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WNBL's role in pushing for gender equality in sports

Women's basketball in the Philippines has reached historic milestones in the past year. Gilas Pilipinas Women broke through the barriers by winning double gold medals in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games last December. Then just this month, the Women's National Basketball League (WNBL) became the first-ever professional league for female ballers in the country.

A lot of people wonder why the Philippines, a nation known for being crazy about basketball, took so long to organize a pro league for women.

There had been failed attempts to provide post-college opportunities for female basketball players before, most notably the semi-pro Women's Philippine Basketball League (WPBL). It briefly ran from 1998 to 1999 and returned for another season in 2008 before ultimately folding.

Along with the successes of the Philippine women's basketball team, the clamor to have a league of their own grew louder. It was finally heard when the WNBL, which launched in 2019, got approval from the Games and Amusement Board (GAB) to turn pro. While the world is still battling with the coronavirus pandemic that halted most sports events, the WNBL will have enough time to map out its plans for the 2021 season.

Being a pioneer, there is pressure to come up with all the right ingredients to make this work. Nowadays, with sports having more amplified voices than ever, it's not enough for a league to just exist to provide opportunities for talented players. It must also strive to address the issues that female athletes typically face.

But the onus is not just on the WNBL officials and personnel. The teams, the media, the sponsors, and the viewers will all play important roles in shaping the league's future and helping women's basketball move toward the right direction.

In 2015, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) introduced a women's 3x3 tournament, which was played during halftime of the regular games. Former PBA commissioner Chito Narvasa came under fire for a sexist rule that barred women players from sporting "boy-cut" hair. Some players decided not to play, but some were forced to comply for lack of alternative opportunities.

NBL executive vice president Rhose Montreal vowed never to repeat the same mistake that the PBA 3x3 tournament did.

"We don't want to sell WNBL by selling skin," said Montreal, former marketing chief of the PBA. "We don't care about their gender preferences, we don't care whether they sport short hair or long hair, we don't care whether they wear short shorts or long shorts. But for us, we want to sell their skills."

Sexualizing women players as a promotion strategy is not exclusive to basketball, and definitely not exclusive to the Philippines. It's a worldwide problem. Why is there a need to highlight beauty and sex appeal when their performance on the court, on the field, or on the ring deserves more coverage?

"Did you ask men players to wear trunks before they got popular, before people noticed them? No, right? I think all players, whether male or female, do not need to undergo this phase," said Gilas Women star Jack Animam on the Go Hard Girls podcast. "By playing a certain sport, that's enough for people to get to know us and grab their attention."

Aside from taking away the spotlight from their athletic accomplishments, this kind of objectification also affects women's self-esteem, mostly because of the unnecessary pressure to conform to so-called beauty and body image standards. It reinforces stereotypes and even encourages viewers to stick to their old way of thinking that women do not belong, especially in a male-dominated sport like basketball. It fails to educate that sexist and misogynistic comments like "go back to the kitchen" or "mas magaling pa ako dyan eh!" and the belief that women are not as capable as men should have no place in today's society.

This does not even capture half of the pressing concerns that women in sports have to battle with, such us unjust compensation, unequal opportunities (not only for players, but also for coaches, referees, journalists, broadcasters, and executives), insufficient amount of exposure, and lack of representation.

Even the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the U.S., which has been existing since 1997, still encounter the same issues. These are unfortunately prevalent in most, if not all, of women's sports. And while a lot of female athletes and prominent male allies (such as the late Kobe Bryant) have been staunch advocates for change, there is still a long way to go for the gender gap to narrow down.

The WNBL goes pro at a time when more and more gender equality resources are available, when other countries have had a headstart in the game. Involving more women in the process and listening to their needs can be a concrete next step. The league, including its partners and stakeholders, has a chance to do things right and focus on the real goals: providing opportunities for homegrown talents, investing in their development, and giving them what they deserve.