Standing six-foot-eight, Baylor University's Brittney Griner gets a lot of attention from opposing players on the basketball court. After Wednesday night's game, she is sure to attract a lot more.
The 19-year-old freshman, who is one of only two players to dunk twice in a women's college basketball game, punched Texas Tech University's Jordan Barncastle in the face after the two jostled for position beneath the basket. Following the game Kim Mulkey, Baylor's head coach, announced that she would bench Griner for another game in addition to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's standard one-game suspension for a physical altercation.
A similarly unsavory incident occurred at another women's basketball game, albeit on a much smaller stage, a few weeks earlier. Following a loss to Blinn College, the head coach and a player from Trinity Valley Community College were arrested for assaulting police officers who tried to prevent them from accosting the game's referees, who were on their way to the locker room. Coach Bill Damuth and Lesha Dunn, a freshman, are awaiting punishment from the college and the National Junior College Athletic Association.
These two instances of unsportsmanlike behavior have followers of women's sports and gender studies scholars talking. These kinds of outbursts are not new to women's sports, but they often generate a markedly different media response than similar actions by male athletes.
Last year, for instance, a University of New Mexico soccer player was featured on Web sites across the Internet and sports clips television shows for violently dragging an opposing player to the ground by her ponytail. Though Elizabeth Lambert was not ejected from the conference semifinal game in question, she was later banned indefinitely from competition, following public outcry.
NCAA officials were quick to note that these incidents are not indicative of a trend of increasing violence.
“There is no place in any NCAA sports contests for violent conduct,” wrote Joni Comstock, NCAA vice president for championships, in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. “Women's sports have continued to make strides in skill, ability and overall quality of play, and for that we are all pleased. Consider the thousands of intercollegiate athletics events that occur each year, these are isolated cases. However, there is no tolerance for inappropriate and overly aggressive behavior that endangers the well-being of another student-athlete. Good sportsmanship continues to be a pillar of intercollegiate athletics in the NCAA.”
Officials from the two-year college world of athletics also denied that there has been any such uptick.
“We track non-violent and violent ejections in the NJCAA and our data does not point to an increase of these types of incidents in women's athletics,” wrote Mark Krug, NJCAA spokesman, in an e-mail. “However, any incident of this type is very unfortunate and takes the attention away from those student-athletes that play the game correctly and strive to represent themselves and their schools with sportsmanship and class.”
Krug noted that during the 2008-9 academic year, there were 101 total ejections in all of NJCAA women's sports and that only 37 of those were considered “violent ejections.” That is relatively low, compared to the figures for men: that during the same academic year, Krug said, there were 648 total ejections in men's games, 177 of which were “violent.” Numbers for the current seasons are not available yet.
Advocates for women's athletics had varying responses to the recent high-profile incidents. Most noted that too much pressure is being put on all athletes, whether male or female.
“It seems that we are moving on a line that equates female athletes with male athletes in the both behavior and performance ... that if they can't dunk or pitch a perfect game or run the perfect race, problems arise,” wrote Pam Noakes, executive director of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport. “NAGWS has long been an advocate of Title IX and gender equity, but that does not mean that female athletes should act like male athletes. It seems that these behavior blips on the sports screen for women (Griner's punch and the soccer ponytail incident) are warning signs for us that we should all be more vocal in setting standards of behavior that are appropriate and enforcing good decision-making in our athletes.”
Noakes's colleague, Shawn Ladda, president of NAGWS and a professor of physical education and human performance at Manhattan College, had a similar response. However, as a former women's soccer coach at Columbia University, she said last fall's ponytail incident struck her close to home.
“I saw that clip, and I talked about it a lot with the students in my class and on our soccer team,” Ladda said. “It's important that, as a coach, we are role models to teach sportsmanship. When I was a coach, I didn't care who you were, even if you were my best player, you would have been benched for behavior like that.”
Still, she noted that social expectations make incidents like this more of a media sensation when they occur between female athletes.
“There is a double standard out there,” Ladda said. “When we see incidents occur in men's athletics, we don't think it's a big deal. It's almost expected. But, when it happens in women's athletics, people are somehow alarmed. Honestly, I find it appalling in any athletics. Still, there is less sportsmanlike behavior in women's sports than there used to be, and I think that's from the increasing demands to win.”
Carrie L. Lukas, vice president for policy and economics for the Independent Women's Forum and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism, had another take.
“This is part of a broader issue; we shouldn't be encouraging women to act like boys,” Lukas said. “If anything, we should encourage men to act in toward the more feminine aesthetic. When we see sportsmanship eroding in girls, it should be a sign. We should say that there is still something of value in it. We should remind women, it's not weak to play fair or even be courteous or sportsmanlike. Young women are supposed to know better.”
She also argued that the media likes to sensationalize this type of bad behavior from female athletes.
“This is part of a larger girls-gone-wild appreciation society has for girls doing bad things,” Lukas said. “Girls are either a goody-two-shoes or a total bad-ass. We need to give them space to just be girls.”
Other critics, particularly those who advocate on behalf of Title IX issues, took a less gendered approach to their analysis.
“Women's sports and women athletes by and large are the gold standard of exemplary conduct and extraordinary role models,” wrote Karen Durkin, spokeswoman for the Women's Sports Foundation, a Title IX advocacy group, in an e-mail. “This [recent incident] is both unfortunate and an aberration.... This speaks first and foremost to sportsmanship and conduct, not to the gender of the athletes involved. Tough physical play and emotions running high in the heat of competition are inherent in sports but in no way excuse athletes from behaving appropriately. While isolated incidents like these may never cease completely, they do reinforce the need to continue to instill in all athletes that exemplary behavior is a key component of what it takes to be a successful athlete.”