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Helene Elliott

All of a sudden, WNBA has a fighting chance

July 24, 2008|Helene Elliott

The WNBA today will announce the results of its review of Tuesday's brawl between the Sparks and Detroit Shock, issuing a statement that will be appropriately stern (that's a small "S") and call upon its players to realize they're role models for their gender.

It will come off as a moment of shame, but that's hardly the case.

Not that games should devolve into mindless slugfests, but this might be the best thing that has happened to the WNBA.

Not only because footage of the game was all over the morning news shows Wednesday, or because videos of the incident had drawn more than 250,000 views on YouTube by midday, though that kind of exposure is priceless.

It is a good thing because it forces us to think about the ways we perceive female athletes -- and the way female athletes perceive themselves.

The WNBA came of age this week, during its 12th season, when the Sparks and Shock displayed the raw passion that's usually ascribed only to men. Give me that emotion and drive any day, not the supposed "purity" and teamwork the WNBA has promoted as its strong points.

The teams had been playing a physical game that was poorly controlled by the officials.

Tensions had nearly boiled over a few moments earlier, when Detroit's Cheryl Ford missed a free throw and the Sparks' Candace Parker pursued the rebound.

The conflict erupted when Detroit's Plenette Pierson and Parker jostled for position for a potential rebound. Parker appeared to spin Pierson to the court. Pierson rose, threw Parker down and walked up to her aggressively, almost walking on her. Players from both sides then jumped in.

Parker, a heavily hyped rookie, has been tested by opponents all season and she had to stick up for herself. She might be suspended a game or two, but eight games is a good starting point for Pierson.

There should be no suspension for DeLisha Milton-Jones, who swatted Mahorn on the back after he pushed Sparks center Lisa Leslie and she fell backward to the court.

If Milton-Jones were a hockey player, a dozen websites would have been launched to honor her for protecting a teammate.

Mahorn said he was trying to defuse the hostilities, but his body language said otherwise. He could have put up his hand in a "stop" sign. He could have put out a forearm and motioned Leslie away.

Instead, this 6-foot-9, 300-pound-plus former Piston put both hands on Leslie and shoved her in the opposite direction. The amount of force he used doesn't matter as much as his decision to touch an opposing player. He should be suspended at least a dozen games.

Afterward, players seemed to feel they had to apologize for being competitive and fierce and sticking up for one another, characteristics routinely applauded in male athletes.

Detroit's Katie Smith told the Associated Press the day-after fuss wasn't "the right kind of attention" but added, "I don't think the publicity hurts. In hockey, people live for the fights. Who knows, maybe we'll meet in the WNBA finals and there will be even more interest."

Leslie described herself as "sad," adding that she's a mom and "I don't want to represent myself like that in front of my daughter."

She shouldn't want to represent herself like a brawler. That's never acceptable.

But she should want to represent herself as a passionate athlete. That's the best example to set to daughters -- and sons.

The only regrettable note is that Ford, while trying to separate the combatants, slipped and tore her ACL and will sit out the rest of the season.

We still tend to view female athletes through different prisms than male athletes. Women are still judged -- and financially rewarded -- more for their appearance than their skill.

Leslie wears makeup on the court because she says she wants to be seen as feminine while she sweats, throws elbows and grabs rebounds.

Will we ever reach a point where femininity and competitiveness are considered complementary, not mutually exclusive? Or when a clash between female athletes won't be demeaned as a catfight?

The WNBA incident occurred a few days after IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick went to the pit of another female driver, Milka Duno, to scold her for being slow and not allowing Patrick to pass during practice before a race Sunday in Lexington, Ohio.

In a video shot by a Duno supporter, Patrick -- who has confronted other male drivers and was called a menace last month by Scott Dixon -- yelled and cursed at Duno. The Venezuelan-born Duno threw a towel at Patrick twice and told her to leave.

Videos of their dispute have drawn more than 500,000 views on YouTube, some of them "enhanced" with sounds of meowing. Or worse. Same for videos of the Sparks-Shock fight.

Tuesday wasn't a dark day for the WNBA. It should signal the dawn of an era in which female athletes are appreciated for being competitive and fiery. No apologies necessary.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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