PORTLAND — This is what progress looks like: It’s Sabrina, one of those athletes worthy of single-name status, sitting behind a microphone and answering questions about her professional future.
It’s 11,324 fans packing the Moda Center to watch an NCAA women’s basketball regional. It’s sports talk radio breaking down the matchup of Ruthy Hebard against Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan, or Oregon’s 3-point shooting against the Bulldogs’ pressure defense.
It’s NBA stars like Steph Curry and Kobe Bryant openly supporting the women’s game. It’s the numerous national profiles written about Ionescu, Oregon’s singular triple-double machine, and it’s the 44,000 people who follow her on Instagram.
Look around, and you can see signs that women’s basketball is a sport on the rise. And at the same time, you see signs that the game doesn’t yet receive the respect it deserves.
All you have to do is scroll through the 2,893 comments on one of Ionescu’s recent Instagram posts, which she captioned: “Comment section doesn’t phase (sic) me. They’re talking about cooking?! Well I’ve been serving triple doubles lately.”
That’s a reference to the misogynistic comments aimed at female athletes by a few mouth-breathers on social media. Ionescu’s post elicited the predictable response: A whole lot of support, but also more of the same tired insults.
Ionescu occupies a spotlight reserved for the most successful female athletes, and that spotlight will only intensify if the Ducks beat Mississippi State on Sunday and advance to the Final Four. With her success comes praise, attention, adulation — but also the backlash of being caught in the middle of a culture war.
So how does Ionescu feel about that?
“If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” she said, and whether the wordplay was intentional or not, that’s Ionescu in a nutshell.
She’s unflappable. She’s honest. No amount of Internet trolling is going to stop her from playing her game or speaking about her beliefs.
“I could care less about the comments,” she said. “Those won’t keep me up at night. I love getting under people’s skin.”
Not everyone is going to like that, and that’s OK. There’s no law that says you have to be a fan of women’s basketball. But if you’re not a fan, please don’t embarrass yourself by spewing the same useless tropes that we’ve all heard a million times.
When we talk about the future of women’s basketball, this would be a reasonable goal: to get to a place where people can like or dislike the sport without demeaning the athletes. I’m not a fan of Brussels sprouts, but I don’t go around disparaging them all day on Twitter. So why do some people feel the need to constantly denigrate women’s sports?
Beyond that, you can pinpoint quite a few areas where women’s sports are still catching up to the men’s. On one hand, it’s a compliment to Ionescu that people are talking about whether she should skip her senior season at Oregon and turn pro.
On the other hand, it’s disappointing that a player of her caliber doesn't have more professional opportunities. The average WNBA salary is around $75,000, which is why many players supplement their income by going overseas. Depending on the kinds of endorsements she gets, Ionescu could have more exposure playing another year at Oregon than she’d have in the WNBA.
“At the end of last season, I didn’t even know (leaving early) was an option, to be honest,” she said. “It never even crossed my mind that I would be in this position, even talking about going.”
It would be great to reach a place where men’s and women’s sports no longer exist in a state of constant comparison. We could talk about Sabrina as a basketball player, not a women’s basketball player, and celebrate successes in women’s sports without needing to validate them through the lens of the men’s game.
We’ve made progress toward that goal, but we’re not there yet. When the Louisville coach calls out his state’s governor for congratulating the Kentucky men but not the Cardinal women for reaching the Elite Eight, it’s a reminder that the women’s game could use more recognition. Then you look at a player like Ionescu, and it’s hard not to be excited about where the game is going.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfectly level playing field, but if you ask Ionescu to describe her idea of progress, this is what she says.
“Women on the cover of sports magazines, and it not being a surprise. Women being the headline of an ESPN article instead of Zion (Williamson) for the 18th time, after a subpar performance.
“Just little things like that that seem so normal. In a few years — especially since men in sports are taking such huge steps in advocating for women’s rights and women’s equality in sports — I think that’s going to soon be the norm.”
I hope she’s right. And who knows: Maybe the face on the magazine cover will be hers.