Categorized | Women in Sports

A Double Standard?

The spotlight found Brittney Griner after she punched an opponent during a game. (Associated Press)

Can women athletes be as physical as the guys?

By JEFF DOOLEY

On March 3, 2010, during a game that her Texas Tech Red Raiders team would go on to lose 69-60, sophomore forward Jordan Barncastle got tangled up with Baylor center Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-8 freshman who became well-known during her high school career in part because of YouTube videos that featured her dunking. As the two jostled, Barncastle grabbed Griner by the right arm and threw her to the side. Barncastle began to walk away, only to have Griner retaliate with that same right arm just moments later, when Griner blindsided Barncastle with a roundhouse punch to the nose.

The incident left Barncastle with a broken nose, and Griner with a two-game suspension. The punch became a hot issue in the national media, as well as online, and several threads of discussion emerged: Was Griner let off easy because she is a woman? What punishment would a male player have received for doing the same thing? Was the media’s saturation coverage of this event another example of a double standard being applied to women’s athletics?

Several media members compared the Griner incident to the one involving University of Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount in the opening game of last college football season. Blount slugged an opposing Boise State player who had placed his hand on Blount’s shoulder pad in an apparent taunt following Oregon’s loss to the Broncos.

Part of the reason why the Griner incident was compared to the Blount punch had to do with the length of each athlete’s punishment. Griner was suspended for two games, meaning she would miss Baylor’s final regular season game and the first game of the Big 12 tournament. This was a light punishment compared to what Blount received, a full-season suspension that was eventually reduced, and ended at ten games. This led to questions of a double standard being applied to Griner, that she was getting off easy because she was female. Each incident was unique, however. Blount had reportedly had behavioral run-ins with head coach Chip Kelly even before the season started. He also hit a teammate who was trying to calm him down following the punch after the Boise State game, and Blount had to be restrained from going after fans in the crowd who had yelled at him. Furthermore, his punch came after the game, while Griner’s was an in-game infraction (although opinions differ on which is worse).

Two sportswriters for the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper, George Schroeder and Bob Clark, argue that the game’s visibility, an ESPN telecast between two highly-ranked opponents, as well as other components factored into the harsh punishment handed out to Blount. “I think some people were just upset about the game and put a lot of the blame on him,” Clark said. “He got blamed for the outcome and he was an easy fall guy because of his actions.” (Clark was interviewed by telephone, as were the other sources in this story). Clark and Schroeder agree that because of the loss, which was Kelly’s first game as a head coach, Kelly faced pressure to make a strong statement regarding Blount’s behavior.

Mechelle Voepel, who covers women’s basketball and other sports for ESPN.com, said that the unique circumstances involving an individual team and program can have a lot to do with punishment – and definitely had a role in the Griner case. “Mulkey has never had any disciplinary problems,” Voepel said, referring to the Baylor coach, Kim Mulkey. “Because of the way she’s run her program, I think the discipline was correct. If there had been a big pushback from Texas Tech about the punishment, I think I would have been more inclined to question it.”

Brice Cherry, who is the Lady Bears’ beat writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald, said he believes that Griner’s punch received a lot of media attention because of Griner’s status as one of the most recognizable players in her sport. “It got a lot of coverage nationally, but I’m not so sure if [Kentucky’s freshman star] John Wall had punched somebody it wouldn’t have drawn comparable coverage,” Cherry said. Does he think Wall would only have received a two-game suspension? “I would be hard-pressed to believe that if John Wall had punched somebody that [Kentucky coach] John Calipari would suspend him deep into the NCAA tournament,” Cherry said.

Bill Plaschke, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times and frequent commentator for ESPN’s “Around the Horn,” said that Griner was granted a lighter punishment because of her gender. “I thought it was a horrendous incident of a double standard,” Plaschke said. “Here you have a college athlete punching another college athlete in the face, and she missed two games. If this had happened to a male athlete he would not play for a year. This was far worse than what LeGarrette Blount did. Every time I saw her in the NCAA Tournament, I was sick to my stomach. And what this does is it diminishes women’s athletics in this country. It sends the message that ‘This isn’t competitive athletics, this is P.E.’”

So why is it that so many different opinions can be presented when comparing similar incidents, one in men’s athletics and one in women’s? What are the deeper issues at work? A number of sources interviewed said they believe the issue centers on the sports-viewing public being less accepting of women exhibiting aggressive behavior in sports than they are of men. Alexis McCombs, the host of the “Instant She-Play” talk show on AOL Sports, traces the debate as far back as to days when the man was viewed as the protector and warrior, while the woman was the care-giver and child-bearer. “To see deviation from [these roles] can be unsettling or discomforting to a lot of people,” McCombs said. She added that this is certainly the case when it comes to sports. “In our culture, there are a lot of male athletes who have capitalized on bad behavior, whereas Serena Williams got into a lot of trouble when she had her outburst [at last year’s U.S Open],” she said. “You don’t see her getting endorsements for that, the way some men do.”

The Griner punch came several months after New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert was involved in a series of violent incidents in a game against Brigham Young. Lambert jabbed some BYU players, elbowed them, and in the clip that went viral and was replayed for days on national TV, pulled an opponent down by her ponytail. “The coverage was really depicting a double standard in the way we view women’s on-field aggression versus men’s on-field aggression,” said Laura Pappano, writer-in-residence at Wellesley College and a frequent writer and blogger on women and sports. “It raises the question and discussion of physicality of female play, that it is somehow less intense, that girls are out there to have fun and guys are out there to win. It reveals a kind of bias about how we expect women to behave. It was just this absolute gasp when it got out of hand. Yes, she was wrong. But the response to it was so over-the-top.”

Dr. Shawn Ladda, a professor in the department of physical education and human performance at Manhattan College (she also coached women’s soccer at Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), said that the debate about women and physicality has to do with the feminization of the woman athlete, something that has been going on for years. She said that on the rare occasions that Sports Illustrated puts a female athlete on its cover, it is rare for her to be depicted in her athletic gear. “It’s always trying to feminize the female athlete,” Ladda said. “Culturally, we think of women as following the rules and being ‘good girls,’ so to speak. Having women in physical contact, it’s almost like a freak factor, and that’s why it gets played over and over and over again. It’s sensationalized to a certain degree.”

Margaret Carlisle Duncan said she feels as if there is another factor involved in the discussion. Duncan is a professor of human movement sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who frequently examines the role of women in sports. She said that aggressive play in women’s sports might be threatening to men, that women’s athletics are often dismissed as not being exciting, and therefore not worth watching the way men’s sports are. She said more aggressive play would make the women’s games more closely resemble men’s games. “There’s always a double standard applied to women and men, a sexual double standard, a double standard when it comes to the workplace,” Duncan said. “It’s hardly uncommon.”

Voepel shares a similar sentiment, referencing criticism Nancy Pelosi receives for taking hard lines in her job as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. “We’re still evolving as a species in dealing with the balance of power between male and female,” Voepel said. “I don’t necessarily think that’s sexism, it’s just sort of how the sexes have evolved.” This evolution is one that continues to take place on the playing fields, and is one that can be shaped by many different factors. The more comfortable the viewing public gets with aggressive women’s play, then one would imagine these incidents would no longer be met with the same level of surprise.

“Aggressive women athletes shouldn’t be seen as abnormal or unusual, they should be seen as role models,” said Jane Schonberger, publisher and editor-in-chief of several women’s sports blogs, including PrettyTough.com. “I think that girls can have multiple identities. They can be a woman and they can be an athlete. To single out any one aspect isn’t really fair.”

One Response to “A Double Standard?”

  1. LR says:

    And if women were bad, aggressive girls, they’d receive a lot of verbal, physical, and even sexual abuse. Talk about hostile sexism.

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