Brittney Griner Is Not a Punch Line

Glenn Nelson / http://hoopgurlz.com/

I saw the future of women’s basketball Saturday, and she’s the most athletic woman player ever at such a considerable height (6-8). Haven’t heard of Baylor University’s fabulous fresh(wo)man Brittney Griner yet?  I bet you did, but only because she hauled off and punched someone this season.

That’s Griner throwing a roundhouse at Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle, breaking her nose. Of course the video went viral and renewed handwringing about incidents of violence in women’s sports—which always seems to put the whole notion of women’s athleticism in question and in jeopardy.

In men’s sports, violence is only complained about when someone lands in the hospital. Otherwise, it’s part of the game. I played competitive basketball myself, and when your adrenalin gets pumping your aggression rises as well. Normally you can get out that energy just by playing, but occasionally someone makes you so mad that you want to retaliate. I’m not saying that it’s the right thing to do because it’s both dangerous and bad sportsmanship—but it happens.

Brittney Griner didn’t randomly punch Barncastle; her opponent had just nearly dislocated Griner’s shoulder while throwing her to the ground. Griner blew.

And imagine: As a 6-8 player who towers above most of her opponents, she’s guarded very roughly, often by two or three players at a time. Not only does she have to develop a thick skin physically, but psychologically as well.

ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel also pointed out that it’s not just physical abuse faced by the tallest players in women’s basketball:

The 6-8 Anne Donovan—former Olympic standout and longtime coach—talks of how, even to this day, people will go up to her and say stupid and hurtful things. … Such as the woman who went up to Donovan a few years back and said, “Wow, you’re the biggest thing I’ve ever seen!” To which Donovan said, “I’m not a ‘thing,’ and you’re old enough to know better than to say something like that.”

Most players learn to retaliate in subtler ways than Griner did. A former UCLA women’s basketball player once explained to me how she used a trick learned from her older brother: If an opponent was getting too physical with her, she’d give her a well-placed elbow to the sternum. That hurts, I can tell you from basketball experience.

Jere Longman of The New York Times covered the Griner incident with a mix of concern about women adopting the worst of men’s sports (“more pressure to win”) and the inherent sexism of focusing on this with a gender lens at all. Kudos to interviewee Michael Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at USC, who recognized this:

Messner cautioned that these incidents could be less reflective of a disturbing pattern than an echoing of misbehavior that is blown out of proportion, given that it is reported against a backdrop of “almost no women’s coverage at all.”

At least TV covers the NCAA championships. And if you watched the magnificent game Saturday in the NCAA regionals between Baylor and Tennessee, you forgot the Griner punch entirely. Instead, you could only marvel at the young woman’s performance—27 points, 10 blocked shots—and that of her team, which upset the top-ranked Lady Vols. 

Tonight in Memphis they will play Duke at  7 p.m. EST (see it on ESPN) for a right to go to the Final Four next weekend at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

If you have a chance to watch Griner tonight, don’t expect violence—this is not a men’s professional hockey game, where flying fists are part of the show. Expect a great contest, though, and perhaps even a Griner dunk:

Griner dunking twice in a high school game.

About

Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage.