Thursday, April 4, 2013

Brittney Griner Deserves A Real NBA Tryout, Not A Publicity Stunt

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told ESPN this morning that his team would consider drafting Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 standout for Baylor University’s women’s basketball team, in the second round of June’s NBA Draft.

“If she is the best on the board, I will take her,” Cuban told ESPN’s Tim McMahon Tuesday night. “I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it already. Would I do it? Right now, I’d lean toward yes, just to see if she can do it. You never know unless you give somebody a chance, and it’s not like the likelihood of any late-50s draft pick has a good chance of making it.”

 brittney griner

At 6-foot-8, 208 pounds, Griner would be undersized at both center and power forward in a league where the average front court player weighs in around 235 pounds (based on my own quick calculations), and while she’s sized more closely to the typical NBA small forward, that’s a position I can’t recall her playing in college or international ball. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t fit in somewhere, and she was a three-time All-American at Baylor, where she scored 3,283 points and blocked 748 shots. She also wouldn’t be the first woman to get drafted or try out for the NBA. In 1979, the Utah Jazz drafted Delta State star Lusia Harris in the seventh round; the same year, UCLA star Ann Meyers tried out for the Indiana Pacers. So if Griner wants that chance and an NBA team is willing to give it to her, it is a chance she deserves and one she should take.

That chance, however, should be a real one, not a publicity stunt aimed at selling tickets, as the Jazz selection of Harris admittedly was. The perception of female athletes is already too skewed by an inherently sexist world of sports to give Griner a cynical shot — or worse yet — a cynical spot on the team. Take, for instance, the immediate reaction ESPN received when it promoted Cuban’s comments on Twitter with the hashtag #GrinerNBA. The responses were overwhelmingly negative, ranging from people wanting to see her get dunked on by LeBron James and other male superstars to those saying she belonged in the NBA because that’s where “men” play or demeaned not only her skill but her size, her appearance, and her voice.

The disgusting responses #GrinerNBA received aren’t just aimed at Brittney Griner, though. They’re emblematic of a sports culture, particularly among fans, that simultaneously objectifies the appearances of female athletes and rejects them as incapable athletes. It’s no secret that the bodies of female athletes (and women in general) are objectified in ways that men’s bodies rarely, if ever, are. And women like Griner who don’t fit the “sexy” model are instantly judged as not sufficiently feminine. That helps foster stereotypes of female athletes that create problems in their own sports and drive women and girls not to sports but away from them. It also prevents us from seeing women like Griner as the phenomenal athletes they are, from appreciating their skills and accomplishments as athletic triumphs and not as diminished products because of how they look or because they aren’t playing the men’s game.

That we have so far to go in viewing Griner and other female athletes on their own merits, both as sportswomen and as people, 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.

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