People Talk About Brittney Griner Like She's a Basketball Player, Because She Is

Women in sports used to be evaluated by their personality or appearance, not their athleticism. This is changing, finally.
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A video of college-basketball coaching legends Geno Auriemma and Bob Knight surfaced Sunday morning on the SBNation basketball blog SwishAppeal. They were having a friendly chat about what many people in the college-basketball community are chatting about these days: Baylor University's peerless 6'8" center Brittney Griner.

"I saw her score five different baskets off of five different moves," Knight marveled.

"You ever coach against [Lew] Alcindor?" Auriemma asked him. "In the women's game, she's probably what he was in the men's game: There's just no other person like that. You can't go into a game and feel like there's anything you can do to neutralize her. ... [Other teams] can't do anything about this kid."

This small exchange between Knight and Auriemma sums up pretty bluntly what makes Griner so astonishing—she's unstoppable.

But it also showcases another reason Brittney Griner is a revolutionary figure in sports. The way fans, coaches, and the mainstream media talk about Griner is a subtly radical, relatively new, and pretty damn great way to talk about women in sports: as an athlete.

***

A quick Google-assisted jaunt through recent news about Brittney Griner pulls up headlines like "Praising Griner Proves Far Easier Than Stopping Her," "Griner the Great Still in Her Prime," "Brittney Griner: Game-Changer," and "Brittney Griner scores 50, dunks in Baylor rout." Media coverage of Griner, in other words, frequently praises her magnificent talent in the game of basketball and discusses, as Jake Simpson wrote here at The Atlantic last week, what it means for the future of the sport.

She's earned every word of it. Superstar women basketball players of yesteryear, though, didn't have it so grand. Media coverage of female athletes has a long, irksome history of ignoring the "sports" aspect of women's sports—and even as recently as a generation ago, the media was missing the point by a mile.

In 1989, the Amateur Athletic Foundation published a study of TV coverage of the 1989 NCAA Women's Final Four. When researchers watched these two games, they observed that the game-related programming seemed bizarrely unrelated to basketball, especially when compared to the men's event:

Whereas the men' s coverage focused on the drama of the event, the opening of the women' s game focused, in a sentimental way, on the backgrounds of several of the players. Narration began over images of little girls, many in dresses, playing basketball on a playground, and continued over short photographic histories of several players. Meanwhile, synthesized music played over the sequence of images and softened the images of rough basketball playing.

Two decades ago, in other words, TV coverage of even the most exciting matchups in women's college basketball often focused on the women, not the basketball.

And in 2004, University of Minnesota sports sociologist Jo Ann M. Buysse and Hamline University sociologist Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert published a study that evaluated power-conference universities' media guides' portrayals of their star student athletes of both genders, first in 1990 and again in 1997. These media guides, issued by college athletic departments, are often primary source materials for journalists, whose coverage then drives the national conversation around these athletes. Their study evaluated hundreds of cover photographs of male and female athletes in a variety of gender-coded and gender-neutral sports using nine different criteria.

In 1990, women athletes were overall depicted in poses that suggested "true athleticism" (that is, photographed on-court, in uniform, and in action) roughly 70 percent as often as men were. And women were more than three times more frequently photographed in poses that overtly suggested traditional femininity than men were in poses that suggested traditional masculinity.

And in basketball specifically, women got an even rougher deal: They were pictured less than half as frequently as men in "true athletic" settings. Basketball covers showed female athletes in their uniforms only about 40 percent of the time (compared to more than 70 percent for men), and only two-thirds of the time even with any sporting equipment at all (compared to more than 95 percent for men).

Those numbers, especially in basketball, showed some improvement by the time the study was conducted again using media guides from 1997. But, Buysse and Embser-Herbert wrote, universities were still putting a disturbing amount of effort into "feminizing" their women athletes and portraying them as "ladies." One media guide they evaluated even put its women's basketball team on the cover in formal gowns with heavy makeup and styled hair.

"There is no evidence anywhere on the cover that suggests that this is a basketball team," Buysse and Embser-Herbert wrote. "This type of representation does nothing to display these women as competent, elite athletes."

These university-issued guides were the primary source documents for media outlets, let's remember—who then relayed their impressions of the athletes to the nation at large. So it's not hard to imagine how portrayals like this could have contributed to some frustrating moments in the mid-1990s for women in sports. As the authors mention,

During the 1996 Olympics, where much attention was paid to women's participation, the emphasis was frequently on how well women could perform and still be feminine off the field. This remained true as recently as 1999 in the coverage of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team and their participation in the 1999 World Cup. The coverage was broad, but the focus was often on their appearance and families as much as it was on their performance.

Both studies found, though, that the situation for women in sports—especially basketball—was improving over time. A follow-up study conducted four years after the Amateur Athletic Foundation's original analysis of the Women's Final Four reported general improvements in the quality of news reports about women's college basketball.

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Which is why, 13 years later, it's a bittersweet relief to see Brittney Griner earn praise in the same terms as a male college basketball player might.

Of course, we've still got a long way to go—some female athletes' genuinely groundbreaking achievements still get overshadowed. Danica Patrick's sexy GoDaddy ad campaigns still generate more buzz than the fact that she's one of just 13 drivers ever to have led laps in two different 500-mile races; media outlets still frequently devote less coverage to Serena's blistering, best-ever-in-the-women's game serve than her temper (or her clothes); sometimes it still seems like Missy Franklin is more famous for being adorable and a great kid than for being the world's fastest backstroke swimmer. And it was only nine months ago that the discussion of Gabby Douglas's hair somehow threatened to steal momentum from the discussion of her all-around gymnastics gold-medal win at the 2012 Olympics.

But when we read about Brittney Griner, we don't read about her hair. Yes, she does frequently field dumb questions about coach Kim Mulkey's flamboyant outfits and "what it's like to be such a tall woman." But when we read stories about Griner, we read stories that have numbers in them. Stories about her 50-points-plus-a-dunk night on a Tuesday and her almost-triple-double the following Sunday.

When photographs of Griner circulate through the media, they're shots that depict Griner at her explosive, badass best: Brittney Griner drop-stepping, Brittney Griner posterizing some poor opposing guard, that perennially awesome picture of Brittney Griner bellowing in celebration. These photos are a far cry from the basketball-team-as-pageant-contestants stunt, and they're also evidence of a remarkably modern phenomenon at work: They show a woman getting celebrated for being loud, aggressive, and rambunctious.

And when Griner turned 22 and reached the age of WNBA eligibility last year, sportswriters of both genders weighed in on whether the 6'8" center would be wiser to go pro or stay in school.

These kinds of conversations about female athletes didn't happen so much a generation ago. Good work, everyone. Let's do this again.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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