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June 25, 2014 at 10:00 AM

WNBA lacked Pride in attempt to make LGBT television history


Screen shot of Seimone Augustus (R) during an ESPN2 telecast

Did I expect to tune into a WNBA game and hear how wonderful it is to be a lesbian? No. But when the league sent a media release in May boasting about a new initiative to “celebrate inclusion and equality, while combating anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) bias,” naturally I was intrigued as a journalist and lesbian.

However, in the league’s proclamation to be the first pro team to celebrate LGBT Pride during a nationally televised game Sunday, the WNBA failed miserably. The WNBA did not make television history. And the WNBA doesn’t deserve credit for anything other than its individual teams continuing positive outreach to the LGBT community during Pride month.

The hyped “history” was about 60 seconds of time spent on the billed initiative, if an intro stating Sunday was a “WNBA Pride” game presented by CoverGirl, is included. I had to view a replay of the game twice to be certain because the presence was so scarce.

During halftime of Tulsa playing at Chicago on ESPN2, the network, which partnered with the WNBA on this platform, aired a 51-second segment where players Brittney Griner (Phoenix), Jayne Appel (San Antonio), Kristi Toliver (Los Angeles), Layshia Clarendon (Indiana), and Seimone Augustus (Minnesota), discussed the importance of coming out, anti-bullying and Principle 6.

The viewer was clueless to the topic during the actual telecast, though, because there wasn’t a verbalized intro signifying any context to this blip. Or that this blip is why it’s a “Pride” game and thus “history.” Teams like the Storm already host an annual game designated to celebrate Pride during the month of June but aren’t televised as such, opening the door for the WNBA to make history in carrying the in-arena celebration to the broadcast.

Instead, an image of the WNBA’s Pride logo appeared out of a commercial break followed by a head shot of Griner stating, “I’m happy.” Appel is next saying, “Why not?” Then Toliver adds, “It’s groundbreaking and that’s what this league is about.”

What is? I’m literally talking to my TV, “What are you talking about?”

Oh, Clarendon provides some clarity, if you’ll pardon the pun. She states, “It’s important for people to know that it’s OK to be different” and a shot of Augustus and her intended during a parade is shown. Augustus talks about “something in place” but really, what is being discussed remains unknown now that the viewer is almost 30 seconds into this segment.

A specific isn’t given until a second shot of Griner where she states, “We need more LGBT role models, more people coming out and talking about the issue of bullying…” Appel received the most “airtime” to discuss Principle 6 as a new ambassador of AthleteAlly.

And it’s over.

The WNBA/ESPN should be embarrassed. WNBA/NBA Cares plugs are longer and more direct than the time given to “Pride” and the “celebration of inclusion.” In the great words of Madonna, “Where’s the party?”

The WNBA press release stated, “players will wear commemorative Pride shooting shirts…(and) during the national game telecast, WNBA Pride will have a major presence, including the new WNBA Pride logo appearing in courtside signage and in-game promotions.”

There was signage on the floor but players didn’t wear the shooting shirts and there was no “major presence” during the broadcast. (Some players are wearing special Nike shoes that celebrate Pride, but adidas is the official sports apparel of the WNBA.)

To be sure I wasn’t expecting too much Sunday, I re-watched the WNBA’s billed Dads and Daughters game from Father’s Day also aired on ESPN2. As you would suspect, that less controversial topic was discussed throughout the program with a longer halftime feature, including a chart of players whose fathers have a connection to professional sports. Images of Dads and their WNBA daughters were streamed twice during halftime.

I believe a cute feature about Candace Parker (Los Angeles) and her father aired during the program, too. It wasn’t part of the archived game on LiveAccess, so I’m not certain. I just know it was produced, the pair shooting hoops in a gym and talking about their connection through basketball.

Bias? I’d say yes considering the main push Sunday was Tulsa G Skylar Diggins.

The telecast began talking about her. She was the tease leading into a halftime commercial break for a headlining feature that was approximately three-minutes about Diggins. And Diggins was the highlight of a great game, scoring a career-high 33 points in the Shock’s first road win, so naturally she was the focus in the second-half, too.

Don’t get it twisted. This has nothing to do with Diggins.

True, I disagree with the WNBA/ESPN’s other agenda in getting her awarded as this year’s Most Improved Player. Diggins is in her second season, of course the No. 3 draft pick is improved. She plays the hardest position to get acclimated to on the pro level and she’s being used in a different way under first-year Tulsa coach Fred Williams.

If Diggins’ improved averages of 19.5 points and 5.3 assists – up from 8.5 points and 3.8 assists as a rookie – on a 5-7 team quantifies her for MIP, shouldn’t Griner challenge the voting?

Griner, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft – is averaging an improved 17.4 points on 62 percent shooting while averaging 8.6 rebounds on a winning Mercury roster (9-3) under first-year Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello. Last season Griner, a 6-8 center, averaged a pedestrian 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds. She also had to adjust to playing under two different head coaches as a rookie.

The fact is second-year players should be expected to improve after learning the ropes as rookies, not rewarded for it. It’s the third year that’s more telling for improvement or flop.

But I digress.

Ardent fans of the WNBA know the tension between the LGBT community and the league. At first they were ignored by the WNBA despite being founding fans. Then they were even discriminated against when trying to stage kiss-ins and such to prove a point. Various teams slowly acknowledge and then celebrated the community as marketing became smarter. And then there was this release.

Finally! Because, naturally, being supporters of the greater cause (equality for women in sport) the LGBT community is still here. And after 18 years they’d be celebrated as part of the extremely diverse makeup of a WNBA crowd.

Some even looked past the fact the new Pride platform was after men in other sports came out. The WNBA has the appearance of continuing the wave of national discussion and change regarding gay rights and equality rather than leading the movement as it should.

But the pitch was just a gimmick.

The ESPN2 broadcast left an impression it’s still taboo to be overtly celebratory about the LGBTQ community. The network didn’t even opt for the easier “news” approach to report on the issue of Pride like networks did when Michael Sam made history with his draft-day kiss.

Obviously Pride and Father’s Day are marketing tactics to get people to tune in. No one would expect the ploy to get in the way of the game. Sunday’s being a great matchup probably won some new fans if they were drawn in to specifically to see something Pride-related.

But the league is being dishonest if it continues to claim it made broadcast history Sunday. There was nothing groundbreaking during the broadcast, especially not during halftime where the WNBA/ESPN had the most freedom to strut its stuff.

In this case, “WNBA Pride” could have been the montage of the players with a feature about a lesbian WNBA player’s plight like the network has done with Augustus in the past on “Outside the Lines.”

Or the WNBA/ESPN could have taken a historical approach with mention of the Gay Games and the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame. Both are “firsts” of their kind and the latter was founded in Chicago. Griner is listed as a 2014 inductee.

But it takes courage to flaunt who you are and what you represent. It will cost you in some way whether a business or person. What is gained is priceless, however, beginning with self-respect. And the best part is it’s never too late to find that Pride.

I’ll wait for the WNBA to be authentic in making this historic step. Until then, at least there’s some entertaining basketball to watch.

Comments | More in Storm, WNBA | Topics: Brittney Griner, Candace Parker, Skylar Diggins


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