When is a Basketball Player Not Just a Basketball Player?

In today’s Washington Post, Lenny Bernstein writes about his outing to a Fairfax, Virginia gym. There he found a basketball league where the athletes play hard, play full court, have fun — and do not keep score.

Two things make this league unusual: The not-keeping score part, and the fact that the players are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

However, he chose to interpret this scene through a gender lens: Because the players are female, he made enormous assumptions about the relationship between gender and noncompetitive games.

Mariah (wearing 1974 Stanford pinney - a whole other story) with Bonnie of NOVA United

(Things started looking suspicious when the author, alone in a gym with at least ten female athletes, referred to men as “the elephant in the gym.” Funny – lots of people can walk into a gym filled with female athletes and not even think about men, not beg the question: How do these athletes compare to male athletes? Those people, when they see people playing basketball, just see people playing basketball.)

Bernstein interviewed one (one!) male player who proclaimed that in his league, noncompetitive games would be “inconceivable.” That man also conjectured, based on his experience with his one (one!) son, that “competitive juices” are “hard-wired.”

I can’t tell from the Fairfax gym photos, but it could be that all of the players in this league happen to be white. Why not make gross generalizations about how black players would never dream of noncompetitive games — based on a quote by one random black player?

Brings to mind Susan Faludi‘s famous line: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. This league’s decision to play score-free MIGHT be related to gender, or gender socialization, or age, or even race or religion – but these players are people first.

More than 3 million girls play high school sports on a competitive basis, with basketball being the most popular sport. So it’s misleading to say, as Bernstein does, that “research shows that girls tend to favor more cooperative games.”

I hope no one fills Brittney Griner in on this hard-wired, cooperative-game secret on her way to the Final Four. Could ruin things for fans if she and her Baylor teammates discovered their true nature and refused to keep score against Stanford or Connecticut.

Even if there is a gender difference, the gender SIMILARITIES are enormous. (The author admits that this league is full of former college players, and players who keep score in other leagues.)

There are many ways to play sports, stay fit, socialize, have fun — and define winning. Women of all sizes, abilities, ages, and colors experiment with all of those ways — as do men.

The real story here is that these people are still playing hoops in middle-age — and making up their own rules, to suit themselves. Good for them!

— by Mariah Burton Nelson, who recently watched two NOVA United women’s 50+ teams play at halftime of a George Washington University basketball game, who knows their founder, Helen White, who is a member of the National Senior Women’s Basketball Association, and who would still be playing basketball – and keeping score – if she had any cartilege left in her knees.

2 Responses to “When is a Basketball Player Not Just a Basketball Player?”

  1. Josh Says:

    Fascinating story Mariah! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Cynthia Leonard Says:

    I play in a women’s competitive basketball league on weekdays and for “fun” on Sunday. In the league, we have refs, keep score and try to make the playoffs. We argue calls, get heated, exchange hard fouls and end up “hating “the other team if we lose. On Sundays, with most of the same players, we don’t keep score, call our own fouls, sub out when we are tired and players rotate to different teams if we think one team is beating the other to the basket too many times. We compliment a great play even if the player is on another team. Guess which I enjoy more? Don’t get me wrong, when I am driving to the basket whether we are keeping score or not, in any league, I want to make the basket and make a great play. I want to be competitive, but don’t need the validation of a final score to show me my self worth. I will take the “open gym” style anytime.

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