When we talk about how something humanizes someone, it usually means how it makes someone softer or nicer. It helps us understand a public figure as less rigid, cold or strictly professional, as when Hillary Clinton choked up answering a question about how she perseveres on the campaign trail. When it happens in the male-dominated world of professional sports, it happens in much the same way: Riley Curry’s relationship with him humanizes Steph Curry, turns him into something more than a ruthlessly efficient shooting machine; Kevin Garnett losing it when the Celtics won the 2008 title revealed his pulpy, beating heart as something hopeful, bright and just a little soft.
But watching the Minnesota Lynx bunker down and turtle their way to a third title in five years last night, I realized that one of my favorite things about the WNBA is how the game humanizes women along a different tangent.
Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve very much seems like someone you neither want to disappoint or piss off. When her players are faltering — as they did in Game 4 in Indiana — she gets as exasperated and frustrated as any coach. The jacket comes off and even sometimes gets thrown, as it did in 2012 against the Fever. When her team isn’t getting the calls, she yells and even snarls at officials. The same is true of Stephanie White, the Fever’s rookie head coach, who was shown in huddles and the locker room last night excoriating her players for a lack of effort, castigating them with her surprise at the Lynx wanting it more.
Indiana Fever forward Erlana Larkins can pop her eyes and pull a shocked face with the best of them. After being neutralized by foul trouble in Game 4, Sylvia Fowles — a giant in the women’s game at 6-foot-6 — was a force of nature in the closeout game, scoring 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting to go with 11 rebounds and earning a Finals MVP award in the process. Her dialed in look is every bit as intense and intimidating as the same one from Kevin Garnett.
In the rush to judgment and conclusion about this game or that series or this player or that team, it can be easy to lose track of what is one of the very best things about sports down at the roots: the chance to see how the highs and lows of them let us watch humans being human, across the entire swath of emotional experience.
But today, even with the advances brought on by the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX and countless other advances both small and large, the publicly acceptable range of emotions for women to show is curtailed. Women who are effective and efficient professionally get called cold. Women who get angry get called crazy. Women who are strong and tough get mocked for being unfeminine.
Seimone Augustus tearing up in the wake of scoring 16 points after struggling with injuries all season is what we expect from a championship moment and it was, of course, beautiful and joyful and wonderful to see. It was humanizing, in the way we’ve become accustomed to. But humans — men and women — are the hard bits as much as the soft bits. Athletic competition is the crucible that should reveal all of that, and it’s good to be reminded.