Then she was drafted by the New Orleans Jazz in 1977 with a unique invitation: to play on a men’s team, against men. Harris declined that offer. “I just thought it was a publicity stunt,” she said in the documentary. “And I felt like, I didn’t think I was good enough.”
Harris’s male counterparts in basketball became household names. She faded from public memory.
Harris was clear when we interviewed her for the documentary: She did not regret passing up the N.B.A. opportunity offered to her, and focusing instead on starting a family. (She went on to have four children.) But afterward, her options as a Black woman athlete were limited. She landed an assistant’s job coaching the women’s team at Delta State; she said she had applied for the head job but was passed over in favor of a high school basketball coach, a white man.
It would be nice to say that America, 50 years after the passage of Title IX, has come a long way from the days when Harris reigned on the basketball court. And in some ways things have improved: We have women’s professional sports leagues, and the most robust collegiate women’s sports programs in the world, which often serve as de facto Olympic development programs.
But if you follow the money, it’s clear who’s valued more. Salary-wise, the lowest paid man playing in the N.B.A. still makes more than the highest paid woman playing in the W.N.B.A. At an event last month remembering Harris and her legacy, Shaquille O’Neal, the retired pro basketball player and an executive producer of “The Queen of Basketball,” called out the disparity that endures today. “Certain guys that are not worth it are making $40 million,” while women are making far less, he said. “That’s not right.”
Every year, it feels like a new inequality comes to light between the men’s and women’s teams in college basketball — at last year’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournament it was the weight rooms, where men’s basketball got to work out in a fitness palace, while the women appeared only to have hand weights. One study found that men’s basketball teams spent twice as much as their female counterparts on nontravel meals. Last year the N.C.A.A. acknowledged that its budget for the men’s tournament was nearly double that of the women’s tournament in 2019.
The findings of the N.C.A.A.’s external gender review issued last year after the weight room controversy confirm these themes, saying: “With respect to women’s basketball, the N.C.A.A. has not lived up to its stated commitment to ‘diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators.’” The primary reason, according to the report? The system was designed for men, and therefore its priority remains maximizing the value of men’s basketball. The inequalities extend throughout the industry, and white men still dominate the leadership ranks of sports teams across America, from coaching to management.
All of this makes what Harris achieved more significant. Her son Christopher Stewart told me, “I think all my mom wanted after her career was over, aside from raising her kids, was to be remembered for what she did.”
Back at Delta State, where Harris’s achievements brought the school national glory, her funeral was held in the coliseum, which still bears the name of a white supremacist, Walter Sillers. Nothing at the school is named for her.
Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is an editor and producer in Opinion who writes on gender, ambition and power. She produced the Op-Doc “The Queen of Basketball,” which is nominated for an Academy Award, as well as the Emmy-nominated Opinion Video series “Equal Play,” which brought widespread reform to women’s sports.
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