The Good Girls of Basketball

Amidst NBA all-star appearances, MVP trophies, and scoring titles is a man who once found himself in a Philadelphia police station, facing 14 felonies and misdemeanors stemming from a domestic dispute.

Yet, today, Allen Iverson, like many other previously arrested NBA players, remains among the leagues most popular. His number “3” jersey is top five in sales.

Across the aisle in the WNBA, players are rarely involved in this sort of criminal activity off the court. Instead of the “bad boy” persona and celebrity status that the NBA promotes, the WNBA promotes responsible behavior both on and off the court. This type of behavior includes respect for the game, players, and fans and excludes excessive technical fouls, ejections, and legal troubles.

More NBA players demonstrate poor off the court behavior than WNBA players. In 2005, a study showed that there were 84 NBA players (12 retired) who were recently arrested. Most of the arrests were drug- or violence-related incidences ranging from weapons/drug possession to assault to rape. Jayson Williams, a retired 34-year-old NBA all-star, went on trial for reckless manslaughter.

The high number of NBA players who get into trouble off the court is a reflection of the NBA lifestyle. In the league known as “showtime,” players are expected to do more than play, they must entertain. Fans show up to games expecting entertainment and the NBA delivers.

However, this entertainment value sometimes spills over into real life when NBA players act outrageous in public because they are used to being the center of attention. Time and time again, NBA players achieve attention off the court for illegal behavior or public misconduct.

In the WNBA, the emphasis is not on entertaining. Many WNBA players have no pressure to adopt celebrity personalities. There have only been a handful of celebrity female basketball players; most notably Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Candace Parker. So, most WNBA players escape a risky and often damaging lifestyle.

The void of celebrity status in the WNBA translates into responsible off the court behavior. Compared to the 84 NBA players in 2005 that had been arrested, the WNBA boasts a single off the court incident in its 12 year existence. Chicago Sky’s Deanna Jackson was arrested in Israel on assault charges after punching an opposing player in the parking lot following a game. Jackson is currently not employed by the WNBA.

In contrast to the bad boys of the NBA, WNBA players look like good girls. In other words, WNBA players are more likely to be morally-sound and responsible members of society, as their track record suggests.

Along with the analysis of off the court behavior, another test of the bad boy vs. good girl theory is an observation of on the court behavior.

As a whole, the WNBA has fewer technical fouls and ejections than the NBA. In the 2008 WNBA season of 34 games, the WNBA reported 49 player technical fouls and 4 player ejections.

In the 14 games that have been played in the 2008-09 NBA season, there have already been 108 player technical fouls, 178 team technical fouls, and 27 coach technical fouls, resulting in 6 ejections.

In half as many games, the NBA already has more than double the player technical fouls (not counting those called on teams, coaches, and bench). Since the NBA plays an 82 game schedule, these statistics are astounding at season’s end. As one can imagine, the NBA trumps the WNBA in technical fouls and ejections, suggesting that the WNBA maintains morally-superiority on the court as well.

A 2008 article published in the Journal of Sports Economics proposes that the higher the players’ salary, the more likely they are to misbehave. Author Todd Kendall found a correlation between technical fouls and ejections on the court and misbehavior and legal troubles off the court. In other words, the players who most commonly received technical fouls or ejections were the players who most commonly got into legal troubles.

Furthermore, technical fouls and ejections were most common amongst players with higher salaries, suggesting that higher salaries allow for bad behavior. The highest paid players not only rack up more technical fouls and ejections, but are more susceptible to off the court misconduct.

Interestingly, players with low salaries commit far less violations on the court. Perhaps lower paid players, such as the WNBA, need the money and do not want to risk fines or loss of job. Whereas in the NBA, most high paid superstars have job security and are able to commit violations with little ramifications.

Given that there is a correlation between salary and behavior, the WNBAs lack of money allows its players to be morally-sound. According to Kendall’s proposition, without high player salaries, WNBA players are less likely to commit any offense, whether it is on or off the court; and this holds true, both in technical fouls/ejections and arrests.

Another factor that contributes to the perception of WNBA players as morally-superior is that the style of play in the WNBA is thought of as a throwback to traditional basketball, a style labeled boring by the modern sports fan.

The WNBA style of basketball is depicted in a 2008 article that measures the performance of every NBA and WNBA team over a 7-year span. Different studies throughout the article suggest that male professional basketball players outshoot and out-rebound their female counterparts as well as lead in statistical categories such as personal fouls, blocked shots, and turnovers. Male dominance across most statistical categories, even after considering differences in game time and competition, gives reason to the excitement many fans find in the NBA but not in the WNBA. More points, more fouls, even more turnovers makes the game more exciting.

Given the statistics and style of play in the NBA, the female pro basketball league represents a purer form of the game. Many fans are attracted to this style of basketball and enjoy the WNBAs emphasis on the team.

The WNBA is currently the most successful professional women’s sports league. Created only 12 years ago, the WNBA has grown rapidly. After only two seasons, the WNBA averaged 10,000 fans a game, an achievement that took the NBA 29 seasons. WNBA players locked up deals with major companies such as Gatorade, General Motors, and Nike. And, the women’s game continues to grow, reaching record-breaking highs in jersey sales and television viewers in the 2008 season.

Perhaps, the good girls got it right.

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