Free to be beautiful

Brittney Griner is gay.

The sport's world response to that news, delivered by Griner herself in an offhand remark during an interview, was a collective, 'So what?' And that is precisely the correct response - but I doubt it's for the right reasons.

Griner, the 6-foot-8 center who revolutionized women's basketball during a record-shattering career at Baylor, acknowledged her sexuality during a group interview with SI.com, saying: "I've always been open about who I am."

Good for you, Brittney. That is a positive message of self-acceptance that we - in particular the young girls you are in a unique and powerful position to have an audience with - need to hear and embrace.

I just can't help but wonder what would have happened if one of the other women being interviewed had delivered it.

Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne - the Nos. 2 and 3 picks to Griner's No. 1 in Monday's WNBA draft - are, first and foremost, phenomenal basketball players. Diggins, a point guard with an uncanny sense of when to take over a game and when to involve her teammates, led Notre Dame to three straight Final Four appearances. Delle Donne, 6-foot-5 with sublime grace, can shoot from anywhere and led Delaware into the national spotlight while handling personal scrutiny as smoothly as she handles the basketball. 

They are also both, according to our societal norms, more conventionally beautiful than Griner, who has a more masculine appearance. I am not saying that Griner is not also beautiful. I certainly find her obvious strength and skill to be so. But Diggins doesn't famously have 300,000 Twitter followers strictly because of her basketball ability.

The tone of the social media shrug regarding Griner's official coming out went something like, "Well, who didn't know that?" Why? Because some would say she looks/sounds like a man? Does she look like a lesbian is supposed to look? Does her being gay fall neatly into our collective comfort zone?

What if either Diggins or Delle Donne had announced she was gay? What if a male athlete - a still-active, visible, commercial-filming male athlete - had done so? 

I'm pretty sure the response would have been a bit more vocal. And that's what bothers me.

It bothers me that gay athletes seem to be more accepted - and perhaps expected - in women's sports, especially those who fit a stereotypical look. It bothers me that Sherri Murrell, the women's basketball coach at Portland State and the only openly gay basketball coach in Division I, told the New York Times“I still get people that say to me, ‘You’re beautiful — I can’t believe you’re gay.’ ”

It bothers me when I sit in the stands and see an entire girls high school volleyball team with ponytails the exact same length, tied with the same color ribbon. It bothers me when I see softball players in the College World Series with braids down their backs and mascara as thick as eye black. Maybe these are a team-building exercises which foster closeness and camaraderie. And women athletes are certainly free to accessorize and present themselves how they like.

I just wonder if, on some subconscious level, the ribbons and the makeup are supposed to serve as a billboard: "Look how pretty we are! Look how feminine! Look how not gay!"

As if those things can't co-exist. 

I imagine that elite female athletes have to fight an ingrained perception of homosexuality that is a sickness of a chauvinistic culture. I know that discussion of a female athlete's looks can sometimes overtake talk of her statistics. I've heard such conversations. I've participated in them. Maybe such thoughts are evidence of my own hang-ups.

And yes, male athletes' looks also come into play. Tom Brady wouldn't have his endorsement deals if there was a hot mess behind his face mask. But women, and the girls they start out being, are particularly vulnerable to what magazine covers and their immediate surroundings tell them is beautiful.

I want them to hear that gay can be beautiful. Is beautiful. I want them to hear that everything that makes them unique is beautiful. Not a pink-ribboned ponytail.

I hope we can get to a point, and a day, when sexuality is as irrelevant as hair color is, as skin color should be. I hope we get to a point where a female athlete is seen as an athlete first.

But I don't think we're there yet, which is why I fear that reaction to Griner's announcement would have been different if she looked different. I see too many hateful, vitriolic comments on friends' Facebook posts that are meant to generate discussion but instead provide a forum for ignorance. I hear too much subtext in comments urging my stepdaughter to grow her hair.  I am guilty myself of taking too much time to worry over my appearance before I go to cover a sporting event - and of sometimes dressing differently, or applying more or less makeup, based upon my assignment. 

I wish Griner the best of luck - not that a player who dunked 18 times and scored 3,283 points (second-most all-time) in her college career will need luck. I'm glad she's comfortable in her own skin, and I'm inspired by her courage to be who she is.

I just wish the rest of us could catch up to her.