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.
griner AP.jpg
Tony Gutierrez/AP Images

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).

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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