Breaking the Mold: Seeing the Image of God in Women’s Basketball
A collective gasp circled the semi-crowded neighborhood bar my husband and I sat in on March 28th. Someone scraped a chair across the wooden floor in shock or frustration or both while another brought their glass down on the table with a resounding clink. “Oh that’s it. We’re done,” he said. Georgia Amoore, Virginia Tech’s Australian point guard, had just taken a hard hit to the jaw. She lay on the court, hands over her face, not moving.
Champs did not usually open on Mondays, but they’d made an exception in order to air the Elite Eight round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Now, Georgia Amoore struggled to get to her feet in high definition on all four screens. Profanities flew through the bar. “She doesn’t know what planet she’s on. Call it now.”
And it certainly didn’t look good. Amoore hobbled off with the help of two staff members, eyes tilted to the right as she tried to flex her jaw. Virginia Tech had never advanced this far in the tournament in program history, and though they were technically favored to win the game, they more or less didn’t have a bench. Without Amoore, the chances of advancing were slim to none.
I felt the disappointment of this settle over me as the team struggled to overcome the distraction of their point guard’s injury. I was of course sad that the team I was rooting for would likely lose, but I was also disappointed that the community’s momentous support for a women’s sports team would come to an end. I was considering this, and the fact that the last time I’d witnessed a crowd this cohesive at Champs was during the 2014 Men’s World Cup, when the people around me got to their feet and began to clap. Georgia Amoore, not five minutes later, was back on the bench, a smile on her face waiting to be subbed in.
Ultimately Virginia Tech won the game, largely thanks to Amoore’s grit, but lost the following Final Four matchup to Louisiana State University. The real victory, however, transcends a singular team. Rather, it is best represented by this statistic: on Sunday, April 2, 9.9 million viewers tuned into the championship game as LSU and Iowa vied for their program’s first title in school history. LSU walked away with the title, but as more people than ever before tuned in to watch, it was women’s sports as a whole that won.
The year 2022 marked 50 years of Title IX—legislation that is meant, in part, to ensure that women’s sports receive equitable funding and representation within educational settings. However, as in most cases of systemic injustice, the legislatively prescribed cure has been slow and imperfect. The progress women’s sports has seen as a result of Title IX has been clumsy at times and downright painful at others.
For example, as recently as the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments, social media helped to expose notable differences in the facilities, treatment, and branding between the men’s and women’s teams. Dan Gavitt of the NCAA eventually took ownership of a notable disparity between the men’s and women’s training facilities, apologizing for the NCAA’s “dropping the ball” on the “weight room issue.” However, Lynn Holzman, also of the NCAA, described other observable differences, such as COVID testing protocols and player swag bags, as “minor.”
While the NCAA took steps towards improvement, such as increased collaboration between the men’s and women’s tournament coordinators and granting the women’s tournament access to the “March Madness” brand, they felt no legal repercussions for the disparity under Title IX. This, in fact, is not uncommon. Not only does Title IX not apply to professional and some amateur sports, the legislation is actually meant to generally provide equitable treatment between men and women in educational settings. Therefore, because it is not specific to athletics, it is not designed to fix the complex problems unique to sports.
Part of the problem, simply put, is that legislation cannot change a nation’s attitude towards women. We have created restrictive molds to which we bend and shape the girls and women in our lives. We expect meekness, deference, and humility from women while we expect leadership and physicality in men. Our acceptance of men as athletes and our rejection of women in the same roles, then, seems a natural extrapolation of attitudes we already hold.
The church is as guilty of these attitudes as the world at large. As Carmen Joy Imes writes in Christianity Today, many in the church have long used terms such as “helpmate” in Genesis 1-3 “to justify strong views on female submission and service.” When we emphasize “helpmate” or the equally popular “wife of noble character” to young girls in the church, we direct them to the aspects of their humanity we’ve curated for them: secondary roles.
The problem with this, of course, is that it undermines the full scope of the Imago Dei—the many ways in which people, regardless of gender, are created in the image of God. To ignore or even chastise female athleticism—or to tacitly treat it as a lesser form of athleticism by providing inferior treatment—undermines the breadth of creation.
And yet, it has been a culturally pervasive attitude for centuries: women performing feats of athleticism seems inherently incongruent to much of the Western world. We have rejected it over and over again—look no further than the historically poor compensation of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, or, really, any Twitter thread discussing women’s sports.
But the 2023 NCAA basketball tournament might just be the wave that turns the tide. Or, perhaps it’s simply evidence that the tide is already turning—I’m not sure that there’s a way to know. Regardless, it bodes well for the future of women’s sports. During a year in which the men’s tournament was largely lackluster—the marquee matchup was, of all teams, UConn versus San Diego State—the nation seemed far more invested in the showdown between the women’s number two-seeded Iowa and number three-seeded LSU. The other two final four games, number one-seeded University of South Carolina versus Iowa and LSU versus number one-seeded Virginia Tech, also got considerable national attention. USC’s semifinal game drew 5.5 million viewers while Virginia Tech’s clocked 3.4 million.
These numbers are particularly impressive when you consider the accessibility of the women’s tournament versus the men’s. The men’s tournament is currently on contract with CBS and Turner, often via free access channels, while the women’s is aired via ESPN. But perhaps the most indicative statistic is this one: the women’s Elite 8 round has shown a 43 percent annual growth; conversely, the men’s Elite 8 round was down 14 percent from 2022.
Undeniably, credit for the sport’s growth goes to the success of its up and coming stars. The Final Four boasted some of the sport’s most notable college players. LSU’s Angel Reese—affectionately known as Bayou Barbie—clocked her 34th double-double in Sunday’s game, the most in a single women’s basketball season. But Reese’s teammate, Alexis Morris, in many ways had the bigger game with 21 points and 9 assists. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark has, for years, become increasingly lauded as the greatest of all time, an accolade she worked to prove when she recorded the tournament’s first ever 40-point triple double (man or woman). USC boasted the first-overall pick of the WNBA draft, power forward Aliyah Boston. And Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley, a second-team All-American, recently announced her deferment from the 2023 draft, where she surely would have been a first round pick.
However, the success of individual players cannot be the only catalyst for change in the equality of women’s sports. It must be—and, I think, is being—accompanied by a cultural acceptance of athletic women. Women refusing to bend to restrictive molds is a stopgap measure; in order to create sustainable change, we must interrogate our own creation and subsequent maintenance of these molds. More and more, it seems, we are finding that meekness is not an essential aspect of womanhood, nor is an expression of physicality or leadership a violation of it.
The 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament revealed two equally important facts: this generation of women has produced formidable athletic stars, and, perhaps more saliently, a culture that is willing to support them.