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Here’s the problem with trying to say the WNBA needs to be sexier

The Minnesota Lynx celebrate a win in Game Five of the 2015 WNBA Finals against the Indiana Fever on October 14, 2015, at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Minnesota Lynx celebrate a win in Game Five of the 2015 WNBA Finals against the Indiana Fever on October 14, 2015, at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Former NBA player Gilbert Arenas posted a video on Instagram Wednesday of two women in underwear playing basketball, declaring, "NOW this is what America was hoping for when they announced the #WNBA back in 1996, not a bunch of chicks running around looking like, cast members from #orangeisthenewblack."

Arenas, a former all-star who left the NBA to play for the Shanghai Sharks in China in 2012, doubled down on his statements, adding that if any players thought his words were sexist, "9 times out of 10 u the ugly one."

The WNBA and the NBA issued a joint statement Wednesday calling his remarks "repugnant, utterly disrespectful, and flat-out wrong." Honestly, though, is he really going to care? According to his subsequent Instagram posts, probably not. The following posts on his account included his list of WNBA players he finds attractive, as though this justifies his statements — he says he's "just trying to help the league," implying that people aren't willing to pay money to see its current crop of players.

But those players clearly don't want his so-called assistance. Here are a handful of the WNBA's top players with tweets and Instagram posts firing back at Arenas:

WNBA Player Seimone Augustus responds on Instagram
Seimone Augustus on Instagram.
WNBA player Swin Cash responds on Instagram
Swin Cash on Instagram.
WNBA player Angel Mccoughtry responds on Instagram
WNBA player Angel McCoughtry responds on Instagram.

Sadly, Arenas isn't alone in his thinking. One commenter on Arenas’s posts claimed the loser of his fantasy basketball league had to sit through a WNBA game.

Like Arenas, some blame the lack of attention on the WNBA and other women’s sports leagues on the fact that the athletes look like, well, athletes, when they’re on the court. Tennis player Serena Williams acknowledged this when accepting the title of Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year: "I’ve had people look down on me. I’ve had people put me down because I didn’t look like them — I look stronger."

The old saying is, "Sex sells." But as ESPN's Kate Fagan wrote last year, researchers have found that this conventional thinking when it comes to women's sports just isn't very true.

It turns out that images of women athletes marketed as sex symbols make them appear less athletically talented. University of Massachusetts Amherst sports management department chair and professor Janet Fink told Fagan her research showed that "each time a female athlete is pictured in a sexualized way, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability."

And people like Arenas who claim they would tune in to watch a bunch of gorgeous, scantily clad models playing basketball probably wouldn't watch anyway. The Legends Football League (lingerie football) offers plenty of eye candy with talented players, but CBS isn't exactly broadcasting its games on Sunday night as it does with the NFL. Meanwhile, the lingerie league has continued to fight for legitimacy for more than a decade.

Though men are more likely to be fans of sports, 51 percent of women identify as fans. But as the New Republic's Jamil Smith wrote in July, that figure always seems to be ignored, as sports is mostly always filtered through a white, heterosexual male gaze.

Author Mariah Burton Nelson suggested in the title of her landmark 1994 book The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. And the stronger these female players get without the gaze of men like Arenas, the less they need him and his peers anyway.

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