(by Gregg Doyle on CBSsports.com 4-22-08)
Why do we set the bar so low for women in sports?
The world's top female tennis player, Billie Jean King, beats a 55-year-old male has-been named Bobby Riggs in 1973, and it's a huge day for women's rights? I get the timing of the whole thing. It was different in the early 1970s. Men were men and women were somewhere in the background baking us cookies.
We were sexist pigs back then, and nobody played the sexist pig better than Riggs. But King was at the top of her game. Riggs was an old man. Beating him wasn't the most she could do. It was the least.
Decades have passed, but we're still condescending when it comes to women in sports. A high school senior named Candace Parker enters the (boys) slam dunk competition at the 2004 McDonald's All-American Game, gently pushes the ball through the rim, and wins the event. J.R. Smith practically sat on the basket for a few of his dunks, but Parker won because, well, she won because she was a girl. And don't tell me I'm being sexist, because I'm not. The judges were being sexist for symbolically patting Parker on her pretty little head and telling her, my, what a sweet thing she is.
At least Danica Patrick competed with men on a level playing field when she won the Indy Japan 300 on Sunday in Motegi, Japan. Patrick played the exact same sport as everyone else, was held to the same standards, and won. What she did was more impressive, from a sports standpoint, than King's tennis win over a washed-up Riggs or Parker's condescending dunk "victory."
But this was not all that impressive. Not if you look with the jaded eyes of neutrality, which very few of you undoubtedly possess. Then again, maybe I don't possess those eyes either. Not on Danica Patrick. She has rubbed me the wrong way for years, including her ridiculous marketing choices, like when she stares seductively into the camera to hawk antifreeze or pretends to peel down her racing suit and makes beaver jokes -- I'm not making that up -- for GoDaddy.com.
Patrick has bugged me for a while, and I'll tell you exactly when it started: It started in July 2006 when she said she was considering a move to NASCAR. No problem there. But then she smugly wondered how high those TV ratings would be. Big problem there. At the time, Patrick was 10th on the Indy Racing League -- 10th out of the 15 drivers who raced every week. She was a non-factor on her B-list racing circuit. And she's wondering about the ratings for her NASCAR debut? Hey, sweetheart, try qualifying for a NASCAR event. Then we'll talk ratings.
If you're wondering why I'm wrapping a wet blanket around what Mike Freeman is foolishly calling a warm and snuggly story, that's the biggest reason: the IRL is not real racing. Not real good racing, anyway. It's not the best car circuit in this country -- that would be NASCAR -- and it's not even the best open-wheel series in the world. That would be Formula One.
So what is the IRL? It's a training ground for decent drivers who hope to be good enough to race somewhere important some day. Sam Hornish Jr. won the IRL season championship in 2001, '02 and '06. Dario Franchitti won the IRL title in 2007. That's the best the IRL has to offer -- or had to offer. Both left the IRL for NASCAR, where they are overmatched. In 17 career NASCAR starts, neither has finished in the top 10. Hornish has broken into the top 20 once in 10 tries. Franchitti? Never. Patrick Carpentier, another dominant open-wheel racer in this country, can't break into the top 10 of a NACAR race, either.
The IRL is the junior varsity of racing, is what I'm saying. Danica Patrick finally won herself a JV race, and that's good for her, and it's a neat story. The first woman to do anything -- the first man to do anything, too -- is always cool. But let's not take this too far, OK?
Winning in the IRL isn't a matter of talent. It's a matter of time. Race 50 times, as Patrick has done in the IRL, and you're bound to win eventually, especially when you have the best car and support team money can buy, as Patrick does.
A typical NASCAR weekend will have nearly 50 drivers trying just to get into the field. In the IRL, the field is less than half that large -- and, as I've already explained, significantly less skilled. To win the Indy Japan 300 on Sunday, Patrick had to finish ahead of 17 other drivers. That's it. She beat 17 cars. Do that at Talladega, and you finish 26th.
Those are details nobody wants to hear, and I don't understand why. Maybe you think I'm sexist for pointing those details out. Maybe I think you're sexist for not wanting to know, for wanting instead to feel good about the pioneering done by Patrick and therefore to feel good about your socially uplifted self rather than holding women, and men, to the same standards.
Drag-racer Shirley Muldowney won the NHRA's elite Top Fuel season championship three times. Jockey Julie Krone won more than 3,700 career horse races, including the 1993 Belmont. After the Professional Women's Bowling Association went under in 2003, three PBWA bowlers -- Liz Johnson, Kelly Kulick and Cathy Dorin-Lizzi -- joined the men's tour and earned their way into fields.
Those are all remarkable stories of women vs. men, but if you ask me, the most impressive story involves Michelle Wie. Before unraveling at the hands of her pushy parents and marketing reps, Wie nearly made the cut at the 2004 Sony Open on the PGA Tour. She shot an even-par 140. She finished ahead of nearly 70 male professionals and missed the cut by just one stroke. She was 14 years old.
That beats the hell out of anything Patrick did this weekend, or next weekend, or any weekend, on the IRL.