‘Get back into the kitchen’: A WNBA roundtable on sexism in basketball
How can detractors better understand their sport? Shut up and watch, for starters
In the 2000 film Love & Basketball, teen protagonist Monica Wright, a tomboy whose family recently had moved to a Los Angeles suburb, meets her new neighbor, Quincy McCall, the son of a Los Angeles Clippers great, on the latter’s home basketball court. Decked out in a stereotypical male ensemble of a T-shirt, jeans and a purple Los Angeles Lakers cap, Monica asks Quincy and his two friends if she can play a game of pickup, with the boys initially agreeing until Monica removes her headgear to reveal, to the astonishment of one of the boys, that “he is a girl.”
Quincy then faintly rescinds his offer because “girls can’t play no ball” before the two teams face off. Monica quickly shows that she’s a legit basketball player, crossing over and hitting a jumper over Quincy’s friend. Visibly vexed, Quincy switches with his teammate to finally show this girl her place on the court. Monica dispatches Quincy as well and makes a beeline for the basket until, in a last-second fit of desperation, Quincy pushes her face-first to the ground, leaving a lifelong scar on Monica’s chin.
Quincy’s actions in Love & Basketball are just a microcosm of the sexism, harassment and bullying that female basketball players face daily. WNBA players constantly deal with men questioning their body, skill, sexuality and basketball IQ for no other reason than a cavemanlike ideology that women aren’t supposed to play basketball — or any other sports. When these players aren’t being instructed to “get back in the kitchen” or having their sexuality questioned, they’re challenged to prove their athletic prowess against men.
This is coupled with the fact that women’s basketball players have nearly been erased from the social justice wave in professional sports and, according to CNBC, WNBA players earn just 20 percent of NBA salaries. (WNBA players also receive about 20 percent of league revenue, compared with about 50 percent for their male counterparts.)
Women’s basketball players don’t ask for much when it comes to respecting them and the sport they’ve spent many years playing. They want to be treated as athletes, just like the men. They want their skill to speak for itself, just like the men. And they want fans to give the sport a chance, just like the men.
The Undefeated spoke with six current and former WNBA players about what it’s like being a professional women’s basketball player and what their detractors can do to better understand their sport (“Shut up and watch” is a common response). The players include Atlanta Dream center Imani McGee-Stafford, Phoenix Mercury forward Devereaux Peters, free-agent forward Mistie Bass, Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson and Los Angeles Sparks center Candace Parker.
When’s the first time a male tested you as a female athlete?
Imani McGee-Stafford: By the time I was 12, I was over 6 feet. We used to have a basketball tournament at my church every year that was the highlight of our church picnic. I would always put my team together, and normally I would get a team of all girls or at least majority girls. And so we were playing and I was playing against a grown man — and it’s funny because he’s a family friend now, but at the time I barely knew him — and he was calling fouls and I was like, ‘You’re a grown man. I’m a girl. What are you doing? Just play basketball.’ And everyone would always second-guess me when I got picked. But as soon as you walk in the gym, they’re like, ‘Here goes this little girl.’ It was just something you knew, and you knew if you’re going to go to the gym to play boys, you’re going to have to be a little tougher. They’re going to go a little harder on you.
Mistie Bass: Sixth grade. I was always picked last. We had this open gym in middle school, so if you went to go play pickup, you could go play pickup at 6 in the morning before school. I was never picked first; I was always the last one because I was a girl. I wasn’t the greatest in sixth grade, but I was definitely taller than a lot of the guys. It was like I had cooties; no one wanted me to be around them. I just loved basketball so much that any opportunity that I had I wanted to take advantage of it.
Elena Delle Donne: Right from the start. My brother’s friends wanted to prove that his little sister couldn’t hang. They wouldn’t want to pick me on their teams. But then, after I played against them, I started becoming a high-up pick. So they didn’t really care if I was a boy or girl or anything, they just knew I was able to play ball and wanted me on their team. At first they’re like, ‘This little girl can’t hang,’ so they kind of would hang back. And then once I started hitting jumpers in their face, they started getting up, being touchy, pushy, trying to get real physical.
A’ja Wilson: Probably when I got to college. High school wasn’t bad, middle school wasn’t bad. But probably when I got to college, that’s when it all started coming about, the whole ‘Stay in the kitchen’ and ‘She’s not as good as such and such.’ And it just seemed that I wasn’t as worthy as another athlete.
Have you ever been challenged to play one-on-one versus a man?
McGee-Stafford: Probably my whole life. But when I was a kid, though, I was ready; I wanted you to challenge me, like, let’s go. I wanted to embarrass a man. I wanted to embarrass a boy. It was kind of the thing: You wanted to prove that you were as good as the boys. I was the kid that always played and ruined my clothes at recess and in middle school playing with the boys on the yard. That was me. So I wanted someone to call me out. And then as you get older and you realize that how great you are as a basketball player isn’t determined by being better than a male counterpart, but just how great you are. You kind of get out of that noise because you’re like, ‘I have the accolades, I don’t really care that you play at the rec.’
Devereaux Peters: I grew up playing at the YMCA on the South Side of Chicago, and you know it’s always guys in there playing pickup. I would always go and jump in and play or just be shooting, and a lot of times the guys wouldn’t want me to play with them, especially when I was younger in high school or early in high school. They were younger guys, talking trash, and I had a young man that didn’t let me play with the team or play pickup with them. So we went back and forth for a while, and then he said if I beat him in one-on-one then I could play. I said OK. And so we played, and like I put in the article, it was OK at first and he was cool. And then I started beating him and then it was like, ‘She can actually play.’ And then he was fouling me so hard and pushing me into the pad and knocking me out and I would take my shot. Then I won, and so they allowed me to play pickup with them, but his friends, of course, trashed him and made fun of him the rest of the time. It’s been going on forever.
Bass: (Laughs.) More times than I can count. Most of the time I never did it because it was just one of those things that was just not worth my time. I never fell into it; it was just one of those roll my eyes because I’ve heard it a billion times over.
Delle Donne: I feel like every day in the airport. (Laughs.) It’s like constant, people saying, ‘I could take you one-on-one,’ and I’m like, ‘OK.’ I’ve got no time for them.
Wilson: Of course. They just think they can just beat us female athletes one-on-one. I don’t know why our skill level gets diminished because we’re females. But, yes, I have been challenged to play one-on-one against a lot of males.
Candace Parker: Yeah, but it’s like, what makes you think I want to play you? That’s my thing. It’s like when people say, ‘I’ll play you one-on-one.’ What makes you think I want to waste my time playing you?
What’s the worst comment you’ve heard?
McGee-Stafford: On my last little Twitter rant — I go on Twitter rants a lot — that went viral, in my comments a guy was like, ‘Why don’t you girls finger each other anyway? Whatever you lesbians do.’ I’m not even gay, but obviously that’s the biggest narrative of women’s basketball, that we’re all gay and butch and hate men. But it’s frustrating because that’s also a critique of women’s sports in general. No male professional athlete has to answer questions about his family. About his sexual life. About when he wants to have kids. About what he’s wearing. That’s the commentary that only happens with women athletes. Serena Williams can go and annihilate someone and they’re going to ask her about the skirts she’s wearing. Men don’t have to deal with that. We only talk about Riley Curry when Steph brings her to an interview and brings her up or brings up Ayesha. They have the freedom of entering their family life or completely keeping their career and family life separate while women are constantly bombarded with the fact of, ‘Eventually I want to have a child’ or ‘I want to be married to a woman or a man.’ Whatever the case may be, but I have to have this conversation, especially in the WNBA.
Peters: I probably cannot repeat it to you. We get called a lot of names. The most disrespectful to me is when people get the whole ‘a high school team could beat a pro team.’ That type of thing kind of bothers me. It’s not too much that bothers me at this point, because we take a lot of crap, but the whole high school boys’ team, a lot of people use it to be real disrespectful and say the freshman boys’ team could beat a pro team in the WNBA. I think that’s kind of ridiculous. That’s not even logical.
Bass: I think always circling around my sexuality. Everybody always constantly questioning whether I was a lesbian or not. Which obviously has nothing to do with basketball, but that’s all they assume when it comes to female basketball: They’re all lesbians.
Delle Donne: All the Twitter mess and comments. When a big media outlet will post something about either me or some other WNBA players. It’s always the usual: ‘Can you make me a sandwich.’ ‘Get back into the kitchen.’ Those are probably the most common ones. And there’s some really dirty, sexual ones that I’m disgusted by that I wouldn’t even want to repeat.
Wilson: It would have to be the, I don’t deserve what I have. I think that’s the most kind of broad way to put it. And it’s from really this year. This year I really kind of saw it with the whole tweet that I had out about us getting paid. It happened when [LeBron James’] contract came out. I just remember one account saying, ‘You don’t even deserve this because you do this.’
154M ……….. must. be. nice. We over here looking for a M 🙃 but Lord, let me get back in my lane pic.twitter.com/IFDZLlI53z
— A'ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) July 2, 2018
Parker: They’re usually the same. People think they’re original, but they’re usually not. It’s probably the same comments that you read on every message board.
Do sexist comments like those hurt? How do they make you feel?
McGee-Stafford: It’s more annoying. I don’t really care. When I was 15, people would tell me I was gay because I played women’s basketball. I wasn’t gay, straight, indifferent; I just played basketball. I hadn’t had an experience with a boy or girl. But that’s just the narrative. And it’s frustrating, especially as a young girl, because you don’t know any different. Now you have to have these conversations or have these questions to yourself, like, ‘Am I gay?’ before you should have to deal with those things. That was my biggest thing when Candace Wiggins came out and said that bulls— in the paper, because she understands this lifestyle and she understands the implication to younger girls who may actually be struggling with their sexuality and trying to figure that out but now they have the added pressure of thinking when they grow up that either A) everyone in the WNBA is gay and they’re going to feel uncomfortable being straight, or B) now I have to have this conversation and I’m not ready to. And that’s not fair. And really it shouldn’t matter what my sexuality is. And on top of that, that trope — that whole ‘butch lesbian, I-hate-men’ trope — is something that’s been used for decades to get women not to play sports, to get women to stay home.
Peters: Honestly, it doesn’t bother me. To me, I would use the analogy that the WNBA is like the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs play great basketball, they’re an awesome team, but people hate watching them. People hate watching the Spurs play because they’re so fundamental, they do the little things, they’re not really worried about being flashy. They just go out there and play good basketball. Most people just want to go out there and see crossovers and dunks. And they don’t really understand the game itself on the high level and what’s going on, and what’s a good play and what’s a bad play, what’s a good shot, what’s a bad shot. People usually don’t understand that. So then you look at the women’s game and they’re very fundamental, and we’re a lot different from the way the NBA plays. I understand why they don’t get it and why they may not be as entertaining to them. It doesn’t really bother me because it usually just tells me you don’t truly understand basketball.
Delle Donne: Annoyed. Just because of the lack of respect is just super disrespectful. We put our lives into this, and we’ve spent years and years developing our craft and doing it the best, so to be disrespected like that is frustrating. And it’s frustrating too because the NBA players, they watch our game and they study it, they learn things from us. We both have the utmost respect for one another, but it seems like randos on Instagram and Twitter, they just think we need to be in the kitchen or some ridiculous sexist comment like that.
Wilson: Oh, no. They don’t hurt me at all because I know what I’m capable of and I know that I love my job and what I do. It honestly just brings a lot of laughter to me at times, because it’s stupidity to me. And it’s trolls, it’s people that you’ll probably never even see a day in your life. But even if they did see you, they would either act like they’re fans or they’ll keep walking. It’s actually funny to me that we live in a world like this. I sent a tweet before: I can’t wait until some of you guys that are making these comments towards us females have a daughter and she wants to play and she looks up to us. We can argue back and forth online with trolls all night and still nothing will ever get accomplished. I take it all in stride. I have fun with it. I don’t really feel bad or feel hurt or feel some type of way towards it because it’s just life. It’s the society we’re in. But you have people in the NBA that respect us. The same people that are making these hateful comments, their favorite player loves us.
Why do you think men make such sexist comments directed at female basketball players?
Peters: Oh, it’s the ego. Male ego. It’s an amazing thing. There’s something about women being good at something that bothers some men. What’s really opened my eyes is that a lot of the responses to my piece were a lot of women that worked in regular business fields and how it affects them as well, even though it’s not a sport. So it’s really across the board. Anytime a woman is in power, the rules are kind of different for them, and some males feel threatened. And when she’s doing something well, regardless of what field she’s in, some men can’t handle that and their ego gets bruised and they have to prove themselves for some reason.
Bass: I think it goes beyond just the sport. I think it’s just females in general. As far as we have come, I still believe that the general population of men believe that sports is for men and for women it’s not. Or it’s not a profession, it’s something that should be like a hobby or something. I just think it goes back to how society views women. When women get into powerful positions, it’s not the way it should be. Like we’re supposed to be living in the 1960s.
Delle Donne: I’ve tried to figure that out because I’m sure all these men have mothers, so I’m not sure why they would be that disrespectful. Or they might even have daughters. That’s the scary thing thinking about that. I guess basketball’s a sport that everybody kind of grows up playing and it’s accessible to everyone, so for some reason it’s the sport they feel like they can play, and I don’t know why, but they feel like they can challenge us and feel the need to do that. It makes no sense.
Wilson: I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s just a part of them. They just feel like they have a say. You don’t have people coming at Serena Williams telling her, ‘I can beat you in tennis.’ I think basketball is one of those sports where people can play it at a young age and be bad at it yet still think that they can beat a person that’s on a pro level because she’s a female. It goes from the whole ‘Stay in the kitchen’ jokes to ‘Go make me a sandwich’ joke, and that has nothing to do with my abilities to score a basketball. That has nothing to do with me putting my body, my blood, sweat and tears, out on the court, night in and night out, for 40 minutes. They don’t really see potential in the talent that us women have, but they just look at it as that we’re women and we’re that much less a man compared to a man.
Parker: I think they live in a world where equality is what we’re fighting for at the moment, so I think as men for a very, very long time they were told that they’re superior, and so they feel good making other people inferior. I’ve said it before: NBA players aren’t making these comments; it’s usually guys at 24 Hour Fitness that didn’t get off the bench on their high school team.
For the black players, have you noticed your race brought up in negative comments?
McGee-Stafford: Hit-and-miss. But I think one of the things that rubs people about the WNBA so much is the fact that we are predominantly women of color. We’re like one of the most socially conscious leagues, and we’ve never shied away from voicing our opinions about socially conscious issues. We’re predominantly women of color, predominantly LGBQIA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersexual, asexual], and we’re OK with that. And we’re OK with living in our truth and being who we want to be and following our dreams and standing in that. And if anything, the Trump election has told us that America is not ready for that.
Bass: I did get that growing up. But I think that had to do with the demographics of where I grew up [Janesville, Wisconsin]. But from the time I’ve been professional, no. But definitely got it a lot when I was younger.
Wilson: Not really. It doesn’t really come to that, because I think they understand that a majority of the league is black. I think it does make it that much harder as a woman, not only just as a woman but as a minority woman, to really kind of push that and to voice that. I’m going to continue to voice my opinion and be who I am no matter what. But, yes, I do think that it is harder, it is tougher, for us black women to kind of have that say, because it’s kind of like not only are you a female, but you’re a black female. And it’s like, dang, I can’t win for losing. But you just gotta keep going and keep using my voice.
Parker: I think so. I think that’s a fight that people have to stay away from. Racism has been an issue in our country for a very long time, but women’s suffrage has been here an even longer time. So with that combination, being black and a woman, you know?
What advice would you give to young women about navigating these negative comments as they age through different levels of basketball?
McGee-Stafford: I tell young girls don’t worry about that. Have fun hurting men’s egos, be your best and don’t let what you do define you.
Peters: Continue to do what you do. Comments like that never stop me from doing what I do and are not going to stop my checks from clearing and going into my account. It’s really not that serious. I know people feel some type of way about what I said and felt the tone was a little off, but it’s just we’re out here doing what we love to do. It’s a blessing to play basketball for a living, so I’m really not worried about how people feel about it. Just focus on what you want to do and what you want to accomplish and nobody else is really going to stop that.
Bass: With me, it has to do with your passion. Any time you want to do something in life, you’re always going to meet naysayers, you’re always going to meet people who are negative that don’t want to see you succeed, so they’re going to say things that try to get you off our path or make you quit something that you were born to do. But you just have to continue to just walk that journey and know that you’re going to get through it. Just stay the course.
Delle Donne: I would say ignore them. There’s no need to give them any fuel to their fire. And I think there’s a ton of support out there, and I’d rather spend my time on good people who are very supportive and who are fans of the games. I’d rather respond to those people than give any time to these trolls out there.
Wilson: Don’t even listen, don’t even pay it any mind, because it’s not worth it. Put your foot down and just stand tall and be the great woman that you are. And to keep pushing forward, just don’t even mind it. I probably caught heat in high school going to college, I probably caught from college going to the pros. But because I don’t mind, because I know the type of player that I am and the league that I’m in, that we care for one another. I don’t even pay it a mind.
Who’s been your biggest ally among men when it comes to these situations?
McGee-Stafford: My brother [Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee] is my biggest fan. We’re super competitive, and we’re also each other’s biggest cheerleader. My brother has always been my support. During the  NBA lockout, I would go to NBA pickup games and my brother would put me on his team. He’s always been like that. I hate when he says this, but his favorite line is: ‘My sister is more of a man than you.’ My brother’s always been my biggest supporter and has always been like, ‘Go kill somebody in the rec league. I’m going to put you on my team before anybody.’ Because at the end of the day, if you know basketball, it doesn’t matter whether I’m a boy or girl. I’m talented, period. I put in the work to be this good.
Peters: Honestly, all the men in my family. My dad, obviously, has been really supportive. All of my uncles. Really, anybody that has grown up around me has been ridiculously supportive. It’s actually been really good. My dad’s best friend, he was not a women’s sports fan in general when I started playing, not at all. He was one of those fans who was kind of like ‘Uh, it’s boring. I don’t really know why they’re playing.’ He was one of those types until I started playing. And when I started playing in high school and the higher level and college, he obviously supported me. And the more he watched, the more he realized how good it was. And now he is a huge fan. He keeps up with more than I can keep up. He’ll call me and tell me about certain teams playing, or, ‘Did you see this game?’ He knows everything now.
Bass: My son’s father, [Arena Football League player Shane Boyd]. He also plays professional sports, and he understands sports in general. Even without me, he was a very big fan of female sports. He was always congratulating people and giving props online to female athletes. I think he has a compassion for what we go through, understands the bridges we have to build before we can cross to get to where we need to be. He knows all kinds of players. He’s the superfan. I call him the ‘superfan’ in a good way because, like many of the NBA athletes who come and watch the WNBA games, they’re there and they want to see us succeed.
Delle Donne: My dad has always been my biggest fan and biggest supporter. He’s one that I’ll talk to about it, and he says the same thing: ‘You can’t ever get too concerned with the negativity and you can’t even get too built up on hype about yourself; you’ve got to always stay grounded and do what you love and do it for the people that are close to you.’
Wilson: I would go from my dad to the NBA players. I think they really stand behind us. And I say my dad because that has to be my person, but I think the NBA players do a great job of standing behind us and not trying to hide. Kyle Lowry from the Toronto Raptors was just at our game last night and supporting us. When we go to summer league, we’re speaking to them. I think people try to divide us so much because of our gender. They don’t understand that we’re one big league, we’re in it together and we lean on each other.
Parker: My dad. He never treated me any differently than my brothers. I had the same curfew, the same expectations. I was treated like an athlete. And I think a lot of fathers don’t realize when you have a daughter, it changes things.
What would you say to those who heavily criticize women’s basketball?
McGee-Stafford: I enjoy giving people free tickets. I be like, ‘Come to the game. If you still hate it after that, all right. That’s cool.’ Women’s basketball isn’t for everybody. What bothers me is the biggest detractors of women’s basketball aren’t even NBA fans. They just don’t like women’s basketball. I understand that women’s basketball isn’t for everyone; I get that. I’m completely OK with that. But what bothers me is when people go out of their way to detract what I do. I don’t go to FedEx to say, ‘Wow, UPS is better.’ I don’t do that. It’s just not my business; I don’t care. So my thing is, take a chance and watch it and then if you still don’t like it, all right, it’s not a part of your life.
Peters: A lot of people that talk crazy about the WNBA have never seen it. They’ve never watched a game, have never seen us play. They just make these assumptions based off what everybody else says. I think coming to a game and experiencing it for yourself, and then if it’s not for you, it’s not for you. That’s understandable. But you don’t have to degrade the league because you may not particularly enjoy it. But a lot of these people don’t even give it a chance. That’s why you have to take a lot of these comments with a grain of salt because they don’t know any better. It takes a lot to hate something the way some people hate women’s basketball. I think hate takes energy. You’re actually devoting time if you hate something.
Bass: If you’ve never picked up a basketball, if you’ve never played college, then you don’t have any room to say anything unless you’ve actually came to a game and you’ve watched it and you’ve experienced it. Don’t say anything. You can’t criticize something you’ve never seen.
Delle Donne: [Laughs.] What did women ever do to you? And why are you so angry? You might need to go to counseling and get some help.
Wilson: Give it a chance. Give it a chance, and not necessarily just watching us on TV. Go to a game. I think the total experience of being in-house at a game is completely different from watching it on TV. And you don’t even have to start with WNBA. I feel like last year’s women’s Final Four was better than the men’s Final Four. Because just the energy, the buzzer-beaters, the down-to-the-wire games, like that is what it’s all about. That is basketball. You just have to give it a chance. I can sit here and say all these things about the sport that I love and the league I’m in, but until someone actually goes to a game and sits there and enjoys it and takes it all in, it’s hard to beat that dead horse.
This interview has been edited and condensed.