Brittney Griner, the 2013 WNBA #1 draft pick is an amazing athlete. Her accomplishments are too many to list here, but they include being the first NCAA player to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots. She also has recored of amazing plays like this:
It was no surprise when she was went #1 in this year’s draft- going from being a Baylor Bear to being part of the Phoenix Mercury club. As part of her press junket, she acknowledged she is a lesbian. The world did not stop at the news that the #1 WNBA draft pick came out, in fact it the article was not even prominently featured on the NBCnews website- it was on the front page, but not highlighted. This is news, as an athlete who is able to openly name their identity, she said, “Don’t hide who you really are.” She tells how she has been out, but this is the first time she has talked about it publicly. Kudos to Brittney. She is already a role model and superheroine to young basketball players and now her story may resonate with other youth that are playing sports while gay.
The article does ponder the difference between women’s and men’s sports where Brittney can come out to little fanfare, but there has been speculation of an NFL player coming out. That story would undoubtedly spend days, weeks, and months in the headlines. It would be a huge deal, where Brittney is able to casually mention she is gay in an interview. In this way, there is much to digest about the nature of sport in the maintenance of gender/sexuality binaries, what it means to be an athlete in the patriarchal culture that values agressive, individual achievement, the use of homophobic slurs to “motivate” players to work harder and be better- and it goes on.
In her coming out, Brittney comments that she is unable to “give an answer on why [men and women’s sports are] so different.” That is fair. Just because one claims an identity, it does not make you expert on all aspects of what that identity means to others or an expert in anyone’s experience except for your own.
While I a make no claims on anyone else’s experience, with a Master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and a love for college basketball, I feel able to ask us to think about the ways that sports is implicated in our hegemonic understanding of masculinity and femininity. We, as a society, draw harsh and unforgiving lines around what is “male” and what is “female.” In this constructed grouping, it is often easier for a woman to navigate masculine territory then for a man to navigate feminine ones. This is not absolute, but it tends to maintain the gender hierarchy that is present in all aspects of our lives and foregrounds the masculine experience. As an athlete, Brittney had access to the label “tomboy” (whether or not she was called that I do not know), but it is a socially acceptable way to talk about girls and women who want to be associated with “boy” things- often including sports. For example, I don’t like ribbons and frills, I play ball like a tomboy. But there is no congruent term for men who embrace feminine traits. (Not saying embracing feminine traits is a 1:1 equivalent to knowing someone’s sexuality because gender and sexuality are different- if intertwined- concepts.) Even if they were the best ball player in the land, “momma’s boy” or “sissy” is not something embraced or praised as a way of being. Being female and a badass athlete is easier for our collective social mind to imagine than a gay, male athlete playing professional football because we often reduce the questions we ask to, “what goes on in the locker room?”
Brittney might not have an answer to the question of LGBTQ, gender, and coming out in professional sports- But I want to be part of that conversation!
**Update- A great friend of mine reminded me that Brittney Griner played for Baylor University– (I knew that)- a private Christian university supported by the Baptist church. This is another place to continue this conversation. In an uncritical way, we often think that there is one religious voice around issues of sex, gender, and sexuality and there is not. I would be interested in talking to Brittney about being out and at Baylor- what was her experience? Where can we find other religious voices to balance the sound bites that privilege hate over love?
In my non-blogging life, I do work around gender issues, bullying, and creating a more open, inclusive world. In this work, I see how people bully each other all the time. We like to think that it is “just” kids on the play ground or in the locker room and they will grow out of it. Well, the lessons learned in youth are often learned well and those thoughts and behaviors follow us into adulthood. Those behaviors are reinforced as normal when we are kids and then we know they are acceptable as adults- until someone speaks up and says “No!” this stuff is not ok.
What am I talking about? The news of the firing of Mike Rice as head coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Last year, he was suspended and fined for throwing basketballs at players, yelling at them, and using homophobic slurs. That is not acceptable and clearly a suspension, fine, and sensitivity training are not enough (Rutgers has a history of questionable men’s basketball coaches and their decisions). It took the videotape of this abuse coming to the view of the public and an outcry about the incongruent punishment for Rutgers to fire the coach. Does every coach that yells at a player need to be fired? No, but I believe that athletics is a place that we can work to make the world a more equal place.
In the shadow of the upcoming release of 42– about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, I think sports and more specifically college sports is a place to address issues around gender with our athletes. Athletics is a gendered world. Not only are players to perform as athletes, what they do in their sport often says something about what it means to be a man (or a woman) in the larger world. I am writing about men’s college basketball here, but this argument can be made about any team, of any gender, in any sport. We, who watch these sports, and those who play the sports are part of the culture that creates the sports. The game is a time for competition, but not at the expense of our humanity. On the court, I want the action to be fast, the fundamentals to be executed perfectly, and athleticism to be on display. I also want the best athletes on the court. Not the athletes, like in Jackie Robinson’s time, that were the right color and now I don’t want the athletes playing to be the ones that can outlast the coach’s wrath with the least amount of harm or the ones that fit into the “proper” understanding of what it means to be masculine in an uncritical way. Not just the athletes who can take the abuse, who are “man” enough, are the right amount of “straight” should be the ones playing the game. Those are the things I feel Mike Rice (and countless others) teach his team as they are the target of balls thrown at them and homophobic slurs hurled to imply that being gay is bad. The undertones of what it takes to be a real man is evident through anger and violence during what is shown of the Rutgers practice on the video released by ESPN. Well, to me, none of those things make you a man or an athlete, but so often that it how the sport (and thus the masculinity around the sport) was taught to the coach and what it passed on to student-athletes.
There is a WHOLE lot going on around the Rutgers incident. Was Coach Rice just trying to toughen these players up or make the team perform better under pressure (even though their record does not help that argument)? Is this a one off video by a rogue coach? I think this is a moment for a larger conversation about the kind of world we want our sports to exist within. I want sports to be hard hitting on the court. I want the players to give their all and then a little bit more. I want the athletes to play their sport in a world that sees and acknowledges this can happen without bullying, violence, anti-gay slurs, and through masculinity that is about more than anger and aggression. I am also not alone here. There are others doing this work including Hudson Taylor through his foundation Athlete Ally. He is working to make sports more inclusive of people who identify as LGBTQ.
This is a large project. It does not start and end the with firing of Mike Rice. It happens on the field, in the locker rooms, at the little league try outs, when we are watching sports with our friends, and is happening in college athletics research. Donna Duffy at UNCG is exploring how coaches play a role in gender based violence at the high school level. This issues are here, they are real, and we should take the seriously. We need to be talking about how we socialize our young athletes into their sports, how we, as adults, watch sports, and how we expect men and wormen to act within sports and in the world at large.