We can't be scared of controversy

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images

Nefertiti Walker, Hilary Shaev, Jessica Mendoza and Layshia Clarendon joined moderator Kate Fagan for Thursday's "Griner Effect" panel.

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Two months ago, I proposed a panel discussion for espnW's Women + Sports Summit. My goal was to address some of the issues that have long been pushed to the background in women's sports -- topics that affect the LGBT community, and touch on the subject of inclusion.

The title of the panel was "The Griner Effect: Breaking Down Barriers in Women's Sports."

The title refers of course to WNBA star Brittney Griner. And while her name certainly did come up once or twice during our discussion, the title also served as a jumping-off point to explore some of the bigger issues surrounding women's sports.

We had a fantastic group of women on the stage: Nefertiti Walker, a professor at UMass, Hilary Shaev of the WNBA, former softball star Jessica Mendoza and WNBA rookie guard Layshia Clarendon.

The core goals of the panel: to rock the boat, get people thinking and hopefully challenge some old assumptions.

Here were some of the key takeaways:

• Walker discussed this idea that, "History proves that nothing gets better by staying the same." This applies to women's sports because we're in a period of social change, and women's sports are in a position to embrace "otherness" and talk about diversity -- to be a leader in this discussion. We can't be afraid to talk about hot-button topics. We need to stretch outside our comfort zone.

• Clarendon said that social change never occurs inside our comfort zones. She has been open about her sexuality since her time playing women's basketball at Cal; Clarendon also talked about the differences between being open in college basketball, where much closeting still exists, versus being open as a professional, which provides more autonomy.

• Mendoza made a key point about the importance of straight female allies, because those women send a message of support to LGBT teammates and the LGBT community. Walker, who pulled from some of her research, called straight female allies "champions," and confirmed the importance of standing up and supporting gay teammates.

• Shaev touched on the new branding the WNBA is embracing, which includes a new logo. She said all of the league's marketing is now focused on "selling basketball," and moving away from the idea that "sex sells."

There has been a tendency in women's sports to shy away from controversial topics out of fear that if we speak candidly, or if we're somehow seen to be outside of the mainstream, our small (but growing) piece of the pie will be taken from us. There also seems to be this thought that those of us within women's sports must always present a positive, united front, rather than critically address some of the issues.

As we go forward in the marketing of women's sports, it's crucial that we stop being so scared of controversy, that we embrace otherness -- that we rock the boat more often. Because authenticity will only make women's sports more relevant.

As Walker pointed out: "History proves that nothing gets better by staying the same."

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