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I will be the first to admit that I am a latecomer to women’s NCAA basketball. I’ve been a fan of the Michigan State Spartans men’s team since 2001 when I started dating my husband, but this year, along with so many others, I finally started watching some of the women’s games. My curiosity was helped by the fact that the University of Connecticut’s Aaliyah Edwards is from Kingston, Ontario (where I live), and my daughter is friends with Aaliyah’s cousin. And yes, I too have found myself mesmerized by Caitlin Clark’s deep 3’s, magical assists, and strong character.

Honestly, one of the reasons I’m paying attention now came via negativa. A friend of mine overheard a woman say, “I don’t like to watch women’s basketball. They’re just too cocky.” Too cocky? Really? This, I had to see.

I am such a latecomer to the game that I hesitate to make observations. But when I watched the last few games of the NCAA women’s tournament, the players didn’t seem too cocky to me. In fact, they seemed quite the opposite at times. When Iowa player Hannah Stuelke made a fantastic play in the women’s final, it looked to me like she was trying to hide her smile. “Own it!” I shouted at the screen. “Enjoy it! Don’t hide it!” But even as I said this I realized how my reaction was part of the problem. Whether female players (and their female coaches) are being judged for too much cockiness or not enough of it is somewhat beside the point. That they’re being judged is the societal inevitability and a symptom of deep-seated patriarchy.

Steph Flamini had 287 career victories in her 18 years as Guilford College women’s basketball coach. “I just think it’s such a shame that they control women’s sports so much more than men’s sports, I just think it’s crazy,” she said in a 2021 article my oldest daughter sent me (and from which I gathered the stories and perspectives I am sharing with you today). “We have to be controlled in so many aspects of our game. I think it’s bad in that there’s been articles that women are judged for too much emotion and not enough emotion, so what are you supposed to do?” 

Though female players and coaches are sometimes judged for not showing enough emotion, they are certainly more often judged for showing too much of it. Flamini again:

When you’re even-keeled or not showing emotion, you’re not threatening and I think that’s weird, because when a guy shows emotion it’s ‘oh he really cares, he’s really into it’ but we show it and we’re like a threat, it’s weird and we’re not taken seriously.

Jeff Walz is the coach of the women’s team at the University of Louisville. His March 2021 tweet and hashtag are spot on: “Please allow women’s basketball players to show emotion after big plays! #helpgrowthegame.” I think Walz was throwing this down as a challenge to the referees. Three years later, have the refs helped grow the game? Have the fans? I hope so.

Lex Mayes, who played for Murray State, remembers the moment she got called for a technical for pointing to the player who had assisted her 3 point shot. When her (female) coach questioned the call, the coach received two technicals and was ejected from the game. “I feel like (the refs) aren’t as patient with female coaches,” Mayes said. “It’s kinda like they jump to be a little more reactive because you know, you’re supposed to be ladylike … male players, they can block your shot and scream in faces and they can wag their fingers, they can shush the crowd and it’s nothing.”

You’re supposed to be ladylike.

You’re not supposed to be cocky.

I may be new to watching women’s basketball, but (as a female “player” in a male dominated “sport”) I am not new to the pressure I feel to manage my expression of emotion in ways that are socially acceptable.

Okay, I know. The pulpit is not the basketball court and the ministry is neither a competition nor a game. But ask a female pastor about this and I am guessing that she will have stories to tell you about how she’s felt pressure to curb her enthusiasm, her joy, her pride, her anger, her sadness.

Ask any female leader about this. Ask any female.

And then ask yourself (like I am asking myself): How do we grow the game? Who can we challenge to help grow the game?

I suppose the reason that this topic is lighting up for me right now is because I just listened to Gabor Maté’s book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. Maté names three “self-abnegating traits” that are correlated with and predispose people to autoimmune diseases:

  • A compulsive and self-sacrificing doing for others
  • Suppression of anger
  • An excessive concern about social acceptability

He writes: “These personality features found across all autoimmune conditions are precisely the ones inculcated into women in a patriarchal culture.”

After listening to this book, I am inspired anew to grow the game, to help my daughters grow their game and to learn from them how to grow mine.

And I am inspired to return to Jesus, who sacrificed himself for others, but in a way that was what Maté would call “conscious and time-bound” (i.e., not compulsive). I return to Jesus, who befriended his anger, treating it as an important signal that an injustice needed his fierce shalom. I return to Jesus who wept so openly, it was recorded as its own complete sentence. I return to Jesus, who ignored social norms in order to love and be close to those who were deemed unacceptable by society.

Friends, let’s keep growing the games. Not just the games of women in basketball or ministry, but the games of all people who are especially pressured by this toxic culture to negate themselves. Let’s encourage ourselves and one another to flourish, to grow into the fullness of our createdness and our emotional range. And let’s do this together, not just as individuals, but as teammates working toward the greater good. Then, living our truest lives in love, “we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Note: Click here to read a gorgeous reflection at the intersection of women’s basketball and women in ministry. Anna Erickson grew up in the game and is growing the game!

(Header Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash)

Heidi S. De Jonge

Heidi S. De Jonge is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lives in Kingston, Ontario, with her husband, three children, and a dog.


  • RZ says:

    Should a man weigh in on this? Probably not. Nonetheless….. I would like to believe that those referees , commentators, and grandmothers who restrain women athletes do so wirh righteous motivation and an eye on history: Let’s not become greedy, uncivilized, egomaniacal brutes like so many male athletes have become…. men who beat and cheat on their wives, use the crowded highways to race their million dollar cars, fight, rape, exploit, strut, trash-talk ,hide true emotion under the facade of anger and domination. Someone said it well here a few days ago. Better to trust in the power of love rather than the love of power. Thanks for an intriguing discussion-starter. There is a balance point here and shalom seems like a good place to start.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    Thank you, Heidi. It is very good to be on the team with you.(and your daughters and mine).

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I really appreciate this article. I’ve been watching UCONN women’s basketball since the Sue Bird era. I loved watching Rebecca Lobo and Diana Taurasi (the best to ever play) and recently Breanna Stewart, the only 4 time national champion. I’ve watched Geno Auriemma coach his team like they were men and somehow everyone embraces that, maybe treating every player the same is the point of his program. Maybe he gets away with it because he’s a man (maybe HE gets away with a lot more).
    Now, I shouldn’t say this because I’m a man, but so many black men face similar toxic cultural criticisms (I don’t mean to both sides this or undermine your article. You are right). Caleb Williams paints his nails and cried with his mother after USC lost this year and the football community questions whether he should go #1 because he’s soft, or does this nail thing make him “weird?” UNLV back in the 90s were “thugs” and so many celebrated Duke beating them (their team was mostly white). Did that make a difference? Last year Caitlyn lost in the championship game and responded with “grace” (though the game before she did the washing the face, don’t see you, trash talk action). Caitlyn is quite the trash talker. Men are lauded for this action. Angel Reese repeated that same action to Caitlyn, and she was run through the ringer on all the cable shows, making it to cable news media and harshly criticized as terrible by so many. Watch Angel Reese’s press conference after her loss in the tournament. She describes how she was treated after that game and throughout the year.
    Women can’t win if they are demonstrative and can’t win when they are graceful, but black women can’t win even more, and frankly a good portion of that same toxicity is placed on black men.
    I don’t know the point I’m making, but I’ve been watching women’s basketball for 30 years and everything you said is correct, and there is even more going on with this dynamic. This is NOT meant as a criticism, just some additional commentary about the toxicity that so many face from our culture.

    • heididejonge says:

      THANK YOU, Rodney. I appreciate your well-informed broadening of this. The race-angle is monumentally important and I only gave it a nod when I said, “Not just the games of women in basketball or ministry, but the games of all people who are especially pressured by this toxic culture to negate themselves.” Your content here is exactly the expansion my late-coming observations needed. Again, thank you.

  • This is so good, Heidi. I love how you describe Jesus owning and expressing a full range of emotions. Our society is not good at encouraging this in a healthy way.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Heidi, I have only watched the woman’s game between U of I and SC, and I loved Caitlin Clark. She is a graduate of a Catholic high school, and this is plain in her sticking up for her team-mates. I will admit that U of I is the school my husband and I got our PhDs from, but it is so much more. Keep it up Caitin.

  • Gail Miller says:

    I was told by a male parishioner that he thought my sermon delivery was a little too joyful and I might have “toned it down.” This was on Advent 3 – Joy Sunday – and the text was Mary’s Magnificat. Really?

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    I was struck by your comment that a “compulsive and self-sacrificing doing for others” can predispose one to an autoimmune disease. I’m working on a sermon for April 21, and am struggling with the emphasis in the lectionary texts on imitating Jesus who laid down his life for others. (John 10:11-18 and I John 3:16-24). I wrestled with the theme of Jesus’ self emptying in Phil. 2 on Palm Sunday! Theologically, I understand, but pastorally, I struggle to preach these texts in joyous Eastertide.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      I believe that there are things that the Lord Jesus had to do so that I don’t have to. To my mind, the mind of Christ does not entail all the choices of Christ.

    • Heidi De Jonge says:

      Lynn! I am preparing to write my blog for this coming week (May 10), and this is EXACTLY what I’ve decided to come back to (I think!), because there is a lot of work to do theologically here… I’m with you. And I think I’m with Dan, too (thanks, Dan!). We’ll see what happens…

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