What Griner says about us

Over the past four years, a certain segment of "fans" in this country have played a silly little game called, unofficially, "What We Say About Brittney Griner."

The way it works is simple. No matter what Griner does -- win the NCAA championship with Baylor, earn national player of the year honors, break her wrist skateboarding, drop 50 points on Kansas State -- the naysayers hop on message boards and social media to deliver a variety of insults, questioning her fierce on-court demeanor, her talent in comparison to male players, even her genetic makeup.

Rather than embracing Griner as a gift from the basketball gods, a player years ahead of her time, they have turned her into a 6-foot-8 lightning rod for all of their complaints and fears about the women's game.

And over the next few weeks, as Griner tries to cap her record-setting college career by winning a second straight national title, it's a pretty good bet that whatever praise she receives will also come with a side dish of scorn -- because her best seems to bring out some people's worst.

Truth is, those ugly things they say about Brittney Griner aren't really about her.

They're about us.

We live in a world that embraces innovation because it stretches our understanding of human possibility. Anything that gives us a glimpse of the future -- yesterday the iPhone, today Google Glass -- inspires child-like wonder, including the exploits of superstar athletes.

Consider former NBA center Shaquille O'Neal, who burst onto the scene in the 1990s, a physical specimen the likes of which we had never seen on a basketball court. Shaq was different, and we celebrated him for it. Fans posed for pictures holding his size-23 sneakers, gawking at the oversized Reeboks as if the shoes had just arrived via time machine. He was 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds, and he was nearly unstoppable (except at the free throw line).

Shaq's presence in the low post forced defenders to take risks. Some opponents doubled him, daring his teammates to score. Other squads employed the "Let him beat us" philosophy, putting one defender on Shaq and locking down on everyone else. And when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, most teams tried the Hack-A-Shaq strategy, rolling the dice by sending him to the foul line, where he shot just 52.7 percent for his career.

Like Shaq, Griner makes opponents uncomfortable because they can't do things the way they normally would in practice. She keeps coaches awake at night, worrying about how disruptive she is on both ends of the floor. She can turn and score over either shoulder -- sometimes by dunking the ball -- and on defense she eats up space with her 88-inch wingspan. She is the second-leading women's scorer in Division I women's history, with 3,203 points, and the all-time leader in blocks, with 736.

"Because of her skills and her unique abilities, Griner has added a dimension to the game that hasn't existed up to this point," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said during last year's Final Four.

But whereas Shaq was hailed for being big, bold, different, Griner is sometimes viewed in a harsher light, with skepticism bordering on suspicion. When people called Shaq a freak of nature, it was a compliment; when directed at Griner, the term often carries a cruel edge, punctuated with the refrain of "She's a dude!"

Such wary appraisals are not unique to Griner, of course. This is what Joe Fan does to any female athlete who doesn't fit neatly into one of two boxes: the cool, tough-talking guy's gal (see: Ronda Rousey, Lindsey Vonn) or the unattainable beauty (see: Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova).

The sport of tennis has witnessed what happens when a dominant woman eludes traditional labels. Martina Navratilova endured derisive comments during her career, first for being too pudgy and then too muscular. Similarly, former world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, who won two Grand Slam titles in 2006, drew attention for a perceived lack of femininity, with Martina Hingis infamously calling her "half a man." Even Serena Williams, who embraces her curvy body with bold outfits, has routinely been portrayed as menacing because of her powerful arms and ultra competitive nature.

As Griner and Baylor have become more dominant -- the Lady Bears are currently 32-1 after finishing 40-0 last season -- the storylines around their games have taken on a David-and-Goliath quality, as if the odds are so tilted in Baylor's favor that everyone else has a built-in excuse for losing. They have Brittney, and we don't.

But largely unacknowledged is the fact that Griner has taken one on the chin for the entire women's game.

Before she arrived on the scene, critics of women's basketball generally argued that it wasn't feminine enough and the quality of play not high enough to hold the attention of mainstream sports fans. During her college career, though, Griner has absorbed the bulk of the disdain previously shouldered by thousands of players. She has brought athleticism to the women's game in a package we've never seen, and yet the chatter around her -- the narrative in barrooms and on message boards -- is she's still an inferior athlete when compared to a man like LeBron James.

Apparently, it's very important for some fans to point out that King James, or any other NBA player, would smoke Griner in a game of 1-on-1.

"We disparage female athletes so we don't have to make room for them," says Nicole LaVoi, a professor at the University of Minnesota and the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports. "People can't just say, 'Wow, Brittney Griner is a great athlete.' We need to have a caveat: 'She plays like a guy, she looks like a guy, she must be a guy.' These qualifiers marginalize what Brittney has done and serve to keep the current pecking order in place, whereby men's sports are more valued, more culturally relevant -- the norm."

Detractors of women's basketball often say some variation of the following: "Wake me up when women can dunk." The implication is that people would pay more attention if the athletic exploits of women more closely resembled those of men.

Griner has exposed this sentiment -- If you dunk, we will watch -- for what it is: empty words, hollow as the ball itself. She has dunked 14 times in her college career (including seven this season), and throws down regularly in pregame warm-ups, offering fans the potential of seeing something awesome. She slams one-handed, two-handed, on the break, in traffic. And yet none of this seems to be the kind of dunking that Joe Fan wants to watch. On the contrary, Griner's dunking is frequently dismissed by people who argue that anyone 6-foot-8 should easily be able to rock the rim.

Most of these people have never dunked, of course.

More to the point, how is women's basketball supposed to evolve, to become more athletic, if the bodies of the athletes playing the game don't become, well … more athletic? It's basic physiology. In order for a woman to jump higher and run faster, she must have higher muscle mass and lower body fat, both traits traditionally deemed masculine.

So, to recap: Women's basketball is maligned for not being as athletic as the men's game, but as women become more athletic, these players are often labeled unfeminine, and therefore unwatchable.

Feel free to pause here and scratch your head.

Essentially, the women's game is in a Catch-22, because what these critics seemingly want is to watch female ballers who can athletically rival the men -- but in the bodies of swimsuit models. In other words, the nonbelievers will never watch women's hoops because they are waiting for a version of the game that, biologically speaking, will never exist.

"In our society, women are expected to stay in a certain kind of role, and Brittney Griner doesn't," says Don McPherson, a former NFL quarterback who now runs social outreach programs aimed at breaking down gender roles. "So because she doesn't fit any of our labels, we get scared, and we tear her down."

Everything shifted after The Punch.

On March 3, 2010, in the second half of Baylor's game against Texas Tech, Griner was ejected for clotheslining forward Jordan Barncastle, with whom she had been tangling on the block. Griner was then suspended for two games, one courtesy of the NCAA, the second tacked on by Baylor coach Kim Mulkey.

Griner was already a genetic outlier, inches taller than the next-tallest player, capable of athletic feats that set her apart. But after The Punch, cynics began making comments that showed they believed Griner was also a social outlier, someone to be feared.

A peculiar thing happens when people watch women's sports -- to fans and media alike. Even though we're viewing these athletes in a space we've all agreed is designated for competition (in this case, the basketball court), we still expect them to represent traditional gender roles. And we are less forgiving when they cross the line.

Our female athletes are packaged in a way that reassures us: She is nice, caring, sweet. If the on-court action doesn't reflect this ideal -- if the players get testy -- writers and TV announcers often fill in the gap: Wow! Things got pretty heated around the basket there. But you know what? That Brittney Griner is a big softie off the court, just so kind-hearted.

"Brittney challenges the idea of who we believe should be dominating sports, which ignites some sort of fear in people," says Nefertiti Walker, an assistant professor in the sports management department at UMass Amherst, and also a former basketball player at Georgia Tech and Stetson University. "Why can't we just let her be a tough basketball player? It's because we haven't moved past gender stereotypes. So we end up apologizing whenever Brittney, or any female athlete, does something on the court that isn't 'nice.' But why do we need our female athletes to be nice on the court?"

This incongruity can be difficult for players to navigate, and Griner is no exception. Behind the scenes, she is carefree, funny and easy to talk with, often putting an arm around someone's shoulder to show she's giving her full attention. But when Griner walks into the media room, sits behind the microphone and answers questions, she appears to be on autopilot: BG Lite, a muted version of the real thing.

And who can blame her, or Baylor, for treading lightly? (The program declined an interview request for this column.) Most college coaches in Mulkey's position would rather build a cocoon around their star player than take the risk that more exposure might lead to more ridicule.

Following Baylor's win over UConn on Feb. 18, Griner was walking with teammate Odyssey Sims from the locker room to the postgame interview room. The pair shuffled along the cement floor of Hartford's XL Center, with Griner stepping cautiously because she hadn't bothered to fully press her heels into her size-17 Nikes. Sims and a member of Baylor's support staff were asking Griner about her clear complexion. How do you keep your skin so smooth? Griner credited her genes, then pointed out that she had never worn makeup.

Sims cocked her head, a sly grin creeping onto her lips as she said to her teammate, "Whatcha mean you've never worn makeup? What about that time up at ESPN?"

The point guard was talking about a photo shoot that Griner had done for an early-season story that also featured Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and Delaware's Elena Delle Donne. In the opening montage, the three stars are all casually posed in the basketball equivalent of a glam shot: in uniform, holding a ball, looking as fresh as the last player on the bench.

Griner smiled at Sims and rolled her eyes. "I meant I never wore makeup growing up," she said, flashing an expression that looked a lot like the equivalent of C'mon, everybody knows how photo shoots work.

Watch her up close, interacting with teammates or fans, and you can see Brittney Griner is comfortable in her own skin.

So why can't more people be comfortable with her?

After Baylor beat UConn, ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo sent the following Tweet: "I hope women's basketball fans understand how special Brittney Griner is. Only six more weeks to watch her as a collegian."

Now we're down to three weeks at most, if Baylor advances to the Final Four. Soon Griner will transition to life as a professional athlete, free to market herself however she sees fit. She will almost certainly be the first player selected in the WNBA draft in April, and if she ends up playing alongside Diana Taurasi in Phoenix (the Mercury own the top pick), the duo could be a lot of fun to watch.

But how much will it matter? The spotlight shines brighter on the women's college game than on the WNBA, not least because female pro ballers spend most of their time playing overseas. Only a handful of stars -- Taurasi, Candace Parker, Maya Moore -- seem as popular now as they did in college, and rarely are they part of the broader sports conversation, most notably during the Summer Olympics.

So as we watch Griner's final games in a Baylor uniform, it makes sense to look back and examine the conversation around her, because what lies ahead is anybody's guess.

Can Griner raise the WNBA's profile and build on her own brand? And are sports fans ready for a 6-foot-8, skateboard-riding, Vans-wearing pitchwoman -- big, bold, different, like Shaq -- who can sell us sneakers, energy drinks and watches?

When Jodie Foster received a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes in January, fellow actress Kate Bosworth shared an old Foster quote via Twitter: "Normal is not something to aspire to; it's something to get away from." Almost immediately, those words were recirculated by thousands in a kind of collective "Amen, sister."

Because if there's anything we can all agree on, it's to celebrate our differences. Right?

We have seen the future of women's sports, and athletes like Brittney Griner are leading the way. Strong, muscular, fierce, unyielding -- less willing to be packaged in the same old-fashioned manner.

There will be more players like Griner. Maybe not tomorrow or even next year, but eventually they will come. When they do, maybe sports fans will be more ready for them, and the verbal darts that have flown these past four years will look like rusty relics, a weapon of the uninformed.

Griner has surely learned that most uncut paths are lined with thorns.

What have the rest of us learned?