The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, December 9, 2020

It's not about the award — Interview with Debbie Antonelli — Must-click women's basketball links

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It’s not about the award

Let’s stipulate a few things for when we talk about Breanna Stewart winning SI Sportsperson of the Year.

1) In a normal year, Stewart is an obvious choice, and one who in the past would have been overlooked entirely. Her body of work, as the best player in women’s basketball, has never been enough to win the award. NOT. ONCE. Stewart has also committed to using her platform off the court, and has done it consistently, on issues of race, voting, and sexual assault. It should be a moment to cherish, seeing a WNBA great finally win the award. And yet…

2) SI made a decision to combine this award, which has historically overlooked women and especially women of color, with a new, activist component to the award. What portion of the award was weighted to reflect activism, what portion success on the court, was always going to be fraught, as any part of it that valued on-court success over fundamental change would trivialize the latter.

3) That decision came rather than, for instance, dedicating multiple issues to different aspects of sport — say, a best sports-specific award, and a best activism award, or given 2020 and the larger reality that we’re living in, just forsaking the damn on-court award altogether and making it about who made the largest difference in our 2020 lives. It’s hard to understand a publication that covers sports, that lives in this 2020 world, thinking it is necessary to cover “activism” as if it is a one-off, like, say, the 2020 Masters.


4) Since we all live in that reality, where Black Lives Matter has resonated in a new way for a greater number of people finally coming to understand that at its basic core, a failure to value the lives and livelihoods of Black people in this country is the fix that must predate so many other ills to be addressed, an activism-centered award that elevates a white woman in an 80 percent Black league is not only tone-deaf, but hurtful. It is also a problem that wouldn’t have disappeared if, say, the award had gone to Nneka Ogwumike. It’s something to address in how SI covers sports, in how all of sports journalism operates.

There’s a larger problem here that sports journalism still needs to grapple with. (It’s the very reason The IX and The Next exist.) There are two overlapping but separate issues in sports journalism. There’s an inability and/or unwillingness to elevate the stories of women, particularly women of color, to the place we have reserved for stories about men. And there’s a lack of diversity in the people telling those stories.

Now, I do not believe, as some do, that the former problem is simply addressed by only attacking the latter problem. It is, if anything, a copout to believe that. It suggests that we never ask more of people who look like me, that it can’t and shouldn’t be the responsibility of men, of white men in particular, to dive into these stories, to take a hard look at what we cover, and to reject the status quo.

But that also comes from looking at who we are listening to, who we are empowering, who rises to leadership positions. I legitimately believe that men, that white men, can be part of that evolution in sports journalism. But it MUST come through listening, through being part of that collective evolution. And more women, more women of color, have to be in those rooms, have to be leading those rooms. Not because it’s the morally correct thing to do, though it is that. Because it will make those rooms better. Because it will assure that the decisions that flow FROM those rooms do not embarrass, but do credit to their organizations, and to the people we are privileged to cover.

I continue to commit myself to this work, to make sure I am mentoring and promoting women, particularly women of color, to highlight their work, to see it and in all the ways I can, to make sure it is central to the conversation. The IX and The Next reflect women-centered leadership, at both the coverage and business levels, and I think the results are obvious, and the very reason you are here. It is my hope that in the years to come, while our good work continues to be the outcome of that process, that we don’t stand out quite so much within journalism for that process, that it becomes the norm.

And beyond The IX and The Next, I endeavor to make sure that while I’m doing this as vocally as I can, I’m never doing it for performative reasons. That isn’t hard, though. There’s remarkable work being done by Black women, about Black women, all over our industry. When I think about my 2020, the wins in my mind are the ways I’ve helped more people see that. It shouldn’t be hard to share, to promote, to spotlight. If you aren’t doing that, you should ask yourself why.

I don’t think those of us committed to this change, working at it every day, can do it without buy-in of the many good people in sports journalism, race and sex aside, to understand just how fundamental a shift needs to occur. What is required of us, the gap between what is and what should be, is massive enough to require everyone. All people telling all stories: that is when we are truly equal.

I also know that the level of reaction, and even the ability to describe why it was problematic to highlight Breanna Stewart but not Nneka Ogwumike, or Renee Montgomery, or Natasha Cloud, or Layshia Clarendon, is a topic that wouldn’t have even been discussed in great detail among the stakeholders in the news, among the coverage of it, and certainly not in the newsroom where it happened.

All of this, to me, is a sign of progress, as disappointing as it is to many when judged purely through the lens of this particular outcome. It’s the same progress we’ve seen when a dinosaur sports columnist leaves out a women’s player on a list, or a women’s league when talking about some broader category. That once would have gone unremarked. Now, it is subject to fierce public pushback, and you can be sure, that helps to keep it from happening far more, as it used to just a few short years ago.

It reflects that in this public-facing profession, it is no longer tenable to close your eyes and put your hands over your ears when it comes to changing the equation of sports coverage that places women, and particularly Black women, in the shadows. That is a legacy of 2020 I believe will stay with us going forward. But only if all of us make certain of it, every single day.

This week in women’s basketball

Cate Reese is playing bigger this season, which will draw the attention of WNBA scouts for sure.

Sean Hurd goes deep on the overseas experience for Black players.

Chantel Jennings is talking to folks about the 2021 draft, that’s the stuff.

DaMichael Cole is on the City Six beat for the Inquirer, this is good.

Jaqueline LeBlanc has a good roundup of the week in women’s basketball.

Debbie Antonelli has a podcast! More below.

Alexa Philippou is always must-read, this time on the women’s basketball landscape beyond UConn.

Syracuse is winning with defense so far.

Michelle Smith spoke to other Pac-12 coaches about Tara VanDerveer as she reaches the top of the coaching win heap.

Maitreyi Anantharaman absolutely nails the context on the SI contretemps.

If you don’t think basketball is about something larger, Alison Saldanha is here to explain otherwise.

Madeline Kenney writes about Kahleah Copper’s new coaching gig.

Dorothy Gentry has the latest big addition to Nikki McCray-Penson’s Mississippi State program.

Loved this from Jenn Hatfield on the WABA.

And Christine M. Hopkins gets you up to speed on the MVC.

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Five at The IX: Debbie Antonelli!

Debbie Antonelli. (Via Twitter)

1. Debbie, I’m not going to pretend to be unbiased here. You make it more fun to cover anything when you’re there as well, and it’s been a balm during the pandemic to have you on Zooms with me, because you bring your energy to everything you do. But this has been hard on everyone: how do you stay so positive and full of excitement?

Thanks for those kinds words Howard.  I have a deep passion for sport, our game and the people in the game.  I grew up playing ball! Since my early childhood, I played and I’m still playing!  Hoops, Little League Baseball, Soccer, Tennis, Volleyball.  I played all sports growing up.  Mostly golf and hoops now.  Title IX went into legislation in 1972 and in 1974 I was playing Little League Baseball with the boys. I still have my first basketball rim that my parents attached over the garage on a home-made wooden backboard my dad created as my first goal.  I am incredibly grateful for my opportunities, my timing and my work with ESPN and CBS.  I do not take any of it for granted.  I try to think about what I have and not what I don’t have.  I spent the first 28 years of my career in broadcasting with zero security so I know the free-lance world all too well.  I try to improve and become 1% better each day because I have an intrinsic motivation to do better for the good of our game and who’s got next!

2. I talk a lot about infrastructure of women’s sports, how we have to create it ourselves. You did that, most literally, at Ohio State, creating a legacy of coverage there, by lining up the sponsors and connecting them to the television station to create a broadcast contract, in essence, by yourself. In a time where so much of women’s sports media is still self-starting, how encouraged are you by the folks who are following in your footsteps on this front?

I did create a Radio and TV network for Ohio State Women’s Basketball. I’ve told the story many times. I went to the local cable company in Columbus, asked if they could produce sports and what it would cost to produce 8 women’s basketball games at Ohio State.  The number was $50,000 for the production and the talent.  I sold $50,000 worth of advertising inventory to put the games on TV and it allowed me to call the games and stay on the air. I had previously spent four years at the University of Kentucky in a similar tv project.  Kentucky was my first broadcasting opportunity. I’ve been on the air since 1988 and love it!  While at Ohio State, I also created a 55 affiliate state-wide radio network.  At that time at Ohio State, if you wanted to be a football radio affiliate of the Buckeye Radio Network and broadcast the football games, you were required by contract to take half the men’s basketball schedule as inventory. I changed the agreements and added half the women’s basketball schedule to the affiliate contracts as well.  If you wanted to carry Ohio State Football, you had to take half the men’s and women’s schedule.  Ohio State had a great women’s basketball program under Nancy Darsch.  My four years at Ohio State were the same four years as Katie Smith.  It was worth the battle to include the women on this contract!

I don’t know if there are opportunities for someone to create a network in this manner today because the timing, the opportunities, the existing networks and tv media rights are completely different.  There weren’t many games on TV then and certainly not the volume of games now. 

I am encouraged.  I’m not satisfied and I will continue to stay in my lane and do what I can to help.

3. Everybody has a podcast now, but you had a women’s basketball podcast first, with Beth Mowins. Tell me about what brought you back to doing it now, with Nothing But Net.

Beth and I had the first women’s basketball podcast, “Shootaround with Beth and Debbie.” We had a great 5 year run and it was really fun.  We had 4 live shows at the women’s Final Four with 800-1000 fans, bars in the back of the room and an entertaining run of show!  Our live show was similar to Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon with guests, pranks, video elements etc.  We had an after-party called “Step Over The Newspaper Party” (party name to be discussed another time) with a tub of beer and open door invitation after the show!  Two things I miss about the podcast are the live show and the Final Four “Post Show Party”.  We did a lot of fun stuff at the live show to highlight the personalities in our game.  I’m really proud of that event and would like to re-create parts of it again! I have a great story involving Geno’s tie and how I acquired it. I traveled with that tie all season, took pictures of people with the tie and created a slideshow.  We live-auctioned the tie to benefit the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.  That tie raised a lot of money over 4 live shows because we continued to recycle it every Final Four! Some of the things we did in the live show might be for another discussion but it was really fun! 

Our podcast was a platform to talk about the game and share discussion in the game.  Social media had not really hit it big yet and maybe that’s a good thing for the two of us! We did some crazy stuff with the podcast, the live show and the after-party. Today, there is not enough tv time and there wasn’t a place to go for women’s basketball news or discussion.  Now there are places to go for information.  At this time, I went to Beth Bass at the WBCA and asked her if we she would host the podcast on the WBCA web site and asked Beth Mowins to co-host.  We had our own producer who did a great job.  Mowins and I didn’t always agree and we had fun arguing!

I started the podcast because I thought it would be fun.  I wanted to use my relationships in the game to continue to help our game.  I’m in a position to do more and add value to our game.  The final decision to go with the podcast came from a young broadcaster who simply said he remembered our podcast and it was a source of information for him. He didn’t know where to go for information that took a deeper dive into our game. I like to break-it-down so I thought I would give it a go again.

We also produced change/ideas/thoughts in our game through our podcast. 

1. We fought for a women’s defensive player of the year thru the WBCA.  The WBCA’s mission is to grow the game and this was a way.  The candidates for this award are determined by the respective conference Defensive Players of the Year. You have to be named your conference’s defensive player of the year to be eligible for the national award.  The creation of this award forced some conference offices to create a defensive player of the year award.  We were able to grow our game and recognize defense.  Ironically, I’m still the chair of the National Defensive Player of the Year Committee and you know how much I love offense!

2.  My love for offense and why discussed at great length.  I believe Beth and I had some impact on the offensive rules of the game because we discussed it all the time.  I’ve been selling offense for decades and I will continue to sell offense because it is important to selling our product.

3.  Moved the WBCA to allow the former winners of the Wade Trophy to have one collective vote.  We called the Wade Trophy, “The Heisman Trophy for the women’s game”. and former Heisman winners vote on who wins the award. I believe strongly that former Wade Trophy winners should get a vote.  They did! I even got Archie Griffin, the only 2-time Heisman Trophy Winner to come on the podcast and talk about the importance of former winners having a role and a vote. That was the final salvo for getting this decision done!  I worked for Archie for 4 years at Ohio State.  Also a conversation for another time!

4. Sweet 16 to Vegas was born and is still in diapers 12 years later. Not going to dive into that now!

I decided to do a podcast because I wanted an outlet to share my research, stories, passion and to advance the stories of the players and coaches in the game.  I want to add value.  

4. Okay, you’ve got the first pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, and you are an expansion team. Let’s call you the South Carolina Staleys. So position doesn’t matter. Who is your selection? Let’s assume everyone who is a senior chooses to come out, despite the free year of eligibility, for this exercise.

I like guards who can shoot it, handle and make plays for their teammates.  I like Dana Evans and Rhyne Howard in this example.  Howard is playing some sets at the point and initiating offense from the top of the floor.  Howard can play 1-5 and is versatile and dynamic in her shot making. Howard is long, excellent shooter and shot maker in traffic, getting better in screening action (need to exit cut better)  Dana Evans is quick, fast, can shoot it and this year  showing she can play off the ball and/or manage more offensive options.  She is a combo guard who plays with high IQ.  Her speed is necessary.  She reads ball screen coverages well. NY has the first pick and NY has players on their roster similar to Rhyne Howard (Jocelyn Willoughby) and Dana Evans (Sabrina and Layshia will be in the backcourt together) would give them speed and someone different than who they have.   

For this exercise and the parameters outlined, Rhyne Howard!

5. I have tried without success to find your collegiate stats, from when you played for Kay Yow. Give us a scouting report on yourself, please, and a player comp.

Ha! Get out the microfiche machine! Box Scores back then were handwritten and in black and white copied off the mimeograph machine!  I am the self-proclaimed best non-stat starter at NC State.  Three years of starting with few stats!  I like to say I did all the non-stat things that added glue and chemistry to our teams.  I played with and against some great players in the ACC.  I like to joke I was the first player and only player to get a technical foul from the bench and first player to convince Coach Yow I would be faster if she didn’t make me wear high tops. I was the “Code” definition of “student-athlete”.  Seriously, I didn’t play with the 3pt line.  Half my career at NC State was a transition from the “big ball to the small ball”.  I was a shooter, spacer, skip pass bucket.  I played the 2 guard, was in great shape, and worked my ass off to be reliable.  I was told I would never play, I was too this and that and I used it for motivation.  Its funny how you remember those that didn’t believe more than those that provide confidence. We won and those are the stats I love to recite.  4 NCAA Tournament, 2 Sweet Sixteens.  AP Top 20 every year.  ACC Regular Season Champs 2 times and ACC Tournament Champs in 1985. We played in two other ACC Championships but lost.  I had a role, I played my role and I made Coach Yow trust in my consistency and she needed me on the court. I made open shots and stayed inside my role on the team.  I gave her confidence I would do all those things to help the team win every day!  Break out today’s plus/minus system and I helped our team win and that’s what mattered to me most!

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.