Last week Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Mark Cuban invited Brittney Griner, the 6’9’’ women’s college basketball sports revolutionary, to try out for a spot on his NBA team this summer. Cuban’s comments electrified the sports world. Some fans tweeted their excitement about Griner’s ability to shatter the gender barrier and be the first woman to ever play in the NBA. But most insisted adamantly that no woman, not even the greatest of all time, could ever hang with the grown men of the NBA. The ESPN show Sportscenter even devoted an entire several minute long segment to reciting over and over again the many reasons why Griner just could not cut it. Staged as a debate, the segment played as a men’s chorus. The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.
Interrupting this spectacle of gender difference, sports journalist Jemele Hill refutes this debate’s entire premise. She explains: “what I don’t like about Cuban’s comments [to Griner] is that they perpetuate the dangerous idea that great female athletes need to validate themselves by competing against men.”
Hill’s argument is unexpected. In the sports world, one pays a woman a supreme compliment by telling her “she plays like a man.” Indeed, men’s athletic superiority over women operates as one of our society’s most self-evident truths. The objective and inherent superiority of men’s sports to women’s seems to us equally self-evident. Men’s sports earn more money, draw more fans, and elicit more media attention than their female counterparts as a result not of sexism but the facts of life.
And in some ways, this is true. On average, the most elite male athletes do in fact jump higher, run faster, and exert more physical power than their elite female equivalents.
But even if we grant that male basketball players display more skill than female ones, does this alone explain why we consider men’s basketball so much more important? For example, we do not as a rule love musicians in proportion to their skill. Madonna sells out stadiums while symphony orchestras play in cozy theaters. Perhaps we value skill more highly in competitive endeavors like sports. But even then, we do not always love in proportion to skill. In certain parts of the country, for example, the local high school football team is loved as deeply and rooted for as fiercely as its big time college or pro equivalent—even though they are slower, weaker, and much less skilled.