By Joan M. Martin
I admit it. Although I have been a pretty good amateur athlete all my life, I am a lifetime wanna-be collegiate and WNBA basketball player! I am also a die-hard UConn Women Huskies fan. Yet, hats off to the Baylor University Bears who won the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship last night, under the leadership of Baylor post player, Brittney Griner. You can read all the game stats and those for Griner in your favorite sports media as I did on espnW.com.
For the entire NCAA basketball season, we have been learning tons about Griner. Yet I realize I really don’t know much about the woman. For example, I don't know
- which cereal she eats for breakfast (maybe it ought to be Wheaties, The Breakfast of Champions);
- which sports movie she watches over and over again, (since Hollywood hasn’t made a women’s basketball version of A League of Their Own);
- what her all time favorite song is, (it ought to be, “We Are The Champions”);
- which athlete is her role model, (but she may have just looked in the mirror last night and marveled at the woman returning her gaze, after all, this year she won the Wade Trophy, the Naismith Player of the Year and the WBCA’s defensive player of the year awards);
- what her religion is, (but I am absolutely positive that God was watching the game and yelling Her head off saying, “Go on, with your bad self,” (all due props to Skyler Diggings)); and
- which WNBA team she dreams of playing for one day in the not-so-distant future!
The WNBA? Women's basketball? Oh, it seems I haven’t been reading all the nasty taunts about Brittney Griner’s height and shoe size, all the openly misogynist hatred, all the lesbian baiting, and the vitriolic jealousy of her ability to dunk a b-ball as well as the best.
What I do know is that once again, a woman of outstanding athletic talent has come under attack for excellence. Needless to say, Brittney Griner is an outstanding African American woman athlete of excellence. All too often, the Brittney Griners, Venus and Serena Williams, or Sheryl Swoopes of the sports world cannot be gifted and at the top echelon of their sport without being besmirched in regard to their race and gender, and often their sexuality in the case of homophobia.
We need only recall the comment by sportscaster Sid Rosenberg, reported in the November 20, 2001, Newsday article, “Rosenberg [allegedly] said on the air: One time, a friend, he says to me, ‘Listen, one of these days you’re gonna see Venus and Serena Williams in Playboy.’ I said, ‘You’ve got a better shot at National Geographic.’ Rosenberg also referred to Venus Williams as an ‘animal.’” If you cannot remember that long ago, just think back to April 2007 when, after the Rutgers Lady Knights met the Lady Tennessee Vols in the NCAA Women’s Championship Game, MSNBC talk-radio host Imus in the Morning called the Rutgers team, “nappy-headed hos.”
Those who maintain that racism is passé do not understand, in the face of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the all-too familiar and common belief that African American life is “cheap” in America. And many believe that discrimination against women is no longer an issue in nearly all walks of life in the United States until one looks closely at the statistical reports of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. Recently, one of the students I advise wrote that marriage equality is rapidly increasing in the United States. With marriage equality striking at the heart of patriarchal heteronormativity, I am waiting for the next round of redoubled backlash that inevitably comes whenever civil rights in the United States are expanded to include those considered “second-class” citizens.
We could become cynical in light of such analysis. That, however, is not my point.
Just as we resist complacency and instead demand justice for Trayvon Martin, we must not let the verbal abuse and violence against the Brittney Griners of any day continue, especially at the end of the collegiate basketball season when “out-of-sight” means “out-of-mind,” that is social amnesia in America. What happened to Brittney Griner and to Trayvon Martin are two ends of a dehumanizing, pernicious continuum that has been repeated much too often and too long in our nation. Just as we must fight for growth in meaningful employment opportunity for all in this presidential election season and not just ‘jobs,’ we must speak the truth and vote our consciences about the continuing redistribution of US wealth and resources from the working and middle classes and from women and children to the obscenely rich in our country. The wealth continuum is grossly imbalanced and out of whack, jeopardizing our economic future as well as our moral compass. Just as we must continue to press for the full human rights for persons of every sexual and gender orientation, we, too, along with Coach Kim Mulkey, can proudly carry Brittney Griner on our shoulders as the best of the best in women’s collegiate basketball this year. In this respect, it does not take masterminds to see the continuum of bullying to hate speech and crimes.
What does all this mean? I didn’t even root for Baylor last night, but I will root for the Brittney Griners of the world every day of every season, and then some!
 Source for the information on African American women athletes as quoted: http://mediamatters.org/research/200704040011; accessed 4/04/2012.
The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Martin is William W. Rankin Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School.