Aint Nothing Soft – By Tiffany Brooks - The NPF, Athletic Image and Rolling the Dice
By Tiffany Brooks
Okay, pop quiz time: Name three National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) teams and the cities they play in. Any luck? If you're like most of us in the West, it's pretty tough to do. I made the quiz a little harder by asking for three teams, as recently, you may have seen two teams on FSN. Yes, FSN has been showing a two- or three-day delayed game -- don't get me started on the delay thing or the crappy time slots they're shown in – I'm just happy to see an occasional game. So, how'd you do on the quiz? If you named the Washington (D.C.) Glory and the Akron (Ohio) Racers, then you probably saw the recent games. Okay Part 2 of the Quiz: Name one NPF team west of the Mississippi. If you mentioned the California Sunbirds or the Arizona Heat, then you're way behind the times. The Sunbirds and Heat both suspended operations some time ago, and it remains to be seen if they'll be back. In fact, there are no NPF teams out West – so it's impossible to name a team – sorry, trick question!
The NPF teams currently in operation are all located in the Upper Midwest/North East: The Rockford (IL) Thunder, Chicago Bandits, Philadelphia Force (located in Allentown), New England Riptide, and of course the Washington Glory and Akron Racers mentioned above. I've been told the main reasons for this were economic ones: The NPF organization elected to try to consolidate teams in a geographically smaller region to cut down on travel expenses and hopefully appeal to softball-poor audiences – meaning those markets where pro softball is saleable and doesn't have too much competition with other sports for the dollar. That certainly doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of girls from the West playing in the NPF – Most recently notable among the many are 1st overall draft pick in 2008, Katie Burkhart (San Luis Obispo, CA), Anjelica "Jelly" Selden (Vacaville, CA) and Kristina Thorson (Seattle, WA).
An interesting, and dismaying side-effect of this new-found media recognition provided by FSN (who will broadcast a total of 11 NPF games this season) is a new type of criticism coming from those watching the game. In a softball forum I frequent, I recently saw several discussions regarding what is probably most kindly called "athletic image." The focus of these troubling discussions was that a few of the NPF players were "morbidly obese" and did not put forth the "athletic image" necessary to promote the sport and entice viewers not only to watch the games (and in turn, the advertising) but to believe that they were watching professional athletes at the height of their abilities. After having lived and played in several other places in the world where looks are much less important than athletic ability, I have become especially sensitive to this issue. This unhealthy attitude toward beauty and "athletic image" (read saleability) in our sport (and in American Society as a whole, for that matter) can only lead to further shallowness of perception and may rob us of seeing some of the best talents in softball who are perhaps not the prettiest or thinnest players available.
Paraphrasing one responder in the forum (referring to the movie "A League of their Own"), there should be room for Marla Hooch, as long as the media has their Dottie, Kit and May. Although I understand the present stance of American advertising, i.e., sex and beauty sells, I would like to encourage everyone reading this column to think about what that means to our sport. Is it worth it to promote only the pretty and "athletic-looking" girls in the NPF? Or is it perhaps better to see the athleticism and athletic ability, not the "athletic image" and judge on performance? I think so, and I hope you will too.
If we buy the advertisers' products when they show those girls with less than perfect bodies, instead supporting athletic ability of performance, then we will go far in promoting our sport to the highest levels.
Rolling the Dice
Would you EVER walk a run in intentionally to avoid a .450 hitter to get to a .220 hitter for the third out? I don't know a single pitcher in either softball or baseball who would willingly do such a thing, and yet, this very thing happened in the NPF, and it worked successfully, albeit not very gloriously.
The real question is more about strategy and less about pride. As a prime example, consider the repeated walking of Katie Cochran in the recent WCWS. Some would argue that the strategy was common sense and very effective, while others thought it was unfair and smacked of less than fair play. In the case of the NPF game, numerous people have said they would NEVER have walked that run in, even though the team ended up claiming the victory 4-3, indeed striking out the .220 hitter for the third out. In the same softball forum, one person asked "What if a million dollars rode on the outcome? Would you do it then?" After all, no one is hitting 1.000. What would you do? Write to me at the address below and let me know!
Until next time, take a good look at the full spectrum of athletic abilities in our sport, and play hard, cuz there "Ain't Nothin' Soft" about it! As always I welcome column ideas and comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.