Ever since Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested that he’d consider drafting Griner, there has been this undercurrent that he unleashed a dangerous idea. WNBA great Swin Cash declared that women shouldn’t have to “validate” themselves by playing against NBA guys. Basketball great Nancy Lieberman got a call from a reporter asking if Griner trying out against men wouldn’t “tarnish” the women’s game. “You would think she was going to put the atomic bomb together and decide where to drop it,” Lieberman said. “Seriously, it’s not that bad. I laugh. People get so agitated.”
The idea of pitting female athletes against males always seems to strike a nerve. For men, the stakes are a primal embarrassment, and for women, that we might look inferior. Guess what: Griner might very well look weak compared to NBA centers. At 6 feet 8, she weighs around 200 pounds, and would give up at least 60 pounds to a Dwight Howard. The trouble is, Griner plays the wrong position — she’s a center in the women’s game but she’d be a tweener in the NBA. As Dirk Nowitzki told the Dallas Morning News, “You’re kind of caught between a 3 and a 4,” Griner is probably not strong or heavy enough to play power forward, and not fast enough to play small forward.
The facets that made Griner the player of the year in the women’s game for a second straight season were her combination of height and soft shooting touch, not strength. She has terrific footwork for 6-8, and an exquisite face-up game and shooting range to go with her amazingly long arms, with her standing reach of 9-2, and a 7-4 wingspan. She holds the NCAA record for most blocks by a woman or man, with 748. She has never played with a great deal of muscle, and Louisville’s upset of Baylor in the Elite Eight proved that even a smaller opponent could move her out of the paint and crowd her.
Fact: guys are, on average, bigger. The latest national statistics show that American men are an average of five inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than American women. And those are just regular citizens. Lieberman’s son is a 6-8, 220-pound freshman center at Niagara University. When he drapes an arm around her mother, she practically sags under the sheer weight. “I’m like, ‘Dude, get your arm off me, it’s so heavy.’ It’s like a Labrador.”
The fear we have about female athletes juxtaposing their skills next to those of men is that they will look smaller, or weaker, and therefore unworthy. It was a legitimate concern in the 1970s, before Title IX was so widely accepted. Any sign of inferiority on the part of female athletes was interpreted as undeserving of funding.