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Griner, Kulick, and Double Standards

9 March 2010

Rick Reilly, the only sports writer I make a point of reading, has a column up this week about Kelly Kulick, the newly crowned champion of the Professional Bowling Association’s Pro Tour (or something.  The intricacies of professional bowling are something of a mystery to me).  Kulick won this prestigious title and did so in rather stunning fashion.  Reilly, however, has a beef with the fact that Kulick’s achievement has gone relatively unheralded by media outlets.  After all, it is–as Reilly’s headline proclaims–“The Greatest Moment in Women’s Sports”.  Because, you see, Kulick won this title as the only woman in a field of over 60 men.

Bowling, the way I do it, is something to do between plates of nachos. Bowling, the way Kulick does it, is about endurance, brains, strength and will. I’d like to see Whitley throw a 15-pound ball at 17 mph, 18 times a game, for 90 games, over six days, averaging 226. You know who else can’t do that? Every guy in the Tournament of Champions field. Which is why the PBA gave Kulick a $40,000 check and a two-year exemption.

What Kulick just did is one of the single greatest female sporting achievements in history.

Kulick, however, is not the only female athlete who has garnered some interesting attention this week.  Baylor basketball player Brittany Griner was suspended two games for punching and breaking the nose of an opponent following a hard foul, thus causing most sports writers to remember that women’s basketball exists and weigh in on the state of the game, and appropriate punishments for Griner.  Michelle Voepel nails it:

Those who either criticize or ignore women’s sports always say, “Look, they just don’t compare to men’s sports.” The litany of the ways women’s athletics are typically called “inferior” are listed regularly: The top male athletes are stronger, faster, quicker and more powerful than the top female athletes. It’s basic biology…But if we’re going to regularly list women’s sports “inferiorities,” why not also at least occasionally include some of their “superiorities” — the fact that in college athletics the overwhelming majority of women do stay for four years and get degrees, their approachability with fans, the fact that so very few ever end up on police blotters…In such problem areas, women’s sports will be fortunate if they never compare to men’s sports.

I heard one commentator say something to the effect that seeing Griner punch someone made it look “more interesting, like men’s sports.” And I thought, “Since when are people tuning into men’s college basketball to watch guys punch each other?” But I’m guessing in his mind, seeing a punch absurdly suggested passion, as if fiery competitiveness is something new for women.

Either by example or analysis, espn.com has done a remarkable job this week of illuminating the single biggest flaw in our perception of women’s athletics.  Even some of the field’s most passionate advocates view women’s athletics through a lens of equality that, paradoxically, is limiting in its breadth.  Women’s sports, you see, can never be just sports.  To people like Voepel, these games take on the task of flattening obstacles for future generations.  The 1999 Women’s World Cup wasn’t just a soccer competition–it was a coming out party for what had previously been a sports sub-culture.  Listen to players who were a part of that tournament,  like Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers, or their younger counterparts such as Heather O’Reilly or Abby Wambach, and they know it.  It was never only about soccer.  Truth be told, that’s probably why I enjoy women’s sports so much more than their male counterparts: Because in a much more tangible sense, it actually matters.

The trouble is, to writers like Reilly,  ‘equality’ means ‘imitation’.  By that standard, women only succeed when they become like men.  People like Brittany Griner or Candace Parker command the front page for dunking the basketball or, in the former’s case, breaking someone’s nose.  They’re hailed in either case as helping the women’s game make a step forward by making it “more interesting”–that is to say, more in keeping with what we’ve defined as athletically masculine.  So it is that incidents like Griner’s punch and victories such as Kulick’s are only noteworthy relative to male successes or failures.  So it is that 90,000 people watching the 1999 WWC Final in the Rose Bowl is grounds to declare it a classic match–while those of us who cared about soccer before and after are still retching that a game like that ended in penalties.  And so it is that people like Voepel take flak from supporters for having a ‘double standard’ when she condemns Griner’s actions in a particularly loud way.

Double standards are one thing if imposed by oppressive systems on disempowered groups–and they almost always are.  They perpetuate inequality, and slide discriminatory tropes into mainstream discourse.  Commentators like Jalen Rose saying that “fighting has no place in basketball, and especially women’s basketball” espouse that kind of double standard.  But Reilly’s celebration of Kulick is problematic as well, because it judges women’s athletic performance by a ‘universal’ standard (men’s) and suggests that any women who aren’t playing by it haven’t achieved much of any note.  Sometimes equality means having the right to set your own standards, just as male sports organizations have always done.  It means women’s basketball coaches, fans, and commentators being empowered to disregard how this would be handled on a men’s team, and enforce the rules that women choose to impose on their community, be they higher or lower.

When Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the U.S. National Soccer Team, criticized her coach and teammates following their World Cup defeat in 2007, she was suspended from the team for the remainder of the tournament.  Her teammates were universally accused of acting in a “sorority-esque” fashion, with abundant suggestions that had this happened on a men’s team, virtually nothing would have happened. The message from critics was rather transparent: the National Team needed to “man up” and stop being so sensitive in order to be taken seriously.  The team’s critics were right on one count–such an incident would have been dealt with differently on a men’s team.  Watch any news conference for, say, the English Premier League and you’ll see players and managers throwing their teammates under the bus for fun.  Those sports have essentially stopped caring about the sort of behavior most of us learn is disgusting while playing in a rec league.  That’s sad, and disheartening for those of us who still think that sports can teach young people something.  But the fact that standards have sunk so low outside of women’s athletics is no reason for their coaches and governing bodies to do the same within their sphere of influence.  True gender equality in sports doesn’t mean the standards are the same, it means that each sport gets the same right to decide its own ideals, and assumes the same risk of losing its fans if it fails to uphold them.

So, what defines a great moment in women’s sports?  Reilly might actually be right–if you’re all about bowling, I can easily see how a tournament like hers would register.  But here’s a trick to make this subjective task easier: Think of your favorite sports moments.  Those games that you remember years afterwards–the score, the venue, what was at stake, where you watched it.  Now pick out the highest ranking game that involved women.  Of the ones I’ve been able to see and remember, it’s a tie between the 2008 Olympic Soccer Final, or the 2006 NCAA Basketball Final between Duke and Maryland.  None were lauded as a breakthrough moment for anyone.  They were, however, heart-stopping, brilliant games that showcased phenomenal skill and feats of physical and psychological endurance.  Maybe an Iker Casillas or a Dida could have stopped Carli Lloyd’s overtime goal, and maybe probably an Elton Brand  would have had the height and vertical leap to stop Kristi Toliver’s three-pointer with eight seconds left.  But they weren’t playing.  Barbara and Abby Waner, respectively, were.  They were playing women’s soccer, and women’s basketball, not a meta-competition of men’s sports vs women’s sports. All sports fans should be so lucky to see such matches in their lives.

Equality for women’s sports won’t be achieved when it is taken “seriously”–whatever that means–but when it is taken seriously on its own terms, for its own intrinsic character and competition.  Anything less isn’t women’s athletics, but letting girls play at a men’s game.

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