Earlier this week Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw, following her team’s loss to Baylor in the national championship game, said of 6-8 Baylor center Brittney Griner, “I think she’s like a guy playing with women.”
McGraw later said that she meant the remark as a compliment, and I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. Had McGraw said the same thing last year about Maya Moore, a player who fits a narrower understanding of femininity, there would have been no controversy at all.
But given the taunts that Griner has had to endure on account of her size and other physical attributes, the comment was probably in bad taste.
But what does it mean to say that Griner, or any other woman, plays like a man? I’m a man, and I wish I could play like Brittney Griner. (Actually, I wish I could play like Tamika Catchings; I’m a liability on defense.)
There are obvious physiological differences between men and women that give men an advantage in sports like basketball. Specifically, men are stronger, run faster, and jump higher. (I’d recommend this Slate article on the gender gap in vertical leaping ability.) If you watch Griner play, it’s clear that she isn’t as strong, isn’t as fast, and doesn’t jump nearly as high as post players in the men’s game.
Griner is a force in the women’s game not only because of her height but because of her footwork, her hands, and her defensive instincts. While very few women’s players have the benefit of being 6-8, women are certainly capable of developing the skills that Griner has in her arsenal. Saying that Griner, or any other player, is “like a guy playing with women” sells that player short.
Griner and Moore don’t play like men. They play like basketball players who have invested a whole lot of time, effort, and energy into improving and perfecting their game.
I maintain that Angel McCoughtry of the Atlanta Dream is the most impressive player to watch in the women’s game today. (“Most impressive” doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” Diana Taurasi is the best player, and may end up being the best ever.)
McCoughtry’s ability to create her own shot is reminiscent of that of the best players in the NBA. Does that mean she plays like a man? No. Does that mean she could play in the NBA? Certainly not. It means that she has developed a skill set that has made her into one of the best women’s basketball players in the world.
As a general rule, I would say that it’s never appropriate to say that a woman plays like a man, but it may be appropriate to compare the skills of a specific woman to those of a specific man. For instance, I would say that McCoughtry reminds me of Kobe Bryant in the way that she makes plays and takes over games.
And I’ve heard several people compare 6-5 Elena Delle Donne, All American and star for the University of Delaware, to Dirk Nowitzki because she has a perimeter game and ball handling skills that are unusual for a player of her size.
I would like to think that Muffet McGraw was praising Griner by saying that she was “like a guy,” but saying that a woman plays like a man is meaningless and lazy. If you want to praise a woman who is a unique talent, you are better off comparing her specific skills to those of other great players, whether women or men.