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The pros and cons of male athletes lending support, appreciation to their female counterparts

Kelsey Plum appreciates the comparisons to the NBA's James Harden -- "but I also want to be compared with Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird," the rookie says. Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

It was just about this time last year, during the NBA playoffs, that Sports Illustrated did a profile on Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green.

In an unsolicited moment, Green declared himself an admirer of WNBA basketball.

"In the NBA, there's always a guy who is only around because he can jump," Green said in the interview. "He doesn't have a clue about the fundamentals. I learn more from the WNBA. They know how to dribble, how to pivot, how to use the shot fake."

The organic appreciation was, in turn, appreciated by WNBA players and those who follow the league.

Having an NBA player, an All-Star with an NBA championship ring, acknowledge the women in a genuine way was an antidote to the times when the league is literally used as a sitcom punchline, or ridiculed by some sports-talk radio host with delusions that he could beat Maya Moore in a game of one-on-one.

Having a male athlete put his stamp of approval on a female counterpart is seen as a way to grow the business, the fan base and the mainstream appeal of women's team sports, particularly basketball.

The problem is when appreciation of the women's game from an NBA superstar, or an NFL quarterback, is interpreted as validation for the sport. Or when a male athlete becomes a centerpiece in a women's space -- during a game broadcast, a draft telecast or a postgame interview -- so that he becomes the focus rather than a fan.

"I would never say, 'Oh my God, why are you comparing me to a guy?' But I think the fact that we have to keep doing this at all says less about basketball and more about how society views female athletes."

Sue Bird

Women's basketball, in particular, has leveraged the endorsements of male counterparts in an attempt to bring more fans to the WNBA and the women's college game.

The WNBA, specifically, has used NBA stars in advertising campaigns and gone out of its way to make sure that fans in the stands and on television see NBA players on the sidelines at WNBA games. Just Monday the WNBA unveiled its second installment of its season-long "Watch Me Work" campaign, with NBA players such as Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas and Klay Thompson paying tribute to the likes of Moore, Elena Delle Donne, Nneka Ogwumike, Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi. The league also has encouraged superstars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to use social media to compliment and promote players.

Social media has its power. Ask Kelsey Plum.

The No. 1 overall pick in this year's WNBA draft, Plum finished a historic collegiate career last month, ending her four-year run at the University of Washington with the NCAA records for career scoring and single-season scoring. She was must-see TV for women's basketball, and the entire basketball world took heed. She received shout-outs from Warriors coach Steve Kerr, marriage proposals from coast-to-coast and Twitter admiration from a number of basketball luminaries, including Bryant, Dick Vitale, Danny Ainge and James Harden.

In fact, Plum's game was compared to Harden's at various points during the college season, which brings up the sticky issue of comparing women to men on the basketball court.

"At first, it was so cool because people had noticed me, and James Harden noticed me, and it's great, and for that I was very appreciative," Plum said. "But it continued to go further, and I think people struggled to find a woman to compare me with, so they went to men as the default. And that's fine, but I also want to be compared with Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird and players like that. And for those comparisons to never shift over to that, it's a little disheartening. It started out as a huge compliment and then it just got redundant.

"For people to come out to watch me and expect that I'm going to be like James Harden, or any current NBA player, it's not realistic. I don't want to emulate them. That's not the goal. I want to play like me."

"Think about the number of millennial young men who we could attract to the WNBA. The support of those [NBA] players does validate the women's game. Do we need it? Maybe we do."

Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb

Sue Bird said the comparisons sometimes feel like a "trap" for women's basketball.

"If you said you were comparing me to a Jennifer Azzi or a Mike Bibby, whatever the case, as a basketball player, I would take that as a compliment," Bird said. "And I would never say, 'Oh, my God, why are you comparing me to a guy?' But I think the fact that we have to keep doing this at all says less about basketball and more about society and how society views female athletes."

This phenomenon isn't limited to male fans talking about women's basketball from their only familiar point of reference. It happens in media and on television broadcasts, and it is common among the players themselves. How many times has a young player been asked which player she admires most, or whose game she'd like to emulate, only to have her respond with the name of an NBA player? Too many to count.

"It is a huge disconnect," Bird said. "I was the same way when I was a young player, so I don't want to make it sound like I wasn't. Now, more so than ever, you hear stories about young players who talk about wanting to play in the WNBA since they were 10 or 11 years ago, but a large percentage of them don't follow the league. Yet they strive for it."

"Kobe and LeBron have daughters. They know the game and they know what we are about. If it helps the league to grow and more people to pay attention to the women's game, I'm good with it."

Kelsey Plum

Plum said she grew up in a house where her parents exposed her to female athletes.

"A lot of girls grow up watching guys, and that's all they see. We watched Misty May and Kerri Walsh. Diana Taurasi was the one who always stood out for me," Plum said. "I walked up to Monique Currie at practice today and told her my dad and I used to sit on the couch and watch her play in college. It's crazy for me to be playing with her now."

Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb said asking NBA players to endorse the WNBA or women's players is necessary to help grow the game and expose it to new fans.

"The WNBA fan base is still made mostly of traditional women's basketball fans," Gottlieb said. "To me, this is good business. At some point, we might be able to grow our fan base. Think about the number of millennial young men who we could attract to the WNBA. The support of those players does validate the women's game. Do we need it? Maybe we do.

"But we also need to do a better job of promoting our stars. We want people to see that Diana Taurasi and Elena Delle Donne are great players, and not just because Kobe said so. Right now, more girls in Seattle want to be Kelsey Plum. And we've got to continue to push, to get the exposure and the branding and the media coverage."

The reality is that many men's players, like Green, have genuine respect for the women.

"We were at the Olympics, and the players on the men's team are clearly following the WNBA. They know our stats and our standings," Bird said. "You get friendly with these guys through the years, and they are the first ones to text and congratulate us on a big win, or give you a bad time for missing a game winner or something. And it's real."

But whether it's organic or forced, whether the compliments or the tweets are solicited, Plum said she doesn't care.

"Kobe and LeBron have daughters. They know the game, and they know what we are about," Plum said. "If it helps the league to grow and more people to pay attention to the women's game, I'm good with it."