When the UT women’s basketball team played Baylor, they drew enough fans to open the top level of the stadium for the first time at a women’s basketball game. But every game this season, a group of their most dedicated supporters could be found front and center — fans who call themselves the Men in Black.
For every practice this year, the Men in Black, an all-male group of the most talented recreational basketball players on campus, trained and competed with the women’s basketball team. The squad exists to better the skills of the men and women participating and to encourage gender equality in the sport.
Blaine Bowman, the sports management graduate student in charge of the Men in Black, practiced with the girls for two years before taking a leadership position with the team. He said playing with the girls has inspired him to coach women’s basketball as a career.
Bowman was drawn to the differences in their game. Men are on average taller and larger and can use their strength against the opposition. Women, on the other hand, have to play more fundamentally soundly, with a greater focus on strategy.“They’re two completely different games,” Bowman said. “The girls had an amazing season [and] made their mark in history this year. [But] the men’s sports get the glamour.”
Senior guard Empress Davenport has been playing against the Men in Black for all four years of her college career. As a player who began her basketball career with boys, she said practicing with the men’s squad wasn’t new to her.
“They come in, and they think, ‘We can beat them, they’re just girls,’ but we’re just as competitive, and we’re just as good as them,” Davenport said. “Getting my teammates to know we can beat them was a big thing for me — they’re only guys, and we can beat them.”
The women’s basketball team has a significantly smaller fan base attending their games. According to a Texas Sports study by AngelouEconomics, the women generated, on average, 4,753 attendees per game, while the men generated 9,979. Accounting for hotel, retail, restaurant and transportation spending, the men’s basketball team was responsible for generating 82 percent of revenue, whereas the women’s team was responsible for 18 percent.
Bowman said this is due in part to the more flashier nature of men’s basketball. For example, women typically don’t dunk, which excites a crowd. Although the team qualified for the Elite 8 this year, Bowman said most fans didn’t follow the team’s progression throughout the season.
“The girls deserve this type of [Baylor] crowd every game, just because of how hard they work,” Bowman said. “It was the first time I [thought] there could be a bright future for women’s athletics.”
The women’s basketball team has struggled with representation issues for the past 100 years. It wasn’t until 1967 that a group of female UT students formed an official basketball club, sewing their own uniforms and paying for their own travel expenses. Then, in 1972, Title IX was passed, and a few years later, in 1975, the University hired Donna Lopiano as its first women’s athletic director. The women’s basketball team was officially recognized shortly thereafter.
The women’s team has been playing with the Men in Black since head coach Karen Aston took her position. Now, Men in Black consists of about 20 players, dressed in black jerseys, who attend each practice. Each fall, assistant coach George Washington and recruiting video coordinator Mark Recoulley scout players for the squad at basketball hubs on campus, such as the Gregory Gymnasium.
Washington said before each scrimmage, Bowman teaches the Men in Black the strategies and strengths of the women’s team’s biggest rivals so they can directly emulate their playing style. One player in the squad, for example, might play with the style of a Baylor point guard.“Any guy that’s practiced with us soon realizes our girls are pretty good and this is serious,” Washington said. “They realize how much work our girls put in [and that] women’s basketball is something to be respected.”
The differences in the games extend to more than the fan base and styles of play. Undeclared sophomore Terry Woodard, a member of the Men in Black, said the NCAA sometimes tests changes in regulations in the women’s league before implementing them into the men’s. Because of this, women now play four quarters and men play two halves each game.
Previously, the WNBA considered lowering the rims for women’s basketball games to compensate for the size difference. Woodard said the only fundamental difference between men’s and women’s competition is their sex, and that some of the girls are still taller than him and other practice team members.
“I get that women’s [basketball] isn’t as popular and they don’t dunk as much,” Woodard said. “But I didn’t think [lowering the rims] was going to change that. It’s kind of disrespectful. I think it’s unfair they’re using the women to test the rules.”Today, the Men in Black and the women’s team are rivals on the court. But outside of practice, they have developed what Washington called a “brother-sister relationship.” Members of the Men in Black have attended every game this season, cheering on the women’s team, their friends and teammates — equals in athleticism and talent.
“We’re all friendly, and we all love each other, but when we get between the lines, it’s wartime,” Davenport said. “It’s us against them.”Kinesiology senior Ryan Wright, who also leads the Men in Black, said the team is like a family, and that regardless of gender, they can compete and support each other equally.
“It’s important that you support each other in the same way you would want to be supported,” Wright said. “If you want someone to see you do well, you have to show the same support for someone else.”