Is Women Playing in Men's Leagues a step forward?

Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury poses for a photo before the press conference and introduction to the team on ...

Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury poses for a photo before the press conference and introduction to the team on April 20. Photo: Barry Gossage

Towering and talented 22-year-old American basketball sensation Brittney Griner has become the talking point of US sport after Mark Cuban, sporting power-broker and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, said he'd be willing to consider her for the second-round of draft of the NBA (the men's league) – the event where hopeful unsigned players are picked up by NBA teams.

Griner wasn't intimidated by the offer, tweeting, "When is tryouts? I can hold my own. I'll try too. I'm not going to back down from a challenge". Mixing it with men's basketball heavy-weights LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki would surely only increase her fierce competitiveness on-court and add to the height of her dunk.

In Australia, Steve Waugh recently raised the idea of next year having one woman in every Big Bash League team. It's a concept that could see the likes of Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy give the country's pin-up cricketers a run for their money.

A fan of the Baylor Bears holds up a sign in reference to Brittney Griner of the Baylor Bears against the Notre Dame ...

A fan of the Baylor Bears holds up a sign in reference to Brittney Griner of the Baylor Bears against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the National Final game of the Women's Basketball Championship last year. Photo: Doug Pensinger

Then there was Danica Patrick, the motor racing driver who put the world on notice earlier this year when she beat all the men to claim pole at the Daytona 500.

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It's a battle of the sexes, and while women once fought the men for respect and coverage in their own right, they are now being challenged to fight the men one-on- one.

In the case of Brittney Griner – she's no ordinary athlete. The college basketballer has broken all kind of records in the competition, including being the first player ever to score 2000 points and block 500 shots. She was, unsurprisingly, the number one pick in the WNBA draft. Last year she was the only college player on the US Olympic women's basketball team finalists' roster but decided not to participate in London due to family illness and her school schedule.

Griner measures up pretty well, too – at 6 foot 8 (203.2cm) she's the same height as NBA star Lebron James; her hand span is larger than his, so too her wingspan, and at size 18 she wears a bigger shoe.

But the point really isn't about whether she could cut it in the big time with the boys, but whether she should.

Sadly, regardless of whether she succeeds or fails, the road she's about to embark on could thwart the progress of women's sport, and have the reverse effect of what is intended.

While trying to say a woman can match it with the men, it also sends the signal that women's sport and the WNBA are second-rate competitions – that they are inferior.

Were Griner to fail to make it onto the court, or be totally outplayed, the message would be the same: that women can't match it with the boys. Another failed experiment, like Ann Meyers and Nancy Lieberman before you.

While fear is one thing that should never hold any woman back, should the focus be on getting women into the NBA, or should it be on promoting the established, successful female competitions, like the WNBA?

The trailblazer isn't the one who takes a gamble in the men's competition, but those before us who, determined and undeterred, pushed for the establishment of professional women's leagues and earned the respect as athletes.

I beamed with pride watching the motor racing glass ceiling being smashed by Patrick at Daytona. In her post-race interview, the confident former high school cheerleader told reporters she had always been brought up to be the best driver, not the best female driver.

Change has also emerged on the horse racing track, where the major talking point about female jockeys is their ability, not the fact they're women.

But these are sports where no women's competitions exist.

In rugby union, league, soccer and basketball there are flourishing female competitions. We should be supporting these, building the publicity, hype and attention they deserve, rather than fixating on the experiment of one player.

Serena Williams isn't pushing her way into the men's competition after dominating the women's for years. Five-time surfing world champion Stephanie Gilmore isn't demanding a go against 11-time world champ Kelly Slater.

Women's competitions and benchmarks are not inferior to the men's, and should be measured on their own merits. Blurring the lines now isn't going to help the sport but only fuel the bigots, misogynists and trolls, eager to pounce, and who base their argument on those male comparisons, standards and this experiment.

But I also can't blame any woman for wanting to take on such a challenge.

While there is a women's competition, the pay, prestige, publicity and editorial priorities still lie with the men's games. The average pay for a WNBA player is $72,000, whereas for an NBA player it's $5.15million. They are separate competitions, but they are far from equal.

There's no doubting that Cuban's statements have caused an avalanche of publicity for Griner and the WNBA, and that hasn't been unwelcome. But Griner can, and should, inspire just as many international headlines and water-cooler discussions based on her incredible talent, her sporting prowess, her dunks, blocks and three-pointers alone.

Whatever happens, she is a trailblazer. I just hope her success builds on, rather than diminishes, the hard-fought successes of women's leagues in every sport.

Sam Squiers is a Sports Presenter for Sky News

11 comments

  • Sam, if more women joined unisex sports, there would be one and only league, thus no income inequality, although, I cannot imagine the locker room talks by the coach. If they feel they have the physical attributes, I'd love to see unisex sports, or at least football (soccer) which is the one I love. I have seen some outstanding goals and skills in the female leagues!

    On the income side, you cannot compare the salaries of the NBA and the WNBA!! look at the TV rights, the attendance, the advertising and the years both leagues have been around. Clubs cannot afford super wages without the private sector money, and the money goes where the crowds are, if you consider the number of men who follow sports every weekend and read the sports sections daily is currently incredibly larger than the female counterpart, well, someone will need to find a strategy to direct those male crowds away from the male leagues, and that won't be at all easy.

    Commenter
    ValMonte
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 03, 2013, 2:27PM
    • I understand what you are saying but the present status of women's sports has nothing to do with some long standing attitude that needs to be corrected. It is because women's sport offers a lessor spectacle than men's sports (in general). The best spectacle in sport featuring women is tennis. You can watch it and feel comfortable you are watching elite athletes in an elite competition. Even though few women could compete with those in the men's draw, you still get a pretty good show. But one look at women's soccer or even basketball and you know you are not getting the same product as you do if you watch the men's version. This is not to say it isn't worth watching or promoting but it is never going to have the same wide appeal. If a women wants to have a go at men's sport then good on her. It may even show that women can entertain us and that their sport is worth a second look.

      Commenter
      Raven
      Date and time
      May 03, 2013, 2:36PM
      • I disagree. The idea that women's sport is less entertaining is an assumption made precisely because women's sport doesn't get the same economic backing and air time as men's sport. This is a cultural attitude and practice that definitely needs changing.

        I personally find women's sport more entertaining, satisfying and inspiring to watch and would like to see more of it. I'm sure there are countless women and particularly up and coming young female athletes out there who would agree with me.

        Commenter
        Kate
        Date and time
        May 07, 2013, 10:45PM
    • The female competitions of almost every sport will always be second rate compared to the male versions. Even sports like women's tennis receive less interest, have less sellouts and lower ticket values than the men's tennis.

      I can't ever see this changing though. The best thing about watching the NBA, AFL, NFL, NHL, NRL, etc is the skill and athleticism of the top tier. The female versions of these sports can't match the excitement caused by what these top athletes can do.

      The Danica Patrick example is interesting. As a race car driver, she needs to be fit, with good reflexes and concentration. Strength, athleticism, height, etc are not important. There is almost no advantage between the sexes.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      May 03, 2013, 2:58PM
      • female sports teams are made up of average females as are male teams made up of average males; the average female can not compete against an average male athlete because of the differences in body make up. When the sports main component is not the human body then male & females can compete on an equal setting!

        Commenter
        Neil
        Location
        Oz
        Date and time
        May 03, 2013, 9:53PM
        • Ugh, a feminist commented on my blog weeks ago that it's about choice. If Brittney wants to try out and she obviously does, then she should be able to. If what have been traditionally mens sports are going to let women in then they should be able to. It's not about denigrating womens teams it's about seeing athletes as athletes regardless of their sex. Personally, I've played soccer on both a womens team and a mixed team and personally I preferred the mixed team.

          Commenter
          rascuache
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          May 04, 2013, 11:42AM
          • Oh @Raven. *shakes head*

            snip/
            It is because women's sport offers a lessor spectacle than men's sports (in general). The best spectacle in sport featuring women is tennis. You can watch it and feel comfortable you are watching elite athletes in an elite competition.
            /snip

            Are you for real? Did you not watch the recent 20/20 (women)? The last Rugby World Cup (women's), the Rugby Sevens (women)? I've also been enthralled by The W-League? Netball, softball, Rollerderby... etc etc

            Seriously - you need to get yourself into watching some women's sport besides tennis and you'll love it. The thrill is there. The skill is there. I find it enthralling. But it is hard to find, try ABC, Fox-Sports - sometimes SBS.

            Good luck with your hunting - you'll never look back!

            Commenter
            Mel
            Date and time
            May 04, 2013, 7:40PM
            • The thrill is there, but the skill is not to the same extent. Realistically, the only sports where the women's competition is the pinnacle of skill are those where there are no equivalent men's competitions.

              The skill level doesn't have to be there though, as long as the emotional investment in the team/player is there. For example, I'm just as passionate supporting my local club rugby team as I am about supporting the Wallabies.
              But to claim that the former are anywhere close to the same level of skill, speed and strength as the latter would just be ludicrous.

              Commenter
              Markus
              Location
              Canberra
              Date and time
              May 06, 2013, 10:11AM
            • Actually I disagree with you. I never said the speed and strength were the same. Simple biology prevents that. I would not expect the average woman to be as fast or as strong as the average man however I disagree there is a massive difference in skill.

              I will not change your mind obviously.

              Commenter
              Mel
              Date and time
              May 07, 2013, 6:05PM
            • Nobody is claiming women athletes have equivalent speed and strength as men. It's a simple biological reality that males are faster and stronger than females. And that's the entire point of the article - that separate male and female sport is necessary to accommodate this reality. On the other hand, the suggestion that female athletes possess inferior skills to male athletes is ludicrous. They play the same sports, they use the same skills.

              Commenter
              Joanna
              Date and time
              May 07, 2013, 10:50PM

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