Megan Herbert, Brittney Griner & Why Women’s Basketball Is Ultimately Doomed

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It’s been a couple weeks since one of the most impressive basketball players in our state’s history finished her career. More than 14 days since someone as important to the UCA Sugar Bears as Scottie Pippen is to their male counterparts played her last college game.

Part of me is still a little sad I didn’t watch Megan Herbert more.

Oh, I had my opportunities, could have made sure to be at UCA’s Farris Center on the night in 2009 when UCA, fielding nine players with three total years of Division I experience, beat Tulsa for the program’s first victory over a major college team.

Herbert, then a freshman, led the way with 36 points and 18 rebounds. It was the sixth of 23 consecutive double-doubles. By comparison, Marshawn Powell led the Razorbacks men’s team with three double-doubles this past season.

I also missed the nights in November 2011 when UCA beat Alabama, then Indiana, setting the table for the program’s first Southland Conference championship.

I could have at least tried to watch the streaming webcast of the Sugar Bears’ most recent game on March 13, when they lost 64-59 to Stephen F. Austin in the opening round of the conference tournament.

Herbert went down fighting, pulling down 11 rebounds and tossing in 22 points to become, ahem, the ALL-TIME LEADING DIVISION I SCORER IN STATE HISTORY. She is also the first student-athlete at an Arkansas DI program to win three conference player of the year awards.

But I didn’t see any of these milestones.

In her whole time with the team, I made it to one game – an early season yawner against Philander Smith last January.

It’s not that I’m against the women’s game.

Megan Herbert Career Stats

It matters to me that Herbert ended up as one of nine D1 players to score at least 2,300 points and  1, 400 rebounds. (On that list, she joined the likes of Cheryl Miller, Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner). I’m proud to see an Arkansan at an Arkansas school do so well.

Indeed, I consider Herbert’s in-state legacy on par with that of Scottie Pippen, whose images hangs on a banner in the Farris Center,  because she helped propel UCA from a school transitioning from Division II to near mid-major power status faster than anybody anticipated.

“She’s helped get the Sugar Bear name and brand out there,” a UCA radio announcer told 501 Life last month. “As much winning as this team has done with wins over BCS teams, SEC teams, Top 25 teams and the SLC title, it has legitimized this program and helped UCA compete and succeed at this level of women’s basketball.”

But  here’s the rub: when it came to actually sitting down and watching Sugar Bear basketball  – and, really, almost any women’s basketball – there is almost always something else I would rather watch.

Typically, in the winter, that something else is men’s basketball or football.

Is this sexist? I hope not. Because I believe when it comes to basketball, men simply play a vastly more entertaining style of the game. In the end, this disparity dooms any shot women’s basketball has at becoming a mainstream spectator sport.

During March Madness, we throw out the term “Cinderella team” as often as Florida Gulf Coast University lobs passes toward the rim. But we’ll never see an upstart, previously obscure women’s program capture our national consciousness like the FGCU men have because no group of women is capable of fast breaking and alley-oop dunking its way to the Sweet 16.

I expect just as many females as males have mastered jump shooting technique, the pick and roll and crossover dribble. But technical precision doesn’t consistently put 20,000+ bodies in arena seats and jack up the ad rates for television broadcasts; above-the-rim action does. In short, no matter how good Joe Foley’s UALR Lady Trojans become, in terms of popularity they will never hold a candle to Phi Slamma Jamma.

Which leads me to the somewhat sad realization that while Scottie Pippen went on to bigger and better things with the Chicago Bulls after his college career (and helped raise the national profile of UCA athletics in the process), this is likely the end of the hardwood road for Herbert in terms of in-state basketball relevance.

Even if Herbert were to beat the odds and make it to the WNBA (a daunting task for a 5-11 post player), don’t expect many Arkansans to tune in for a full game. Their apathy has a chicken-or-the-egg relationship with local media, who can be expected to give approximately 2,000% more coverage to summer football practice than the WNBA.

In theory, I would be all about watching Herbert play pro ball. Just as I was psyched to see how Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” style would work with women when he first started coaching the Tulsa Shock in summer 2010.

The enduring problem is that, in actuality, there’s almost always something more exciting to watch at all times. In the summer, for instance, we have soccer, the NBA Draft, Wimbledon and catching up on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries.

Granted, I have made a brief exception for Brittney Griner.

Megan Herbert UCA Sugar Bear

I’ve made sure to tune into the Baylor All-American’s games against other top programs – Connecticut, Notre Dame, Stanford – during her record-setting career these last four seasons. She’s the closest my generation has gotten to seeing someone have a Wilt Chamberlain-like effect on a team sport. No woman has ever come close to matching her for the same combination of of height, agility and hops.

The result: a plethora of SportsCenter dunks, more name recognition than any of her male collegiate counterparts and talk that she may actually make the WNBA relevant on the national sportscape.

For sure, there will be interest at the start of her first WNBA season, just as there was for Maya Moore and Candace Parker before her. People will tune in to see how well she upgrades to crushing grown women, but will tune out when the 20 point /10 rebounds /5 block games become redundant.

In her rookie season, Griner will get the WNBA more pub than ever. But it won’t remain. Because, no matter how many times Griner dunks over other women, deep down we know she has no hope of doing the same against NBA players.

While she surprises us because she does things no woman has done before, she can’t wow us like Jordan or LeBron. She can’t do things we have never seen before from men or women. A pro sport can’t escape niche status and break into the mainstream until its players are breaking barriers, period. Breaking gender-specific barriers captures headlines in the short term, but not imaginations in the long run.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope Griner lifts the WNBA, just as she has women’s college basketball, and never lets it sink. But my gut tells me that a lot of male sports fans – and even female fans – feel the same way I do.

When it’s all said and done, this year is the athletic apex of the young star’s career. She’ll play on, sure, and improve as a player. But Griner won’t matter more to our culture as whole than she  she does this spring and summer.

Likewise, if Megan Herbert were a male who’d been just as dominant in college (Herbert averaged 16.8 points and 12.6 rebounds against SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC and C-USA teams), all the talk right now would be about how this player is the second coming of Scottie Pippen or Karl Malone. How he’s about to take the league by storm.

Instead, Herbert’s reign is most likely over.

Part of me wants to lament this. My other, more persuasive, half is already reaching for the remote.

Demirel blogs more about women’s basketball here. Watch him descend into March Madness here.

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