|The Thrill of Victory|
ne of the great attractions of sport is its quantitative certainty. Sure, the Oscar Madison types will always find plenty of qualitative judgments to argue over - the best baseball hitter ever, the best all-round basketball player - but in no other human activity can the measure of greatness be so simply calculated through addition and long division. In most sports, the ball is either hit or missed, and the games are either won or lost. The final reckoning is right there in a batting average or, in the case of the Olympics, the number of medals a country has won.
Until Nagano, that is. The most enduring lesson of the winter games - for the United States at least - was that medal totals tell only part of the story, and maybe not even the most interesting part. Measured by conventional calculus, U.S. teams performed below expectations in Japan, where the U.S. medal total hovered somewhere between those of Finland and Poland. But something far more significant occurred in Nagano, something the medal totals did not reveal, and Brown athletes were at the center of it. Katie King '97, Tara Mounsey '01, and the rest of the U.S. women's ice hockey team showed the world once and for all that, when it comes to sports, the women are ready for prime time. To viewers in the United States, King, Mounsey, and their teammates collectively provided the indis-putable highlight of the games when they upset Canada, 3-1, for the gold. By contrast, the men's ice hockey team, top-heavy with highly paid and self-congratulatory NHL stars, trashed its dormitory and went home empty-handed. At Nagano the women demonstrated that fans looking for athletes who work hard, play tough, and compete with heart need search no more. And it happened in hockey, among the most macho of sports.
"It was weird," says Katie King, who scored a hat trick in the game against Japan. The gutsy performance of the women's team, she continues, "opened people's eyes. I think it's had a big impact on young girls. They know there's a place for them in a sport that a lot of people follow from day to day and get really excited about."
Red, white, blue, and gold: Tara Mounsey '01 after Team U.S.A. became the best in the world.
Of course, the excellence of women's sports didn't just suddenly happen. The success and spirit of the women's hockey team at Nagano were the culmination of a long struggle that finally produced a kind of critical mass. It's not just that women are now allowed on the rink or the playing field; they have been playing with determination and focus for some time. The news is that they have gotten much better than anyone expected. All of a sudden people are watching and talking about women's teams, and parents now are as likely to cheer on their daughters at soccer practice as they are to root for their sons in Little League.
Sportswriters - who are almost always men - are only now catching up with these developments. Late in February, for example, the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan revisited a story he'd written twenty-five years earlier about a national women's collegiate basketball tournament. "What I wrote," he remembered after watching the U.S. women's hockey team take the gold, "was condescending and outrageous....Like any leering frat boy, Ijust had to identify, in print, the player I had deemed the most attractive.
"Iknow more about basketball than Ido about hockey," Ryan continued, "and I can tell you that Iknow of no sport in this country that has shown a greater rate of improvement over the last two decades or so than women's basketball. ...Hockey has no comparable frame of reference. These women are the pioneers."
What happened in Nagano has also been happening in Providence. For colleges such as Brown, the Title IX non-discrimination ruling was only the most visible of many factors behind a new order in campus gyms and on rinks and athletic fields. Success breeds respect, and over the years, Brown women's teams have landed in the win column far more often than have men's teams. Since 1956, the men have brought home a total of thirty Ivy titles; Brown women have racked up forty-five since 1973 (when the Ivy League began tracking women's teams). Some cynics might argue that, by starting the Ivies' first women's soccer and women's ice hockey programs, Brown, in effect, staked out untrodden turf. But look at the quantitative side of recent history. The 1996-97 female Bears, for example, captured Ivy championships in ice hockey, volleyball, softball, and tennis - more titles than any other school. Male Bruins, excluding club varsity teams, won none.
And a winning program sure helps at recruiting time. Annie Cappuccino, a senior associate director in the Admission office, won't say whether top-notch female high-school athletes are beginning to focus on Brown more frequently. She admits, however, "that there's been a lot of admissions interest in women's sports of late. Brown has some extremely good women's teams and some coaches who have made a name for themselves. And people want to be a part of that."
Anne Trafton '99, sports editor at the Brown Daily Herald, reports that women's teams are not only drawing applicants, they're starting to attract fans. "At times I've even noticed a difference between last season and this one," she says. "I was at the opening [women's basketball] game against Northeastern. We had more than 300 fans that night, and last year we didn't get more than about 100 per game." At most of the women's sports events Trafton has covered, she's noticed that fans get to know the players and their particular skills and personalities better than do the spectators at men's games. "While men's sports overall are still the bigger draw," she says, "a lot of fans there tend to be casual fans. I see women's fans as more loyal, and sometimes more knowledgeable and enthusiastic."
"While men's sports overall are still the bigger draw," says the Brown Daily Herald's sports editor, "I see women's sports fans as more loyal, and sometimes more knowledgeable and enthusiastic."
One of the reasons for this might be that a women's basketball game features a different set of skills from those on display at a men's game. There are no seven-footers in size-sixteen sneakers jostling each other before one of them pivots and slam-dunks. "It's a different game," says Carolyn Thornton '90, a two-time All-Ivy softball centerfielder while at Brown and now the Providence Journal's first full-time female sportswriter. "You're not going to see the dunk, but the movements seem somehow more pure. There's more finesse in many ways, since women rely on crisp passes and good outside shooting."
Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden has said that women's basketball teams tend to have better fundamentals. Statistics say that their free-throw percentages are better. And according to Susan Leitao of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, there is a joy and a sense of discovery surrounding women's sports at the moment. "A lot of the men who are top players are spoiled," she says. "They've got an attitude problem, and fans can sense that. In a broader sense, I think, women are accepted in so many professions now that people have decided it's time to accept them in sports. There's a future in it."
At Brown, some of the barriers that women's teams have broken are financial ones. Last year, trustee Elizabeth Zopfi Chace '59 and her husband endowed the head coaching position of the University's women's basketball team with a $1.4 million gift - the largest sports programming donation in Brown's history and only the second such women's coaching endowment in the country. According to Dave Zucconi '55, who runs the Brown Sports Foundation, fund-raising for women's athletics has skyrocketed. Annual giving earmarked for women's ice hockey, for example, has gone from $5,674 in 1990 to $49,425 in 1997, while annual giving to all women's sports over the same period has risen from $111,904 to $479,144.
With a loyal fan base, alumni support, and broadening acceptance even among non-jocks, female college athletes are beginning to see their names pop up on the sports pages next to ads for the Hair Club for Men. Thornton, who's been writing about sports for eight years, thinks women are getting more ink in her section of the paper than they ever did and that the coverage is improving. The Journal, she says, "is doing a better job of covering women's sports since people see it as important now. My editor is concerned about it."
Even before the Olympics, and before Brown's current women's ice hockey team captured the ECAC title in March (see Scoreboard), an AP newspaper piece that ran this winter in the Boston Globe seemed to sum up the new era for women's sports at the University and across the United States. It was a simple game story, but the details were compelling: the Team U.S.A. women's hockey team - the same one that would later win the gold medal in Nagano - had beaten Team Canada in San Jose, California, before the largest American crowd ever to see a women's hockey game. The final score was 4-3; the game was tied by Tara Mounsey with eight seconds left, and the winning goal came on an overtime shot by Katie King.
Brown head coach Digit Murphy, who coached both of these star players at Brown, missed the game because it wasn't one of her broadcasting assignments for the Lifetime cable network or TNT Sports. But for Murphy - who maintains there's no boundary between the new popularity of women's collegiate sports and the women's Olympic buzz, since one level feeds fresh talent to the other - reading the story was enough. She remembers opening her morning paper and the article leaping out at her. "For me," she says, "that moment was like, `Wow, we've arrived!'"
Scoreboard(as of April 1)
Men's Basketball 6-20
Women's Basketball 11-15
Women's Gymnastics 7-6
Men's Ice Hockey 13-16-2
Women's Ice Hockey 22-7-4
Men's Squash 4-9
Women's Squash 8-7
Men's Swimming 5-6
Women's Swimming 7-1
Men's Indoor Track 1-1
Women's Indoor Track 0-2