Greg Cote: Mark Cuban’s comments on Brittney Griner spark gender debate

04/05/2013 12:02 PM

04/05/2013 1:05 PM

Brittney Griner began this week seen as the best women’s basketball player on the planet, by acclimation. Maybe even the best ever. That was pretty good. That was plenty.

That wasn’t enough, apparently.

So Griner ended this week stuck in the center of a pointlessly changed narrative, discussed now not as someone dominant in the women’s game, but as someone who would fail miserably playing against men.

She was the greatest one day, and not good enough the next.

Thanks, Mark Cuban!

The loquacious Dallas Mavericks owner said this week he might select Griner, of Baylor, in the second round of June’s NBA Draft. It registered as a look-at-me publicity stab dressed in the refined clothing of championing equal opportunity.

It served its purpose. It shone a light on Cuban as pro-woman, as an innovator.

It did not, however, serve Griner or women’s basketball particularly well. Quite the opposite, it threw open the doors on a generally taboo subject in sports, which is that women cannot compete with men and dare not try when the sport involves physicality.

This is not sexist. It is reality.

I happen to prefer women’s tennis at the pro level to the men’s game. The points are longer, tactics and guile in place of raw power. I enjoy marveling at Serena Williams’ dominance against her own gender. I have no reason to consider — unless Cuban invites me to — that Serena once lost an exhibition match, 6-1, to the world’s 203rd-ranked man, who said he took it easy.

The biggest stars in women’s tennis could not beat male pros you have never heard of. It has always been so, which is why the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973 was such a farce. A battle of the ages is what that was. King won because she was a star in her 20s, in her prime, and Riggs was a 55-year-old has-been clown hitting lob shots.

You want an even comparison? How about the 400-meter freestyle in swimming at the 2012 London Olympics, where the gold-medal-winning, Olympic-record-setting women’s time would not have even come close to qualifying for the men’s final eight.

There is no need to even think in those terms (or to consider that the women’s time that won 100-meter gold in track last summer would have been a distant eighth among the men) unless something like the Griner/NBA discussion arises.

There are sports where women and men do compete together. Danica Patrick is making NASCAR take notice. Horses don’t care if their jockey is male or female.

But pro basketball is not one of those sports, which is why Cuban’s remarks this week seem like such grandstanding.

The confident Griner, in response to possibly being drafted by the NBA, Tweeted, ‘I would hold my own! Let’s do it.’

She wouldn’t, though.

Her 6-8, 208-pound frame and athleticism that dominate as a center against other women would find her undersized and without the strength to compete against men.

Consider that, of the 14 frontcourt players on the 2013 McDonald’s boys All-America team, 10 are as tall or taller than Griner and 11 are heavier. And those are high school boys.

The women’s game is lower and slower than the men’s; that is why a dunk in women’s basketball is treated like a newsworthy novelty.

The idea of Griner making it in the NBA is silly even to those who champion women’s basketball. I spoke Thursday with University of Miami women’s coach (and former Duke All-American) Katie Meier. I told her I thought even the best woman’s college player was not good enough to compete with the men, expecting I might get an argument.

“Your premise is correct,” Meier told me, adding that Griner’s physical attributes that are dominant in women’s basketball would “probably be below par” versus even high school males — let alone NBA stars.

Visualize whomever you consider to be a great women’s player. Say, Cheryl Miller. Now envision Cheryl Miller trying to defend LeBron James.

UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma said on a conference call he thought the Mavericks or any other NBA team drafting Griner would be a “sham,” and that suggesting a woman could compete in the NBA right now was “absolutely ludicrous.”

Nancy Lieberman, of course, thinks the idea is great, although it may bear mentioning that she works for Cuban, as an assistant general manager of the Mavs’ D-League affiliate.

The Lakers in 1981 invited Lieberman to compete on their summer-league team coached then by Pat Riley. That was as far as she got. And she was a guard, where quickness and passing ability circumvented the strength differential somewhat. It would be tougher for Griner. Even Lieberman had to admit, “You cannot compensate for the physical difference.”

The Heat’s Shane Battier weighed in after Thursday’s practice, saying, “There’s no doubt that in our lifetime, there will be a woman NBA player. Just the law of averages.”

Meantime, let the apples and oranges coexist peacefully in the fruit bowl, separate but equal, both wonderful. Let the cat stand tall and proud as the dog even though the canine might be physically stronger.

Griner, after a record-setting career for Baylor, will be the No. 1 overall draft pick in the WNBA on April 15, and probably go on to a terrific career in that league.

Let that be good enough, with no asterisk or equivocation.

See, the question isn’t whether she could hold her own against men.

The question is whether other women can hold their own against her.

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