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February 8, 2007
Athletes Embrace Size, Rejecting Stereotypes
By JER? LONGMAN
NORMAN, Okla., Feb. 5 ? The University of Oklahoma tells women?s basketball fans a lot about Courtney Paris, the Sooners? 6-foot-4 center. They know that she ranks third in the country in scoring, second in rebounding and that her dream job is to be a novelist. That her best friend is her identical twin and teammate, Ashley Paris, and that her father, Bubba Paris, won three Super Bowls as a lineman for the San Francisco 49ers.
But one piece of information about Paris is not made public by the university: her weight.
The weights of male athletes are widely publicized by college teams, but 35 years after passage of the gender-equity legislation known as Title IX, and 25 seasons after the National Collegiate Athletic Association began sponsoring women?s basketball, the weights of amateur female athletes are almost never published, in basketball or any other sport.
Even as women are embracing their size and power, projecting the notion that a wide body can be a fit body, the idea of weighing female athletes is under vigorous debate. Some colleges weigh their basketball players regularly to guard against rapid weight loss or gain. Some weigh them infrequently, others not at all.
?It?s a sensitivity about eating disorders,? said Jody Conradt, the Hall of Fame coach who has led the Texas Longhorns for three decades. ?We?re dealing with a population that is vulnerable because it?s a Type A personality, driven, the people that want to be perfectionists.?
Female athletes still face the same enormous societal pressures that other women face to remain thin and to possess a body type that many find unrealistic, especially for sports. Some experts believe athletes feel even greater pressure, given the assumption ? also debatable ? that they can improve performance by lowering their weight and percentage of body fat. Thus, many become vulnerable to what is called the female athlete triad: eating disorders, interrupted menstruation and osteoporosis.
The N.C.A.A. recommends that women not be weighed on a regular basis, said Dr. Ron A. Thompson, a psychologist and eating-disorder therapist in Bloomington, Ind., who consults with the collegiate association. He said he opposed making weights public and the practice of weighing female athletes. Lining athletes up for weigh-ins is a form of ?public degradation,? Thompson said.
?Weighing doesn?t accomplish anything, and it can cause undue anxiety and even trigger unhealthy weight-loss practices,? Thompson wrote in an e-mail message.
The touchy issue of weight received prominent attention recently when the professional tennis star Serena Williams faced questions about supposedly being out of shape before the Australian Open. After she won the tournament, she faced criticism for appearing to weigh more than a listed 135 pounds.
Williams has led an ?in-your-face redefinition of what a strong woman should look like,? said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women?s Sports Foundation. Basketball and tennis courts provide an oasis of freedom for female athletes, she said, although she added that ?90 percent of their lives is not lived in that oasis? and that women?s sports have ?been burdened by a stereotypical view of women.?
Thompson said he tried to assist female athletes, not by focusing on their weight, but on their eating and how it is related to their emotions. Many teams have nutritionists and psychologists available. The trend in college is moving away from weighing athletes, Lopiano said. But colleges are left to make their own decisions.
The female basketball players at top-ranked Duke are weighed once a week, Coach Gail Goestenkors said; they are not given a target weight, but are monitored to guard against quick weight gain, she said. Ohio State?s players are also weighed regularly, Coach Jim Foster said, adding, ?It?s a medical issue; putting your head in the sand is not an attractive alternative.?
At Tennessee, players are neither weighed nor measured for body-fat percentage, said Jenny Moshak, the university?s assistant athletic director for sports medicine. Instead, players are monitored for performance in such areas as speed, flexibility, vertical jump and weight lifting.
?Far more detrimental things occur when you try to micromanage body shape and size,? Moshak said.
At Texas, players are weighed and tested for lean mass two or three times a year, but always privately by sports-science experts. Coaches of women?s teams are not permitted to weigh players, set target weights or initiate a conversation about weight.
Some Oklahoma players are weighed up to twice a week during preseason, the strength coach Tim Overman said. During the season, they are weighed and tested for percentage of body fat about once a month, Overman said, adding that too much attention paid to weight loss during the season can lead to calorie deficiency and fatigue.
Courtney Paris?s father weighed more than 330 pounds when he was in the N.F.L. He was cut by the 49ers in 1991 when he failed to make their weight limitation of 325 pounds. Overman said he wanted Courtney Paris to lose about 15 pounds, from 240 to 225, so that she could lessen the stress on her body while extending her stamina and the length of her career.
Paris, a 19-year-old sophomore, said she did not generally care if people asked about her weight, saying, ?It?s not like I can hide who I am.? She said she was proud and glad to be in game shape, but ?being in shape and being conditioned well are things I really have to work on.?
Yet, it is not universally believed that lowering the weight and percentage of body fat of fit athletes will enhance their performance, said Thompson. Some studies indicate improvement, while others do not, he said.
If Paris lost weight, ?she might not be as strong or she might be distracted by trying to maintain the weight loss and might not perform as well,? said Thompson, an Oklahoma graduate who said he did not know Paris.
Perhaps never have so many influential centers played on so many commanding teams in one season. Alison Bales, a 6-7 center for Duke, leads the nation in shot blocking, while 6-9 Allyssa DeHaan of Michigan State is second. Sylvia Fowles of Louisiana State, is 6-6 and anchors the country?s top defense; 6-5 Jessica Davenport of Ohio State can play in the post and beyond the 3-point line; and 6-4 Candace Parker of Tennessee can play any position and has transformed the dunk from a novelty shot to a statement of authority.
?There are more centers of different types across the country than I?ve ever seen,? said Sherri Coale, Oklahoma?s coach. ?You have graceful, powerful, fundamental, thick, long ? all shapes and sizes. To me, that?s the greatest evolution in that position.?
And there is no more dominant center than Paris, who averages 23 points and 16 rebounds a game. Last season as a freshman she became the first collegiate player, man or woman, to collect at least 700 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocked shots in a season.
?She?s a female Shaquille O?Neal,? said Kim Mulkey, who coached Baylor to the 2005 national championship. Kurt Budke, the Oklahoma State coach, said, ?She?s the best player in the country.?
Because Paris has soft hands and a ravenous anticipation for rebounding, nearly 25 percent of her points have resulted from offensive rebounds ? often from her own misses.
?She?s got much better hands than Terrell Owens,? said Foster, the Ohio State coach. ?She?s not going to lead the league in passes dropped.?
Paris represents the evolution of a position that has grown more essential as players have become more skilled in the post and comfortable with their size.
Female players today have professional role models in the Women?s National Basketball Association, undergo sport-specific weight training, practice regularly against male scout teams and wear baggy uniforms that allow them to be less self-conscious than athletes like volleyball players, gymnasts and swimmers who participate in more revealing outfits.
?We?re women who are not apologizing for being bigger and being different or for being athletic,? Paris said. ?It?s more acceptable in society. For my generation, it?s really not a big deal.?
Her twin sister, Ashley, a center-forward at Oklahoma, said that their mother, who is 6-1, told of slouching as a girl, and of buying shoes that were too small, in an effort not to stand out.
The difference today, at least in basketball, is that big women are more secure in being and playing big, said Goestenkors, the Duke coach. She said that Bales, the Blue Devils? center, proudly wore three-inch heels, which made her 6-10, while the team was in Canc?n, Mexico, in December. Bales said a photograph of her in heels on Duke?s Web site had elicited several grateful messages from tall girls or their parents.
?Before, tall girls were all soft and finesse and didn?t want contact,? Goestenkors said. ?Now it?s strong, physical, bring on the contact. Courtney epitomizes that.?
Growing up in Piedmont, Calif., Courtney Paris developed her skills against four older brothers, who ranged from 6-4 to 6-8.
?Courtney and Ashley had an opportunity to see their father, who was big and winning championships, and have seen their brothers go off and play ball,? Bubba Paris said in a telephone interview. ?In their mind, being big is good; it benefits you.?
That was evident Sunday when Oklahoma overcame an early deficit against Oklahoma State by inserting Ashley Paris in the high post to pass to her sister in the low post. Courtney scored 41 points, 2 below her career high, and grabbed 19 rebounds in a 78-63 victory.
?I think people have fallen away from the stereotype that big means slow and tall means clumsy,? Ashley said.
Adam Himmelsbach contributed reporting from College Park, Md.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company