The XX Factor

The Difference Between Saying Brittney Griner “Plays Like a Man” and Calling Her a Man

Brittney Griner drives against Notre Dame in the national championship game

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

Last night, after Baylor thumped Notre Dame 80-61 to win the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, led by Brittney Griner’s 26 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocks, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw discussed the 6-foot-8 Briner’s presence in the post by saying: “I think she’s one of a kind. I think she’s like a guy playing with women.” Uh-oh.

A reporter, perhaps bored or looking to start a fight, later asked Griner if she took it as a compliment. “Definitely, I take it as a compliment,” she said. End of story? No. McGraw was later compelled to issue a statement about the “issue.” She stood strong, saying that she was disappointed that her remarks were taken out of context and that it was insulting to Griner and Baylor to take them any other way. She didn’t apologize to Griner, and I’m glad.

That’s because anyone who watched the game while keeping an eye on Twitter would have seen far worse things said about Griner. Yes, Griner is tall and muscular, and she does have a deep voice. That doesn’t mean that she deserves Twitter posts in which some half-witted self-described comic declares that Time has named her “Man of the Year.” (That’s the cleanest thing I can quote, and I would rather not give any extra attention to tweets that make predictable and unfunny jokes about her anatomy.)

The problem with trying to generate a kerfuffle over McGraw’s “guy playing with women” comment is that it unfairly conflates McGraw with cruel, thoughtless cretins. Besides, McGraw was correct in her assessment. For all the progress women have made athletically, men are still almost always better at sports. There’s a reason that we have an NBA and a WNBA, a PGA and an LPGA, and that women don’t run or swim or throw or ski or skate against men in the Olympics. The gender differences are stark in basketball, where height and jumping are important (as this Slate “Explainer” points out), and women players are considerably shorter and have less impressive vertical leaps. Women’s basketball is simply not as competitive as it’s men’s counterpart. There are a handful of crazy-good women’s players, and they end up playing at the dynasty programs like Connecticut, Tennesee, Stanford, or Notre Dame. That’s why there have been 11 undefeated teams to enter the women’s tournament since 1986 and why only one men’s team has entered the tournament undefeated since 1979.* It’s why Griner’s Baylor beat a team 99-18 a few years ago. There is a wider talent disparity within the women’s game. The stars are really going to stand out—and yes, they’re going to get compared to men.

Meanwhile, the jerks on Twitter, many of whom probably wouldn’t have the guts to take the floor against Griner, are making sexist and demeaning comments strictly about her appearance. To generate faux outrage about well-meaning comments from a women’s basketball coach takes away from the real outrage we should be feeling about an accomplished athlete being belittled for her appearance.

*Correction, April 5, 2012: This post originally stated that no men’s basketball teams have entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated since 1979. In fact, UNLV entered the tournament undefeated in 1991.