Maybe it’s a good sign when female basketball players leave

Linnae Harper was still a guard for the Wildcats when she went after a loose ball against Tennessee State in March.
Linnae Harper was still a guard for the Wildcats when she went after a loose ball against Tennessee State in March. cbertram@herald-leader.com

I have had University of Kentucky women’s basketball tickets for more than a decade. During this time, I have missed few home games, traveled to many out of town games and ventured to most of the Southeastern Conference tournaments. When you go to that many games, you start feeling like you personally know these young women. I don’t of course, but it’s nice to think I do. I, therefore, was shocked by the decision of four UK players, in just the past six weeks, to transfer.

What makes this trend even more surprising is the way this team has been playing. I have been pleasantly surprised with the energy and confidence of this team, considering its youth.

How can an undefeated team, playing with such energy, seem to be falling apart? Of course, like most fans, I started questioning the coaches. But an article by Jennifer Smith published in the Herald-Leader on Nov. 30, that seemed to be suggesting Coach Matthew Mitchell might be to blame, left me with more questions than answers.

Being n historian, I did a little research into how unusual the defections really are. The answer, I quickly discovered, is not at all. In the last year alone, 27 players from the Big 12, including six from Oklahoma State, four from Kansas State and three each from Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia, left their schools for greener pastures.

During the same time, 23 players in the Atlantic Coast Conference chose to transfer. And it’s not just bench warmers looking for more playing time; in many cases, like UK’s Linnae Harper, it has been one of the team’s stars, or at least its supposed future.

Four of the top eight players in this year’s junior class (ranked by ESPN) have changed teams. The transfer trend isn’t new; all of Geno Auriemma’s University of Connecticut class of 2003 departed within a year of their arrival. But this year it certainly has taken off with a vengeance. My first inclination after hearing about the UK transfers was to assume the young women were being selfish. How dare they not think about the team? Is this generation simply spoiled? Like others, I also wondered if Mitchell is simply too hard on the players. Is he not giving them enough playing time?

Then, I took a deep breath and gave myself time to think more about the trend. I began to wonder if this might not be the first time many of these young women have felt like they were in enough control of their lives to make such a big decision for themselves. For way too long, women have been taught to only think about others.

Maybe Mitchell has been contributing to the so-called “transfer problem.” Instead of calling for his job, however, maybe we need to thank him and the other coaches for giving these young women the confidence to do what they think might make their lives better.

For some, the decision to transfer might turn out to be a mistake. But I’m not at all convinced that the transfer trend in women’s college basketball is a bad thing. If high-level sports are giving young women the confidence to make hard life decisions, we will all benefit beyond the basketball court.

There are some positive notes for this year’s team, and for the future of women’s basketball in general. Lest we forget, last year UConn won the national championship with just nine players on its roster.

And it wasn’t that long ago that the entire UK women’s basketball team could have packed their bags and left town in the middle of the night and few would have noticed.

Karen Hudson of Lexington is an architectural historian and activist writer.

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