Struggling to find any excuse not to work on my first problem set of the year, I flicked on the TV on Sunday in time for the women’s basketball matchup between No.1 Baylor and unranked Texas. It is hard to say it was a thrilling game—the Longhorns were clearly outmatched—but it was intriguing to watch junior Baylor forward Brittney Griner.
Listening to the commentary felt a little like watching a Stanford football game on TV this last year, but with the TV pundits drooling over Griner’s abilities instead of those of Stanford’s redshirt junior quarterback Andrew Luck. Whatever you might know about Griner—and I admit I don’t know that much—she is impressive. She is the hot favorite to win National Player of the Year, is already on the USA Basketball roster after playing on its European tour last year, stands at 6-foot-8 and has recorded five dunks so far in her collegiate career. Just like many expected of Luck a year ago, there is a belief that she may leave school early in the pursuit of professional riches, though in contrast to football this is unusual in women’s basketball. Some have even wondered whether she could be the first woman to break into the NBA.
She seems to have at least some of the qualities that would require—watching her towering over the other players in the game on Sunday, she looked out of place, in a good way—but I will freely admit that I don’t know enough about the differences between women’s and men’s basketball to really wade into that debate. What I do wonder, though, is whether she’d really want to.
Griner seems guaranteed to have a long and successful career in the WNBA, almost without needing to try. In comparison, the risks would be incredibly high for any woman player, even an outstanding one, making a bid for the NBA. Even the best college players sometimes don’t make it at the professional level, and should she try and fail, it would be a painful experience. On pure height alone, Griner would no longer stand out in the NBA, and her ability to dunk wouldn’t be anything particularly special. That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be able to stand up and fight for her place, but just that many of the advantages she is used to would be gone.
A lot of Stanford students probably come here after finishing first, or near first, in their high school class, but only a handful of them get to claim that honor at the Farm. Having lived your life at the top, finding you are suddenly considered average, or even below average, can come off as a bit of a shock—even if being average at Stanford still ranks you pretty high in general.
And then there is the specter of sexism: real, imagined or inferred. It is hard to believe there wouldn’t be some in the NBA who would be against women players joining, and others that would be wary of drawing negative attention by crossing that line. Any team that drafted a woman would also be under extra pressure to either succeed or fail, because the media always needs a story.
It took a long time before the first black driver, Lewis Hamilton, entered Formula 1, in 2007. Partly this was a case of fewer black kids trying their hand at racing cars, but the extra pressure on the first of his kind can’t be neglected. The media seized on the story, and Hamilton was perhaps under greater scrutiny in his first few races than any other driver, ever. Should he have failed, or even just not been especially good, it would have hurt the image of equality in F1. As it turned out, while he might sometimes be difficult to love, he proved himself to be exceptionally talented.
Joining the NBA and simply being average should be considered a success for anyone; only a very few can even cut it at that level, so not becoming a team’s star player is no failure. However, simply because of the story she’d create, Griner might not be given that benefit. Anything but success might be considered failure.
But after all this, the best thing about the top athletes is that they never really know when to give up. They want to play at the top level and beat the best because they have maximum faith in their abilities. If Griner could make it in the NBA, she would seal her place in history. So, in face of all the risk, the dangers and the possible drawbacks, if the NBA came knocking, it might be an offer too good to resist.
Tom Taylor actually went through a comparison of the NBA and WNBA without any mention of the vast differences in money and popularity. Let him know how that will factor in at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.