Brittney Griner has the ability to be the Wilt Chamberlain of women's basketball. And she has the possibility to be much, much more than that for women's sports in general.
Let's start with the former point. Griner just won the John R. Wooden Award for the second consecutive season as the nation's best female basketball player. She averaged 23.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game for Baylor this past season.
Like Chamberlain in the '60s, Griner physically stands above her competition. Chamberlain was the rare seven-footer then; at 6'8", Griner was the most physically imposing player in college basketball over the past four years.
And like Chamberlain, Griner can dominate a game in multiple ways. While she will need to adjust to the more physical WNBA, she is an absolute chore to defend on the block. Offensively, her impact is obvious.
She can also control a game on the boards or as a shot-blocker defensively, forcing teams to abandon penetration and instead focus on perimeter shooting.
Yet beyond her impact on the game, Griner also has the potential to change both the perception of the WNBA and female athletes in this country and perhaps around the world. From Jere Longman of The New York Times:
Even before she plays her first game, her influence has been significant. A decade ago, W.N.B.A. officials might have been reluctant to celebrate as a standard-bearer of the league someone who did not conform to conventional standards of femininity, said Mary Jo Kane, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
Although the W.N.B.A. and Griner’s agent declined to discuss specific marketing campaigns and endorsement possibilities, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, her agent, wrote in an e-mail: “It’s the age of innovation, of advocacy, and ‘authentic’ is what sells. And here comes Brittney, equal parts provocative, brave, playful and humble, a skater kid in a basketball player’s body who is true to herself and dressed in tomboy clothes. She’s radical in the most charming and relevant way because she embraces what makes her different.”
Will sponsors embrace what makes her unique? Will the public? Griner is not going to pretend to be anything she's not, and she shouldn't have to.
Female athletes face many obstacles, but they shouldn't have to be cast as traditional sex symbols. While sex symbols exist on the men's side as well—look no further than Tom Brady or David Beckham—the direct correlation between a male player's sex appeal and his endorsement possibilities is not as pronounced as it is for female athletes.
Women's sports continue to make strides in popularity in this country. The U.S. women's national soccer team, for instance, has not only helped to add visibility to female sports but has also contributed to the growing popularity of soccer in America.
Success breeds awareness, and Griner has the chance to be very successful and help change the face of women's sports. Let's save the "could she play in the NBA?" talk for now—to be fair, she more than likely couldn't—because honestly, who cares?
Most players in the MLS wouldn't make a European club roster, but that doesn't mean people should ignore the MLS. A tiny percentage of college basketball or football players will reach the pros, but we still tune into those games. Should people stop attending minor league baseball games because "the quality of play" is diminished when compared to the majors?
No, of course not. The point is, the WNBA doesn't need to be compared to the NBA. It's a different style of basketball that is played by women (and some would argue a more fundamentally sound version, though that has become a cliche at this point).
It isn't a lesser game. The NBA has superior athletes, sure, but with players like Griner and Skylar Diggins, we're seeing a new age of exciting, young athletes energize the WNBA.
And in Griner, we could be seeing an athlete who will change the league and become the poster child for a marketable, modern female athlete who continues to stretch the notion of what femininity means. It may be a lot to put on her shoulders, but she's strong enough to handle the weight.