How I Became a Little Bit Less of a Sexist Pig

by Dax-Devlon Ross

the HNIC Report

At eight my niece Mia is already a budding soccer prospect. Her current juggling record is 186. She’s the fastest player on her undefeated, all-boys club soccer team. She can do nearly 100 push-ups without stopping. When we went hiking on Saturday, she climbed a steep mountain face without a flinch of fear. Even when we stumbled upon a snake she didn’t shutter. She simply found another route and kept climbing.

Our favorite annual ritual is a trip to Liberty State Park in Jersey City. Mia is obsessed with the Statute of Liberty. She can sit on a boardwalk bench and stare at it for hours. Every few minutes she’ll ask me how tall I think she is, whether people walk around inside of her, why France gave her to us, how they were able to carry her across the ocean. And I’ll do my best to answer without sounding totally uninformed.

Mia had a new question for me this year: “Why is Lady Liberty a girl?”

I finally got why she dragged me to the park every year. Lady Liberty is her role model. She looks up to her, admires her. To her – my niece – she is as real as any flesh and blood being, more so in fact. Our society is saturated with masculine images. All we see everywhere we go are images of men who conquered, men who died on the battle field, or rose to some magnificent height. We never, ever see women in that light. Not unless we’re looking at Lady Liberty.

I was driving my niece back down to Maryland on the North Jersey Turnpike when one of the overhead electronic signs caught my eye. “Go Rutgers,” it read and I honestly had to think for a moment. Go Rutgers? Why? Where are they going? Football season doesn’t start for another six months and the basketball, well let’s just say the last time the Rutgers Men’s Basketball team made it to the Big Dance was two years before I arrived on the campus. I’m 32 now, so you do the math…

Finally, it occurred to me that there was another tournament going on and that, evidently, Rutgers Women, whom I had last seen whipping up on Connecticut three weeks earlier in the Big East Championship, were still alive.

I was still stinging from Georgetown’s defeat the previous evening, still agonizing over what I refuse to believe was a fairly called game. I was also less than thrilled about Monday’s National Championship game. As superior as Ohio State and Florida had played all season, I wasn’t looking forward to yet another Monday night season closer commentated by the King of Glum himself: Billy Packer. I wasn’t even thinking about the Women’s Final Four, much less that my alma mater was playing in it.

That night I reluctantly watched Rutgers smother LSU and Tennessee mount a valiant comeback against North Carolina. Both games were good, as good as the men’s Final Four games I’d watched a day earlier. But I’d watched them more or less because there wasn’t an NBA game on.

When I got back home on Monday morning my lady was watching Heart of the Game, a documentary that follows the Roosevelt Roughriders, a girls’ high-school basketball team in Seattle, for seven years. I’d never heard of the film and once I found out what it was about I nearly walked back into my study to check my e-mail. My lady told me to sit down, said I should I give it a chance. So I did.

The two stars of Heart of the Game are a middle-aged first time coach named Bill Resler and his star player Darnellia Russell. Resler is a full-time tax professor at the University of Washington who decides to apply for the coaching position when the job opens up one year. He works the girls. He makes them run and lift weights and bang against each other in practice. He instills in them a killer instinct and yet throughout the film he remains a compassionate and positive source of inspiration to his players. By empowering them to lead themselves by creating the concept of an “inner-circle,” then stepping out of it. When one of his players misses a potential game winner that would’ve sent the team to the state tournament, he literally runs across the floor and falls down beside her. He wraps his arm around the girl and holds her until her teammates come to her aide. How many coaches have we ever seen do this?

As the film unfolds and the years pass by I was blown away by how talented the players were, how determined they were to win, how much they gave to the game. As the team’s success starts to filter through the school halls the stands begin to fill. More people start to show up to their games than to the boys games. When the filmmakers ask a group of teenage boys why they attend girls games they all say the same thing: The girls play like a team. They’re exciting. They cheer each other on. They’re not consumed by individual stats and yet they’re as competitive as hell.

If Resler is the film’s conscience, then Darnellia Russell is its soul. When she arrives at Roosevelt after the first season the documentary covers, the film begins to become magical in the way only documentaries can be. An enormously gifted player, she is diffident at first. An incredibly bright girl, she struggles in school. Resler takes her under his wing. He holds onto her not only because she’s good, but because he genuinely cares about her future. When her learns that Darnellia is pregnant at the end of her junior year, he is demoralized. And yet when she returns to school as a fifth year senior, he helps her find an attorney and accompanies her to a reinstatement hearing after the state athletic association rules that she is ineligible. Her pregnancy, the officials argue, is not a hardship. She chose to have sex. She chose to have a child. Ultimately, though, a better ending couldn’t have been written. Darnellia is reinstated. Her teammates choose to welcome her back even though the decision could very well be overturned. The team has a strong but not stellar regular season. They squeak their way into the playoffs. Then they slither into the state tournament. When they make it all the way to the final game Resler then makes a decision that no other coach alive would probably make. He promises to play every single player in the championship game. Remarkably, every single reserves steps up big when called upon. When a freshman who’s appeared in all of four games comes in and drops three straight buckets Coach Resler screams, “Can I say Awesome!” in her ear as she leaves the floor. Even as the tension mounts, Coach Resler keeps his cool. “Are you having fun?” he asks his players, smiling.

After coming up short so many times in the past the team wins the state championship against their arch rivals in dramatic fashion with Darnellia – the star of the game; her finale – grabbing the deciding rebound. She and Resler hug. They cry because they can’t believe their story actually ends so magically. I cry because I’ve finally become a believer in women’s basketball. I cry because I finally come face to face with the sexism women athletes endure.

But while Hoop Dreams was nominated for 15 awards, including an Oscar, Heart of the Game was only nominated for two and hardly noticed by the public. Why? Because a pair of black inner-city boys are more dramatically endearing? Or because Heart is about girls basketball?

I’ve never really thought of myself as a sexist pig and compared to most, I still don’t. But in my four year at Rutgers I went to a grand total of zero football games and zero women’s basketball games. However, when Rutgers football gained national notoriety this past fall I jumped on the bandwagon without hesitation. I bragged and boasted and even stayed up late to watch their late season Thursday night games. I was proud to be a Scarlet Knight. When it came time to gear up for the NCAA tournament, however, I placed all of my bets on Georgetown. Why? Because I grew up on Georgetown and my alma mater, Rutgers, sucks. It never even crossed my mind to root for Rutgers women. Shame on me.

We all suffer from huge blind spots, unconscious prejudices, glaring gaps in our logic. We deny our prejudices, overlook or underestimate facts that do not fit into our perception of ourselves. If we’re lucky, though, we’re blessed with a few clarifying moments in which our shortcomings come into focus. If we’re brave enough we’ll admit the errors in our ways and humbly move forward with yet another lesson learned in our back pocket.

In the end Rutgers didn’t win. Didn’t play well at all. They missed easy shots. Missed free-throws. Gave away too many second chance shots. Didn’t take care of the ball. They looked too tight at times; too loose at others. Even when they were down big fifteen with six minutes to go, they weren’t playing with a sense of urgency. Tennessee looked like a team that believed they were destined to win; Rutgers looked like a team that didn’t know how it wound up in the biggest game in the school’s history. But just as I proudly watched Georgetown fold like a lawn chair on Saturday night, I was equally proud of the young Scarlet Knights team that didn’t show up on Tuesday night. Come next year I’ll be watching both of them from start to finish.