Earlier this week, Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, made waves in the media when he casually told ESPN that he would give the center for Baylor’s women’s basketball team, Brittney Griner, a chance to tryout for his team.
There have been a lot of reactions to this. There is the one centered on her skill level and the one for which I have the most patience: “She’s too small to be a center and does not have the experience or skill to be a Big on the block.” I tend to agree with this assessment of her abilities in comparison to who is playing in the NBA right now.
There is the horrific misognyistic and homophobic one that reads something like: “Get back in the kitchen! Stay in your ladies’ league. But haha she’s a guy!” I’ve written about that particular reaction for The Guardian, which will be published tomorrow so I won’t go into that here.
And then there is a more meta discussion about what this all means for women’s basketball, the reputation of the WNBA, and women’s sports more generally. That is what I’d like to talk about in this post. To do that, I’m going to use the op-eds of two amazing women sports writers: Jemele Hill and Kate Fagan, both of ESPN.
In Hill’s piece, titled “Brittney Griner NBA Offer A False Promise,” she argues that the primary issue with this entire narrative is “that it perpetuates the dangerous idea that great female athletes need to validate themselves by competing against men.” She goes on to write, “Everything she accomplished is being measured against professional male players, and that simply isn’t fair.”
Fagan, in her piece titled, “No woman, not Brittney Griner or any other, could play in the NBA,” echoes Hill’s thoughts: “These constant comparisons do little more than reinforce the notion that the women are somehow second-class players, instead of world-class athletes in their own right.” Fagan also tweeted earlier this week: “And, again, can’t we appreciate women’s basketball without comparing it to men’s? This will give haters a chance to trash it all over again.”
First, I’m not sure that being okay with Griner trying out for the Dallas Mavs means we aren’t appreciating women’s basketball on its own. I don’t know why we can’t hold both of those ideas in our mind at the same time.
One of the interesting things I’ve seen in the wake of Cuban’s comments are the way reporters and broadcasters are falling over themselves to make a note, while saying Griner won’t make it into the NBA, that she is a phenomenal women’s player. I think this video at ESPN is the best example of that. I’ve also seen multiple writers say they’re intrigued by the idea of Griner potentially breaking down the gender barrier in the NBA, even as they are completely skeptical of her ability to actually do so (example 1, example 2). How hurt is women’s ball and the WNBA by talking about how great Brittney Griner has been in her college career and the potential she has to be a hall of famer in the next level? I don’t think it’s as dire as Hill and Fagan are claiming.
Second, my largest fault with this argument that even discussing Griner trying out for an NBA team diminishes women’s basketball doesn’t actually acknowledge the on-going, ever-present, doesn’t-matter-what-a-woman-does diminishment of women’s basketball inside of sports culture and media. The idea that if Griner does try out and fails that she will somehow set back the movement to legitimate women’s sports seems outlandish to me.
There was a corollary argument about the NBA vs. WNBA that I saw online: that Griner choosing to try out for the NBA (and, if you extend that further based on your belief in her success, to playing in a D-league summer team, thus giving up her chance to play in the WNBA’s regular season this summer) would diminish the reputation of the WNBA. And all I could think each time I heard or read this argument over the last few days was, “For people who think Griner trying out for the NBA would make the WNBA seem inferior or less-than…how is the WNBA seen NOW?” Or, “how is women’s basketball seen now?”
Even if Cuban had never made that statement or if Griner had not responded with a “I would hold my own! Let’s do it!,” there would still be an overriding idea in our society that women ballers, compared to men, are not as good. This debate didn’t start with Griner and certainly won’t end there.
I agree with Hill that it’s unfair to put Griner’s accomplishments up against the men’s but I disagree that people don’t implicitly measure her against her male counterparts all the time. What I’d rather focus on in this discussion is the systemic differences in how boys and girls and eventually men and women are treated across the board that leads to major differences in the level of physicality and the play of the game, differences that make a comparison between Griner and male centers in the NBA unfair.
Because there is already an across-the-board cultural idea that girls and women are less physically capable than men, children, when they are still very young, are separated into teams based on their sex and gender. In a piece for The Nation, sports writer Dave Zirin talks about and quotes Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano’s book Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal. He says, “They argue that ‘coercive sex segregation does not reflect actual sex differences in athletic ability, but instead constructs and enforces a flawed premise that females are inherently athletically inferior to males.” As soon as girls are separated from boys, they receive much less resources and support. They also don’t grow up competing against the best (of course they practice with the boys — that is common — but practice is not actual competition).
What I like to imagine is what Brittney Griner would be like today if teams had been separated by skill level and not gender or sex. What if, regardless if you call yourself a ‘girl’ or ‘boy,’ you received the best coaching, the most resources, and the biggest cultural support because you were simply the best at what you do in the game you play? Would Abby Wambach be starting on the soccer field next to Landon Donovan? Would Serena Williams be plowing over Roger Federer the way she regularly does over every woman she plays?
The idea of women’s inferiority on the court is not made or broken by Cuban’s declaration or Griner’s interest in taking her offer seriously. It is not determined by whether she actually tries out and if/when she fails. Her success on the NBA level was decided for her the day someone told her she had to play mainly (only) with girls and each successive time after that.
I also think when we are talking about the way people think about women’s vs. men’s basketball, or even the WNBA vs NBA, there are tangible realities that indicate that the women’s game is not as well respected or loved as the men’s. The average salary for a WNBA player is $72,000, some rookies making just over $35,000 in their first year. According to Investopedia, “the maximum WNBA salary for veteran players in 2010 is $101,000. Quite shy of the massive paydays and endorsement deals of their male counterparts. In fact, the average NBA player makes over $5 million.” People barely attend WNBA games (though, admittedly, in this regard, the NBA struggles, too).
But even after all this, I definitely see what Hill and Fagan are arguing. It does sting that women players don’t get the respect they deserve. But I still think that is true almost all of the time (Fagan wrote an AMAZING piece about Griner a little while ago where she discussed in detail how no matter what Griner does, she cannot gain respect — that, I think, is the norm for a lot of women athletes and Griner everyday reality because of who she, what she looks like, her sex and gender, and the game she plays). There is a long road to walk to get to the point where most sports fans feel like the women’s game is worth watching, cheering for, and supporting in the same way they do the men’s. And that has nothing to do with whether Griner goes to Dallas to try out for the Mavs.
My other issue with Hill and Fagan’s pieces are the way they characterize what would happen if Griner actually does try out.
Hill concluded her piece by writing, “Too many people already treat Griner like a freak because of her size. The last thing she should want is for the NBA to use her as a sideshow.” Fagan wrote, “Why be a part of a spectacle that would reveal her game — or any woman’s game — to be lacking at the NBA level?”
This is the point where I look directly at the camera and speak to the sports journalists out there who write about these things:
If you are in the sports media and you’re worried the sports media will handle Griner’s tryout poorly, then choose to handle it well.
If you are in the sports media and you’re worried the sports media will spotlight her sex and gender over her skill, then choose to only spotlight Griner’s skill.
If Griner flirted with the NBA and failed, it would do a lot more damage. There would be an obsession with her successes and failures. Every missed and made shot would be replayed repeatedly on TV and throughout social media. Could you imagine what life would be like for the man who dunked on her, or for any man whose shot she blocked or on whom she scored? One of the greatest players in women’s college basketball history would risk being relegated to being the punch line of far too many jokes. Or worse, considered a failure.
“What life would be like for the man.” I don’t care.
Misogyny. That’s why.
So this line of reasoning, to me, reads as “Griner shouldn’t try because of misogyny.” Yeah, misogyny sucks and it makes things REALLY hard on women (and men, too, as Hill points out). But if that’s what we are saying is the reason for Griner to stick to the WNBA and not try her hand at the NBA, I can’t get behind it. Especially if Griner wants her shot.
And it’s important to note that Hill draws attention to the MEDIA that surrounds all of this.
Ann Meyers Drysdale, the only woman to ever sign a free agent contract with an NBA team (Indiana Pacers, 1979), told USA Today that the hardest part of a woman breaking into the NBA “would be the media, what people are tweeting, web sites.” It’s not simply that misogyny exists, it’s that it is specifically hellish within sports culture and the media plays a significant role in that.
The idea that Griner will be a sideshow means that media will create sideshow of out her. The sideshow is a product of profoundly sexist media, not Griner’s decision, not her play, and not her success or failure.
Don’t put the sports media’s sexist failures on Brittney Griner’s back and ask her to answer for that with every decision she makes.
My friend, Travis Waldron, wrote about Griner earlier this week:
[The sexism present in our society and sports media] is precisely why her NBA tryout, if it happens, can’t be a cynical stunt. Her success or failure should be based on her merits alone, and if it is, neither Griner nor the NBA will be any worse because of it. Cuban seems sincere. That’s good, because a real chance, no matter success or failure, will continue the fight to slowly break down the barriers and perceptions that face female athletes. A publicity stunt will only reinforce them.
If the tryout happens, I sincerely hope that those who have the microphone in sports journalism resist making it a publicity stunt. The power, in this regard, is in their hands.
This all ties together for me because this past Monday, I went to see Dave Zirin give a talk at the University of Texas. He spent a lot of time talking about what is wrong with sports media, including (and especially) that it is misogynistic.
As someone who wants to be a sports journalist or, at least, a freelance writer about sports, I asked Zirin how he envisions the future of sports media changing in order to make it the kind of sports media he’d like to see. He told me two things: 1) people who already have jobs in the field have to stop being afraid to offend people by talking out about the issues that plague the field (and, in turn, that plague society), and 2) we have to embrace rebel media, operate outside of the standard journalistic structures that often demand that people not offend people by talking about the problems they see.
Here I am with my rebel media. I’m sure what I’ve said will offend someone.
The truth is that I’m excited about the fact that people are willing to have a conversation about the very real talent of one of the best women’s basketball player to ever play. Even if Mark Cuban is doing all this as a publicity stunt, I’m excited to hear an owner of an NBA team say about a female player: “As I told the media (Tuesday), she would have to excel in workouts to get drafted. I have no problem giving her that opportunity. I hope she gives it a shot. Nothing harms an organization or company more than a closed mind.” Cuban has forced many sports reporters to engage the idea that skill, not sex or gender, should determine where a player ends up. If people choose to chase that thread to the conclusion that “women just aren’t good enough to play with men and never will be,” that’s on those people.
Instead of policing what Griner should or should not do, let’s police those people’s misogynistic reactions to her ability to make that choice.
As a woman who has played basketball and still watches the women’s game with interest and love, I’m excited about Griner. I’m excited to see what she does. I love her swagger and her game. And I’m choosing to spend my energies focusing on that.