, a basketballer from the University of Oregon, shared a video highlighting inequality that went viral when comparing the gym facilities provided for the NCAA Women’s Tournament compared to those provided for the men. Sports performance coaches Ali Kershner (Stanford University) and Molly Binetti (South Carolina University) also spoke out. Even NBA star Stephen Curry shared Sedona's video, and his tweet alone had reached over 99,000 likes, at the time when I first started writing this story. I was left with sadness and despair that in 2021, we would still be having the same conversations that I had back in 1994, when I was playing college ball at the University of Oregon.
“If you aren't upset about this problem, then you're a part of it.”
- Sedona Prince
Click through to the video and scroll through the comments for yourself.
“The men’s basketball brings in way more money for the NCAA, they deserve the weight room. Got a problem with it? Make your games more interesting with higher level and you’ll bring in more money to EARN stuff like a nice weight room!”
A first person experience in Oregon
In 1994 I left Australian shores for Eugene, Oregon to play college basketball. I remember feeling extraordinarily proud and excited that in a matter of days, I'd be playing NCAA Division 1 basketball -- I’d be a Duck!
1994; that was 29 years ago.
Lauren Kessler would document in her book, titled Full Court Press, the highs and lows of our 1994/95 season. In particular, she wrote about the fight our head coach Jody Runge embarked on, to bridge the very large gap in equality for female athletes and coaches in the NCAA.
Coach Runge’s office was much smaller than her male counterparts; the office of the male coach of the men's basketball program was in a multi-room suite with a private reception area. In the entrance to the Len Casanova Centre, which is home to the university's coaches and administrators, 13 sculptures adorn the entrance, yet there is not a single female basketballer in sight. Coach Runge signed a contract for US$42,000 in her first season with the Ducks. In comparison, the head coach of the men's program —who led his program through two losing seasons in his first two years— was earning US$200,000 plus money from endorsements. Our locker room was old and musty – it was the men's old locker room. I remember feeling like we were locked away in an airless, old basement. The men's team however had moved out and inhabited a fully refurbished locker room, courtesy of a $150,000 renovation. They had plenty of space. They had couches, lockers, juice dispensers, satellite television, private phone lines and offices for their coaches. The men travelled on chartered buses, while the women travelled in small vans driven by our coaches. It was a case of the haves and have nots. It really was chalk and cheese, and it was not right.
When I arrived at the University of Oregon, I was immediately struck by a sense of inequality, and quickly understood coach Runge's drive to make a difference. There were so many examples of inequality surrounding our program. We had to get up at 5:30am to be at Mac Court to start training by 7:00am; the worst practice time in the rotation. The men's team, however, had a permanent lock on the prime practice time, from 3:00pm to 6:00pm. The women's basketball team and women's volleyball teams alternated the two other available practice times, the early morning and the early afternoon. The early morning time slot is brutal and the early afternoon time slot messes with classes. It always felt like a lose-lose situation for our team.
One morning, just before the season kicked off, we all arrived at training to see pictures of the men's basketball team players in eight feet by five feet tall photo frames spread around the stadium concourse. I still recall how this made us feel, and the conversations we shared as we stretched for practice that morning. We were made to feel like unwanted strangers in our home stadium, like it was not even our home court. One of my teammates, a sophomore named Arianne said to coach at the time: “Not what I would call gender equality, Coach.” She was right.
Our PAC-10 season kicked off with a road trip to California where we took on UCLA and USC. Game one was at Pauley Pavilion against the Bruins. It was a big game for us and we managed to win it by 25. It was a huge win for the first game of the conference season. After the game, we put on our tracksuits over our uniforms. There were no locker room shower facilities. Two days later, we headed to USC, and for our changing room we were crammed into a small, windowless conference room in their student rec centre. There were no lockers, no showers, no benches, just some hard back chairs lining the perimeter of the room. We wouldn’t even play in the main stadium on this occasion. Instead, we took to the court in the high school-sized practice gym, with a few rows of bleacher seats pulled down for the game. I was shocked that we would take on the team Cheryl Miller coached, who were the reigning PAC-10 champions, in a substandard gym.
Fast forward to the end of the season. We made it through to the Big Dance and lost in the first round. I had a great year and earned All-American honourable mention honors along with being named to the All-Pac-10 Team, an honorary list of the ten best players in the league as voted by the coaches. While they were nice accolades, it did little to ease the pain of our loss in Georgia. That same season, our men's team also made it to the tournament with the same overall result: a first round loss and early exit.
After the season, Jerry Green, who was the head coach of the men's basketball program at Oregon, left to interview at UNLV. Oregon seemingly panicked and headed into negotiations with Green immediately. Coach Runge's negotiations were put on hold, yet again. 24 hours after returning from his interview in Las Vegas, Green was offered a four-year, US$249,000 contract with an athletic booster-funded annuity to guarantee long-term financial security. He signed.
Via lawyers acting on behalf of coach Runge, Oregon was sent a message. “The callous indifference to Jody's situation cannot and will not be endured.” Many more months passed, and it was not until mid-May before her new contract would be finalised. Coach Runge's courageous legal battle with university administration for equal funding and support certainly challenged the rules of collegiate politics. Over recent chats online with Coach, I feel like the trials she faced back then, has left scars that still run deep. The public battle was exhausting and left her feeling more vulnerable than she ever had before. I can empathise with Coach; having led the WNBL here in Australia, I too wear some of my own scars.
And just like today in the year 2023, when a woman goes into battle for what is right and just, when she fights for equality, out come the haters.
When coach Runge fought for equality, she was considered “hostile, caustic, embittered, and ungrateful”. A sports columnist for the Register-Guard (Eugene's newspaper) wrote a piece stating unequivocally that men's and women's basketball were not equal, the coaching jobs were not equal and that the pay should not be equal. Two days later he'd write another piece about how women's sport did not attract big money donors and how that was too bad, and just the way it is. The paper then went on to publish a letter that has been sent to the editor in the sports pages - they titled it “Fire Her” (note: these articles can no longer be referenced online).
It started like this: “Jody Runge is a lawsuit looking for an excuse to happen. She is a cancer looking for a body. She is an egocentric, angry, combative women spoiling for a fight. Get rid of her.” The letter writer would go on to say: “She was a no-name assistant when the University offered her the chance for relative fame, lots of fun and relative fortune. She should have shut up and enjoyed it. Whatever it takes to get her out of there, do it!”
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The fight for equality down under
In 2018, former elite Australian rules footballer, television and radio sports commentator, Chyloe Kurdas, who spent a decade building the first ever national women’s professional competition, the AFLW, as AFL Victoria’s Female Football Development Manager, would present at TEDxSydney, with a video of her talk shared on the TEDxSydney Facebook page. The ignorant and offensive comments were nothing short of horrifying, and ignites great sadness when I revisit them. They are a stark reminder of the cruel reality women endeavouring to change the game come up against here in Australia, and the lack of support that follows.
“Another woman not wanting men to achieve anything."
At the time of starting my draft of this article, there were 3,500 interactions with this post, 536 comments made and it was shared 202 times. The resistance to change is real.
Just like the haters who came out in 1994 during coach Runge’s fight for equality in Oregon, they were back out in 2021 following Sedona's video sharing the same old reasons why women don't deserve equality in sport, shared across social media platforms around the world. I continue to find it hard to believe that all these years later, the same old arguments are trotted out once more. It's no wonder that those who have been fighting for equality, like me, are exhausted and frustrated.
The same hate spews out every time we talk about equality for women in sport here in Australia; for both athletes and women in senior leadership roles. Whenever the subject of improved pay conditions, broadcast opportunities, quotas, or the opportunity for women to be professional athletes comes up, out flows the hate. It is unwarranted, and unjust. It needs to stop, but how?
Where to from here?
Ad nauseum we listen to the same arguments being rolled out every day. Honestly, if I hear one more talk back caller on SEN radio say, “women don’t bring in the same revenue as men so they should not be treated equally”, I'll do a Terry Wallace and spew up!
Since my playing days in 1994, after 29 years, we continue to have same conversations, see the same comparisons being made, and female athletes continue facing a life that remains a challenging grind. The same stories, the same themes continue to play on repeat.
We have to stop measuring women’s sport by the same metrics as men’s sport. We have to stop expecting the games to look the same. It's time to celebrate the different way women play their sport and acknowledge their own individual greatness. It’s time to stop the ongoing comparisons and discussions about the things women don’t do in a sporting contest that a man might do, and instead appreciate the awesome things that they do bring to the game and the communities they are part of.
My call to action!
Women’s sport does need financial investment so that the grind can stop and women have the opportunity to be the very best version of themselves when they hit the court, field or pitch. It’s time to show up and invest, time to take into consideration the broader opportunities and positive brand exposure that results from partnering with women’s sport. Brands will be provided with the opportunity to resonate with people’s values and campaigns will have the potential to be meaningful, particularly at a time when the public are really starting to care about where the brands they love, invest their money.
Women’s sport not delivering the revenue some of our male counterparts do, cannot continue to be the reason used for not providing women with the same opportunities. Women in sport deliver in so many other ways, and running out the same old arguments time and time again is counterproductive.
Supporting women’s sport financially so that they have the same opportunities is so much more than just eyeballs returning a financial reward on investment. Sometimes investment cannot be measured by financial return alone, it can and needs to be about more. It can be about the difference that an organisation can make for young girls and women by providing them with hope and delivering outcomes so that girls can start to see what they can be. Women and girls deserve the right to be able to dream and have the same hope and aspirations young boys and men have. More than ever before, sponsorship/partnership goals and deliverables need to move away from all the traditional metrics currently demanded by investors. If gender equality continues to be reliant on revenue, broadcast rights and bums on seats, we may never get to where we need to be.
Sarah Styles, former Head of Female Engagement at Cricket Australia and current Director of Office for Women in Sport and Recreation here in Victoria, has first hand experience of the difference corporate support can make. “Support from major companies is fundamental to changing the game for women’s sport and equality in sport more broadly,” said Styles in a 2021 post on LinkedIn. Sarah spoke of the Commonwealth Bank’s long-term sponsorship of the Australian Women’s Cricket Team, a partnership that brought the Growing Cricket For Girls Fund to life and was pivotal in building the energy and growth ahead of last year’s record breaking ICC T20 Women's World Cup. Commonwealth Bank have now extended their support to the Matilda's and Football Australia ahead of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Support like this changes the game. A question inspired by the success of the Commonwealth Bank's support of Women's cricket; who will be next to realise the enormous benefits that come by aligning with women’s sport?
Head of WNBL Christy Collier-Hill has previously shared the Shifting the Goal Posts report on LinkedIn, a report stating that 6.6 million Australians currently engage with women’s sports, with 41% indicating they are more engaged with women’s leagues than they were five years ago. The report also found that regular spectators of women’s sports have significant levels of sponsorship recall with 82% of fans recalling at least one major brand. Collier-Hill’s call to action; brands should absolutely be investing in women's sport.
I don’t profess to having all the answers, but I do have the capacity to acknowledge that if we don’t shift into a new gear now, we'll be having the same conversation in years to come. There will be another Sidelined-style documentary, and the grind for women in sport will continue. Women from all around the world will continue to turn up to the smaller changing room, the facility without a gym, be the recipients of the smaller pay packet and the same messages of hate and disrespect will fill our social media platforms when women seek opportunity and equality.
I want more for my daughters. I want more for women and girls everywhere.
I challenge everyone to respect the courageous women who speak up. Women like coach Runge, who in 1994 risked it all and fought the equality battle so that the sporting outcomes for women would be better for the next generation. Women like Chyloe Kurdas, Michelle Cowan, Bec Goddard and Debbie Lee, all of whom have faced “shocking sexual and homophobic vilification” as documented in Sam Lane's 2018 book Roar: The stories behind AFLW - a movement bigger than sport. Women like Sedona Prince who in 2021 —27 years after coach Runge took a stand— had the courage to call out an unacceptable situation, so that sporting outcomes for women could be better. Women like Ezi Magbegor and Tiffany Mitchell who would courageously take a stand and highlight ongoing issues of racism in sport, educating us so we can move from ignorant to aware. Women like the Deakin Melbourne Boomers and their coach Guy Molloy, who would stand in solidarity with Ezi and Tiffany and through Sidelined have courageously shared their untold stories that they hope will inspire many to do more. You have all inspired me to move this story from draft to published, thank you.
I would like to specifically acknowledge the following:
Inspiring Bulleen Boomers women Jan Collinson, Linda Perry and Michele Timms who did the hard yards all those years ago, thank you.
Sam Lane, author of Roar and teller of stories that continue to make a difference for women in sport, Sarah Styles who inspires me greatly, and Christy Collier-Hill who continues the fight for equality in the WNBL every day.
Adam McKay, Director, Editor and Producer of Sidelined; thank you for bringing this story to life #sidelineddoc
Finally, I would like to acknowledge author of Full Court Press, Lauren Kessler. Lauren's book was a great source of factual content in this article from my time at the University of Oregon #goducks