Head coach Kim Mulkey, left, is lifted off her feet by Baylor’s star center Brittney Griner. Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP
Last Tuesday evening, Mark Cuban, the famously outspoken owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, told ESPN that he would consider drafting Brittney Griner, the 6ft 8in center for Baylor Bears, to his team. Cuban said:
“If she’s the best on the board, I will take her ? You never know unless you give somebody a chance.”
He followed up with a statement the next day to USA Today, in which he wrote:
“We evaluate every draft eligible player on the planet ? As I told the media yesterday, 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.”
Cuban’s remarks about Griner and her ability were conditional, based on her trying out for the team. He wasn’t offering her a seat on the bench, merely a chance to determine if her skill level deemed her worthy of a Mavericks jersey. Early Wednesday morning, ESPN Sportscenter’s Twitter feed, followed by nearly 5 million people, responded:
And thus was born the #GrinerNBA hashtag ? which turned quickly into a cesspool of misogynistic and transphobic (“she’s a he!”) comments about Griner (sadly, a common event whenever Griner is the center of the conversation). The misogynistic comments tended to point out that Griner is just a woman and the NBA is not the place for women: “no offense she a girl”; “NBA’s a man’s sport”; “I’m all for equal rights but Women need to know their place.” And Cuban would “take a chance with her in the kitchen”; “I would not like to see #GrinerNBA happen because it is a men’s league.”
Some touched on how embarrassing her presence would be on court for the men:
Others used the threat of sexual violence, a chronic violent crime committed against women in the United States, as the reason she should not try out: “Britney griner would get raped in the nba”; “You would get absolutely raped in the NBA.”
Then, there were people who focused on her body as insufficient compared to the men she would face: “She also doesn’t have the same ‘parts’ as men”;
“she’s lacking the strength, speed, skill and oh yeah.. a y chromosome.”
These misogynistic jokes discredit Griner’s ability to play ball with men by tapping into old sexist ideas that women are always less than men and that their specific space in this world is wherever men are not. The very act of getting on Twitter and saying misogynistic things about such a popular female sports star is an act of desperation. It means to set right the balance that was upset when Cuban floated the idea of allowing Griner to try out for the NBA.
With an irony not apparent to these commentators, the belief that Griner is “not manly enough” to play in the NBA is flatly opposed by the other offensive method people used to insult her: that she is a man. This is a classic transphobic trope, or a fear that her gender presentation does not “match” the sex she was assigned at birth. For example: “she possesses man parts, so why not?”; “Griner has a penis and would fit right in”; “She looks and sounds like a man.” For much more, if you need it, in this vein, just check out the hashtag.
These transphobic jokes, like the misogynistic ones, devalue Griner because we live in a society that denigrates trans people in general and chafes whenever confronted by someone who does not fit into a neat box of “feminine woman” or “masculine man”. Because athletes are seen as “masculine”, female athletes, by being athletic, are no longer feminine. As Kate Hagan, a writer for ESPN, has argued:
“Women’s basketball is maligned for not being as athletic as the men’s game, but as women become more athletic, these players are often labeled as unfeminine.”
This contradiction of not being manly enough and being too manly is especially pronounced in Griner’s case because she is a black woman and faces a particular kind of body policing. Monica Roberts, an activist and blogger, has observed that “the way society is set up, the white woman is considered the paragon of virtue, fertility, beauty and femininity.” Therefore, by default, the black woman is, she argues, a kind of “unwoman”. Griner, like all black women, faces “a never-ending battle ? to ‘prove’ that [she doesn't] fit the ‘unwoman’ stereotypes.”
Griner faces an uphill battle against the haters, as she starts from the disadvantaged position both as a black woman and as a spectacular athlete, a skill society codes as “masculine”. Serena Williams is often attacked with slurs that she is secretly a man; it’s a common meme for powerful black female athletes.
Griner is a “Lady Bear” on her way to the “Women’s NBA”, but is 6ft 8in, can dunk a basketball, and has a low voice. Hence reactions such as:
All of these slurs and “jokes” ? both the misogynistic and the transphobic ones ? serve a common purpose: to move the discussion away from whether Griner should be afforded the chance to try out (after all, if she has the talent, why shouldn’t she?), and instead, towards the conversation about her very identity as a human being. It is no longer about her ability or skill, and her eligibility for the NBA, but about her value as a person and her membership of society.
Dave Zirin, a sports politics writer at the Nation, has argued that dividing athletes by their gender is antiquated and that we need to begin to evaluate players on skill alone. In Game Over, he argues:
“Wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition, and opportunity determine the development of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome ever could.”
In challenging gender segregation, Zirin says, you challenge “one of the very foundations of sexism: the great lie that boys hold an innate physical superiority to girls.”
That is why when people debate whether Griner is too manly or not manly enough, they purposefully avoid the discussion about her skill, even though that is a legitimate conversation worth having. By undermining a woman’s legitimacy off the court, they reinforce a sports culture built around a belief that men should not be challenged on it. Their goal is to remind Griner ? and women generally ? about women’s inferior position not just in sports but in the social hierarchy, too. Ultimately, they hope to intimidate her from doing anything that might call into question these ideas.
Fortunately, Brittney Griner seemed unphased by the hashtag hazing. In response to the news that Cuban would give her a shot at trying out for the NBA, Griner tweeted:
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