An opposing coach made a comment about the WNBA All-Star’s weight during a game. It took the everyday callousness of sports one step further
Wed 26 May 2021 06.47 EDT
Think, first, of a person you dislike – or even despise, if you’re the despising type. Now think of the cruelest thing you could say to that person, the sentence or two you know would cut to their marrow, take them out at the knees, squeeze the air from their lungs.
If you’re thinking of a woman, there’s a good chance you’re crafting an insult about her weight, imagining the look on her face when you ask her if she’s put on a few pounds during quarantine or mention the flab on the back of her arms. That’s a guaranteed gut-punch, because for many women, no matter how often we’re told our value lies in more than our appearance, we still default to a dress size or a number on a scale. We can be brilliant, successful, in the happiest relationship. But we will be felled by a mention of fat.
And that is why Curt Miller deserved every cent of his $10,000 fine, every second of his one-game suspension, for telling an official on Sunday that opposing center Liz Cambage weighed 300lbs.
Now, I’m not saying the Connecticut Sun coach went through any protracted calculus as he argued a call with refs and mocked Cambage’s size to prove his point. But he had to have known what he said was a low blow, lower still because he is a man, and Cambage, of course, is a woman. She’s a 6ft 8in, 235lbs woman who also happens to model, who holds the WNBA single-game scoring record and is a three-time All-Star. She’s an example to little girls across the world, little girls who might feel too small or too large or if they’re lucky, just right, but who will internalize that comment, all 300lbs of insult.
There’s a bigger problem at play here, too: the problem of how we talk about athletes without even a shred of humanity. An analyst calls a draft prospect a freak of nature instead of laying out the skills that make him one-of-a-kind. A manager tells the media that his best hitter, a 28-year-old adult, deserves to be spanked for swinging at a pitch he should have taken. A fan bellows at a struggling receiver (a struggling point guard, a struggling catcher, a struggling striker, a struggling defenseman) that he’s a bum, a good-for-nothing piece of trash who doesn’t deserve a job. It’s as if we forget these are people, too, who are trying their hardest and operating with limitations, who might flinch at our ill will. We channel our frustrations into these games, and they mutate into tribalism and pettiness and a total disregard for the athlete on the other side of the insult.
But what Miller said about Cambage takes the everyday callousness of sports one step further. It wasn’t trash talk. Not even close. It had sharper barbs, more insidious implications. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, rates of eating disorders in women are twice that of men. For men, size often equates to power. But for women, it’s usually portrayed as a stain on our character. We are better if we are smaller. When I was 12, I barely ate for several months to try to deflate a set of chubby cheeks and look more like the faces smiling from magazine covers at the grocery store. So I can’t help but think of all the 12-year-olds watching today, who see Liz Cambage and hear Curt Miller and wonder what they should believe.
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And then, of course, there’s the power dynamic: coach to player, man to woman. Miller’s job is to lead, and instead, he chose to tear down. He chose to add to the worst conversation in women’s sports, where style often trumps substance. Appearances hold unreasonable value, and women are sexualized, ranked for their hotness, sexiness, choice of outfit. If you’re not conventionally hot, not conventionally sexy, not unconventionally petite, well, good luck. Good luck getting endorsement deals. Good luck keeping an opposing coach from cutting you down from the sideline.
A few hours after Miller said what he said, Cambage posted a video to Instagram. She called the coach “little” and said she’d just weighed herself, that she was proud of the number on the scale. She got the last word – except I hope it’s not that. I hope this ordeal can help shift the conversation in women’s sports away from appearances and stereotypes and the perverse need to cut powerful women down to size.
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