But what got to me was that suddenly, my profile page has the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament brackets enabled. "Eh, whatever," I said initially. Then I clicked on it, and I realized that there was no way to get a women's bracket.
"That's odd," I thought. "Maybe I'm just missing it."
But as I looked through it, searched through the pages, and tried the random "Let's click until something works" method of discovering new features, I slowly came to realize that there was not any way to participate in a women's bracket.
I don't care much for basketball to start with. It's a silly game, and it involves a lot of running back and forth. A lot. You might as well watch a couple of kids on a teeter-totter for an hour and a half. Yeah, it's that exciting.
But I do care that women's sports get crappy coverage. Consider that our men's basketball team were declared Big Ten champs the same night that the women's team was. Article on the men's team? Page 1. It was also on page 1 of the sports section as the top headline, too.
Article on the women's team? Sure, it was on page 1 of the sports section, but it was at the bottom, in a tiny corner. And they sure as hell weren't on the very front page of the paper.
There is a feeling that women's sports should be just as available as men's sports. This is actually very important to us as Americans (and probably important to most everyone in the world). Title IX ensures that, of course, and most people think that's the end all (how Title IX is enforced at various institutions is a wholly different topic, though, that I will be happy to bitch about some other time). In practice, though, we do not treat women's sports as equal to men's sports. I'm not entirely sure we ever will.
Of course, the money is behind the men's sports. There's a $25,000 reward for the best bracket on FaceBook, and pretty much every major sporting site has a similar prize, and with it goes a lot of advertising for those who put up the cash. Office pools are common as well.
But how often do you hear about any sort of prize for the women's bracket? Who advertises during those games, and how much do they pay? Worse, what are the ratings like for women's basketball? The WNBA has been struggling for years, and a woman who is a top athlete and plays basketball for the WNBA will never make as much money as a man who is a top athlete and plays for the NBA. The fact that "WNBA" has a "W" in front of it alone makes it less of a "real" professional league.
And the funny thing is, there are WNBA teams that could knock off a number of NBA teams without so much as a backward glance. I know there are women's teams in the NCAA that could do well in the March Madness tournament, and could quite possibly win it outright.
But we segregate women from their male counterparts. In general, they're not allowed to compete on the same playing field. Often, the justification is that we're doing this so that they can compete on their own level, but this has the obvious insinuation that they're not good enough to compete with the boys.
I remember when I started fencing: there was no women's sabre event in the NCAA. Because of this, women were allowed onto the men's team. I never had a teammate who was female, but I certainly fenced a number of women. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I lost a number of those bouts, because they were better than me. One of the few pictures of me actually fencing shows myself and Carly Wells, and she's the one scoring the touch, not me. I don't remember who won that bout, but it wouldn't surprise me if she did. I mean, I used to beat a guy from Notre Dame (one of their best; Joe once said, "You made him your bitch. Take some KY to ND this year for him; it's only polite.") regularly, and even made him cry once at the NCAA individual tournament, and I even went touch for touch with the Italian Junior National Champ, but there were girls I couldn't beat.
I was sad to see the girls get their own sabre squads my Junior year. I was getting better and I felt like the competition dropped without the women in the mix. More to the point, they started putting warm female bodies in to fill the three newly-opened slots on every women's team in the country, transferring women from the other weapons, epeé and foil. And that first year, my gods, women's fencing was painful to watch.
You have to understand: the women had (mostly) been watching the men on their teams fence sabre for years and had (in many cases) never been allowed to even touch a sabre, much less practice with one. They saw what most sabre fencers used to win bouts: force. They also trained with the boys from scratch, and learned that sabres caused completely different sorts of bruises and welts than those they had previously experienced. These welts cover the sabre fencer's body, and they sting like nothing else.
This all lead to a horrible combination of fearless and fearful women. Some learned to fence with no fear, and these women were great fencers. They went in for the kill, and there was no stopping them. These were mostly the girls I had begun fencing with, as well as those they taught. Northwestern's women's team was dynamite.
Others learned that they were afraid of their opponents blades. They wanted a slot, they wanted to letter, and they just wanted to compete, but sabre was not the kind of weapon they wanted. It was extremely physical and most of the times they got hit, they felt the hit (either because they were fencing against men who only knew how to fence like that, or they fenced women who had learned it from the men), and they didn't revel in it the way a sabre fencer really has to learn to love it. A sabre fencer who takes off his jacket after practice and worries about the welts instead of finding a sense of pride in them won't last long, male or female. Add to this the fact that there were many coaches (mostly from Eastern Europe) who thought that women should never hold a sabre, much less fence with one, and you begin to see that the training at some schools might be either non-existent or unnecessarily painful for women fencers.
That first year, one could pick winners, sometimes, before the bouts started. The woman who put on her mask with confidence, who saluted and took her en guarde with purpose and strength, would win the bout against the woman who seemed to have little confidence. The confident woman would advance and attack, establishing right of way with her attack and her opponent advancing and being constantly caught in preparation.
[Fencing aficionados might find this little "right of way" game rather fun and amusing: You Make The Call]
Now, if two confident women were paired in a bout, it would be a good bout. There was finesse and action and it was amazing to watch, especially if the women had a background in another weapon and hadn't just been taught by male sabre fencers. It was anyone's game at that point, and we used to line up to watch them.
But if two women with no real confidence got paired up, the entire bout was almost a lost cause: it wasn't uncommon for directors to look at the crowd and shrug because somehow, remarkably, neither woman had managed to establish priority. An "attack" in sabre fencing is an extension of the arm: the arm must be going forward for an attack to take place. "Preparation" is when the fencer is preparing to attack, usually by drawing their arm (or the tip of their blade) back toward their body. Most often, the women would advance toward each other, attack, and then drop to a preparation: their arm would stop going forward and would, in fact, move backwards as they landed their touch. Thus, while the lights went off, the director could not see anything called an "attack", and so he could not award a touch to either fencer.
I remember once talking to a director after a particularly long bout, and he said, "I had to start giving points for 'least preparation' rather than 'attack'." Another director I knew personally looked over at me during a bout (I was the only person not on either team watching the action), shrugged, and gave points randomly after each action.
The second year, this improved, and the preparation issue almost disappeared, but the women who had been so confident the year before had become less-so: by practicing for over a year in their own squads, they had come down to the level of their comrades-in-arms during the effort to bring their fellows up, and they also didn't have to compete on such a high level to match the men's teams. The women sabre fencers had, in many cases, lost their edge.
But of course, their statistics went through the roof, because the competition was not as tough as it used to be, and those who had been fencing sabre with the men had advantages over those who had just fenced with the women.
Women's sabre is actually quite good to watch now, seven years after it was introduced: the women have more finesse, and force doesn't get you nearly as far in women's tournaments as it will in men's tournaments, so the top levels are less likely to be full of brute-strength jerks. I simply cannot imagine how amazing the women would be if they'd continued to compete with the men, though: when I started, there were only a handful of women fencing, but the stigma was breaking. When I finished, the stigma had returned with a vengeance. While it's cooled, I don't think it's gone away, and it may actually be worse because the men no longer have to worry about "losing face" by losing a bout to a girl. They can talk all the trash they want. Despite that, I would, today, place many women on the circuit as at least able to hold her own against the men, if not take them on and win outright (Zagunis and Jacobson come to mind, among others).
Unfortunately, they'll probably never get the chance. We work so hard to offer them a level playing field that we confine them to their own gender, and this doesn't do them as much good as we might think.
In the case of the WNBA, or the Women's NCAA, or the LPGA, all we have really done is say, "You're good enough to play professionally, but we need to give you your own little postage stamp of a conference because we think that you can't handle the men. We'll pay you professional wages, but not as much as we pay men. We'll give you contracts for endorsements, but your name isn't as good as a man's name. See, you have all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of men in the same sport. We just care less about you."
And that, quite frankly, is a terrible injustice.