Athletes Embrace Size, Rejecting Stereotypes
Athletes Embrace Size, Rejecting Stereotypes
By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: February 8, 2007
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.
Deborah Cannon/Associated Press
Courtney Paris is one of the top scorers and rebounders in the country.
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
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
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
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
“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
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 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
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
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
“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 Cancún, 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.