Cocooned in my own work bubble Thursday, the highlight (or lowlight) missed my attention. But one of my students in sports communications asked me what I thought about the incident with Brittney Griner and wondered my opinion on how her gender might affect the media’s response to it.
Immediately, I pulled up ESPN.com and found the video. In case you didn’t see it, here’s the clip from YouTube of Griner, a freshman on the Baylor women’s basketball team, landing a roundhouse right square on the nose of Texas Tech forward Jordan Barncastle:
Ah, a woman’s basketball player throwing a punch in a game. And a “big girl” at that.
Oh, the issues this could open to discuss.
First, Griner is one of the most talented women’s players in the game, known for her dunking ability. She is 6-foot-8. She towers over her opponents. As Wilt Chamberlain once said, “Nobody roots for Goliath.” Big post players in the world of basketball take physical abuse on the court and verbal abuse from fans. But as writer Mechelle Voepel pointed out in her commentary on ESPN, “The one difference with guys is that most of the taunts directed at them are not going to be about attacking their gender, gender identity or sexual orientation as a reaction to them being big and/or strong. Women, though, almost always have to deal with that. And it can take a toll on anyone’s psyche, no matter how old she is or how she feels about herself.”
Reason for a pardon? Absolutely not. But visiting gender identity issues in women’s sports can be tricky territory and this provides one venue to open that discussion.
But more interesting for me was the subject of debate in the mainstream media. It wasn’t about the physicality of the women’s game or Griner stepping outside “gender norms” by punching her opponent. It wasn’t really about women in sport at all.
It was about the punishment.
Jalen Rose on ESPN’s First Take noted that if this happened in a men’s college basketball game, it would breaking headline news including interviews with the player’s former AAU coach. While Griner’s punch certainly made national news, it was muted.
Then there’s discussion about her punishment – a mandatory one-game suspension from the NCAA and another added game from Baylor and the Big 12 Conference.
Is that enough?
Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman wrote that the two-game suspension before the NCAA tournament was not enough – that the Big 12 needed to send a stronger message to basketball players of both sexes and sit her out for the rest of the season.
Jayda Evans of The Seattle Times wrote that the punishment should be equal for both sexes – that a punch in a game deserves the same treatment for men and women – and agrees with the two-game suspension.
Here is what I know for sure:
1. The punch was wrong.
2. Passion and emotion sometimes get the best of us. There are days when I would really, really, really like to face push certain people I come across. And I’m not 6-foot-8 playing big-time basketball and having gender-based slurs hurled at me. I’ve learned, however, to control and channel that passion and emotion – something that, quite frankly, are you supposed to learn when you’re 19-years old.
3. Women’s sports are physical and always have been physical. There is just more opportunity for attention.
4. The punishment? I’m not sure what I think because, well, what’s the standard punishment? Is two games enough? Probably. Because the punishment for Griner won’t come so much in the form of actually missing basketball but in the way it will shape her reputation. As women’s sports gains more media attention, that brings the bad with the good. It’s an opportunity for personal growth for Griner, who can reshape her attitude as she works to reclaim her image.