Is Women Playing in Men’s Leagues a Step Forward?

Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury poses for a photo before the press conference and introduction to the team on April 20. Photo: Barry Gossage

Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury poses for a photo before the press conference and introduction to the team on April 20. Photo: Barry Gossage

Towering and talented 22-year-old American basketball sensation Brittney Griner has become the talking point of US sport after Mark Cuban, sporting power-broker and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, said he’d be willing to consider her for the second-round of draft of the NBA (the men’s league) – the event where hopeful unsigned players are picked up by NBA teams.

Griner wasn’t intimidated by the offer, tweeting, “When is tryouts? I can hold my own. I’ll try too. I’m not going to back down from a challenge”. Mixing it with men’s basketball heavy-weights LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki would surely only increase her fierce competitiveness on-court and add to the height of her dunk.

In Australia, Steve Waugh recently raised the idea of next year having one woman in every Big Bash League team. It’s a concept that could see the likes of Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy give the country’s pin-up cricketers a run for their money.

Then there was Danica Patrick, the motor racing driver who put the world on notice earlier this year when she beat all the men to claim pole at the Daytona 500.

It’s a battle of the sexes, and while women once fought the men for respect and coverage in their own right, they are now being challenged to fight the men one-on- one.

In the case of Brittney Griner – she’s no ordinary athlete. The college basketballer has broken all kind of records in the competition, including being the first player ever to score 2000 points and block 500 shots. She was, unsurprisingly, the number one pick in the WNBA draft. Last year she was the only college player on the US Olympic women’s basketball team finalists’ roster but decided not to participate in London due to family illness and her school schedule.

Griner measures up pretty well, too – at 6 foot 8 (203.2cm) she’s the same height as NBA star Lebron James; her hand span is larger than his, so too her wingspan, and at size 18 she wears a bigger shoe.

A fan of the Baylor Bears holds up a sign in reference to Brittney Griner of the Baylor Bears against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the National Final game of the Women's Basketball Championship last year. Photo: Doug Pensinger

A fan of the Baylor Bears holds up a sign in reference to Brittney Griner of the Baylor Bears against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the National Final game of the Women’s Basketball Championship last year. Photo: Doug Pensinger

But the point really isn’t about whether she could cut it in the big time with the boys, but whether she should.

Sadly, regardless of whether she succeeds or fails, the road she’s about to embark on could thwart the progress of women’s sport, and have the reverse effect of what is intended.

While trying to say a woman can match it with the men, it also sends the signal that women’s sport and the WNBA are second-rate competitions – that they are inferior.

Were Griner to fail to make it onto the court, or be totally outplayed, the message would be the same: that women can’t match it with the boys. Another failed experiment, like Ann Meyers and Nancy Lieberman before you.

While fear is one thing that should never hold any woman back, should the focus be on getting women into the NBA, or should it be on promoting the established, successful female competitions, like the WNBA?

The trailblazer isn’t the one who takes a gamble in the men’s competition, but those before us who, determined and undeterred, pushed for the establishment of professional women’s leagues and earned the respect as athletes.

I beamed with pride watching the motor racing glass ceiling being smashed by Patrick at Daytona. In her post-race interview, the confident former high school cheerleader told reporters she had always been brought up to be the best driver, not the best female driver.

Change has also emerged on the horse racing track, where the major talking point about female jockeys is their ability, not the fact they’re women.

But these are sports where no women’s competitions exist.

In rugby union, league, soccer and basketball there are flourishing female competitions. We should be supporting these, building the publicity, hype and attention they deserve, rather than fixating on the experiment of one player.

Serena Williams isn’t pushing her way into the men’s competition after dominating the women’s for years. Five-time surfing world champion Stephanie Gilmore isn’t demanding a go against 11-time world champ Kelly Slater.

Women’s competitions and benchmarks are not inferior to the men’s, and should be measured on their own merits. Blurring the lines now isn’t going to help the sport but only fuel the bigots, misogynists and trolls, eager to pounce, and who base their argument on those male comparisons, standards and this experiment.

But I also can’t blame any woman for wanting to take on such a challenge.

While there is a women’s competition, the pay, prestige, publicity and editorial priorities still lie with the men’s games. The average pay for a WNBA player is $72,000, whereas for an NBA player it’s $5.15million. They are separate competitions, but they are far from equal.

There’s no doubting that Cuban’s statements have caused an avalanche of publicity for Griner and the WNBA, and that hasn’t been unwelcome. But Griner can, and should, inspire just as many international headlines and water-cooler discussions based on her incredible talent, her sporting prowess, her dunks, blocks and three-pointers alone.

Whatever happens, she is a trailblazer. I just hope her success builds on, rather than diminishes, the hard-fought successes of women’s leagues in every sport.

First published www.dailylife.com.au

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