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Thursday, April 4, 2013
The false promise of the NBA

By Jemele Hill

I have no doubt that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was sincere when he said he would draft Brittney Griner, or at the very least, perhaps invite her to play for Dallas' summer league team in Las Vegas.

It would have been perfect if Griner had told Cuban to spend more time worrying about the Mavericks' playoffs chances than her NBA possibilities.

But unfortunately that's not how Griner responded. Instead, she tweeted to Cuban: "I would hold my own! Lets do it."

My problem with Cuban's offer has nothing to do with whether I believe Griner can play with men. The gap in physical strength would be a huge issue for her, just as her quickness and array of post moves might be an issue for some of the men she would play. I would imagine that Griner already has spent a good deal of her career playing against boys and men recreationally. But how she could fit in the NBA isn't really the point.

What I don't like about Cuban's comments is that it perpetuates the dangerous idea that great female athletes need to validate themselves by competing against men.

Griner is terrific in her own right. She easily is in the conversation as the best female college basketball player of the past 15 or 20 years. This season, Griner was the best college player in women's or men's hoops. Baylor's loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16 doesn't negate what Griner accomplished or her unprecedented impact on the women's game.

Griner doesn't have anything to prove. But because of Cuban's interest in her, it's opened the door for people to talk more about what Griner can't do, rather than appreciate what she can.

Once Cuban's comments spread, it was open season on Griner. She's too slow to play with men. She isn't physical enough. She doesn't have the athleticism.

It was like some people forgot that Griner was the Big 12's three-time player of the year, four-time defensive player of the year, and a national player of the year. Everything she accomplished is being measured against professional male players, and that simply isn't fair.

As the WNBA draft approaches, the conversation should be about how Griner's college stardom can translate to professional success, and perhaps boost the WNBA to another level in popularity.

Now some unrealistic dreamers are wondering if Griner should forget the WNBA altogether and really give the NBA a shot, because of the endorsement and marketing potential.

This Griner situation reminds me of how, every so often, people would wonder whether former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt should coach men. I don't doubt that Summit could do it, but I reject the idea that Summit needed to coach men to legitimize what anyone with common sense already knew -- that the woman can coach.

I would not compare Griner playing in the NBA to Danica Patrick competing against men in NASCAR. For one, NASCAR is one of the few sports men and women can compete with one another without strength or stature being an issue. The only things that matter in NASCAR are reaction time, endurance and, of course, the car.

Among fans, Patrick is one of the most popular drivers on the NASCAR circuit. But having not won a race in NASCAR and having barely won anything as an IndyCar driver, she has invited criticism about whether she's good enough. Madison Avenue loves her, but can she win?

In Patrick's case, she didn't have much choice about joining the men, because there's not a separate elite open-wheel or stock car circuit for women. But as we saw with Patrick, there is a lot of pressure that comes with competing in a male-dominated sport. And while Griner dealt with high expectations at Baylor because the team looked practically unbeatable, vying for a spot on an NBA team would bring scrutiny unlike anything she experienced in college.

From Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs to Patrick versus the pack, there has always been an infatuation with women who compete against men.

Griner wouldn't be the first woman to choose to test herself against professional men's players. In 1979, Ann Meyers signed a contract with the Pacers and tried out for the team. Even though she didn't make an NBA roster, her efforts to play in the NBA never damaged her credibility.

That's not how it would work today. If Griner flirted with the NBA and failed, it would do a lot more damage. There would be an obsession with her successes and failures. Every missed and made shot would be replayed repeatedly on TV and throughout social media. Could you imagine what life would be like for the man who dunked on her, or for any man whose shot she blocked or on whom she scored? One of the greatest players in women's college basketball history would risk being relegated to being the punch line of far too many jokes. Or worse, considered a failure.

There is no question that Griner could gain much more exposure if she, say, decided to play in a few summer league games. But the NBA doesn't need any more marketing help. The WNBA, however, desperately needs more players and personalities like Griner.

Too many people already treat Griner like a freak because of her size. The last thing she should want is for the NBA to use her as a sideshow.