- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Back in early January when Baylor's Brittney Griner had her two-dunk game against an absurdly overmatched Texas State team, I was bothered watching some of her actions in the highlight video.
At one point, she swatted away a shot, and then sort of hovered over and stared down at her opponent. It was brief but noticeable. And after one of her dunks, she ran back up the court yelling, shaking her head and tapping her chest.
Baylor won that game 99-18; Texas State was humiliated. It's one thing to beat a team badly because it is not anywhere near your league. There's not much you can do as a competitor to avoid that. But it's another thing to essentially lord it over that team. It came across as bullying.
I was set to write about how Griner was a terrific talent but needed to work on her attitude, because woofing it up when you're embarrassing a team that's so obviously physically inferior to you just makes you look like a jerk.
But then I eased up. I decided it was too harsh to say any of that. After all, Griner was a freshman, and she probably didn't understand that players always need to be aware of how their actions are perceived. She probably didn't know Baylor was supposed to clobber Texas State and "celebrating" while beating the stuffing out of the Bobcats was pretty silly.
That all came back to me when watching the video of Griner punching Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle on Wednesday in Lubbock, Texas. Barncastle and Griner got tied up in a rebound. Barncastle swung around to get loose and appeared to "throw" Griner; then, after the players had broken contact, Griner punched Barncastle in the face.
People can, and will, point out the physical contact that came before the punch. But players getting locked up, frustrated and overly forceful with each other happens quite often in basketball. Usually a foul is called on one side or both, and the official tells the participants to cool it.
Contact sports such as basketball are very physical; we all know that sometimes people are going to lose their cool a bit.
However, taking it to the next level of "losing your cool" -- throwing a punch -- is a place you just don't go. And if you do, you know you're in trouble.
This goes for men, women, pro, college, high school, AAU it doesn't matter. Everybody knows that once you've obviously thrown a punch, you've crossed a line that means mandatory punishment.
After her team's victory Wednesday, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said, "There's no place for that in sports. I will deal with Brittney Griner, and it won't be discussed in the media."
I'd guess Mulkey was just so furious and disappointed that she didn't realize or care how that sounded. But when your player punches someone on the court in full view of everyone, as a coach you really can't expect that you get to dole out the discipline in some private way.
Unfortunately for Griner, even when the punishment is over, the damage done to her reputation won't be. She could ask Oklahoma State guard Andrea Riley how fast a punch becomes a permanent part of your "résumé."
In 2008, Riley had two incidents in quick succession. She hit Texas' Earnesia Williams in the head during a scramble in the Big 12 tournament. It was somewhat hidden -- not everybody saw it while watching it live, although it was obvious on replay. Still, Oklahoma State, chose not to sit Riley a game, which would have been the Big 12 title game.
Then, a few weeks later in the Cowgirls' Sweet 16 loss to LSU, Riley and fellow guard Erica White jawed at each other all game until Riley boiled over again and took a swipe at White. This time, the NCAA stepped in after the fact and suspended Riley for one game in the next NCAA tournament she played in. But since Oklahoma State didn't make the field last year, that suspension is still hanging over Riley's head.
I know some observers will point out that the then-senior White wasn't an innocent bystander in their scuffle but didn't get any disciplinary action. However, the bottom line is that national television audiences twice saw Riley react in anger and hit someone during games. Add to that a verbal altercation on the bench last season with one of the Oklahoma State trainers -- which also was caught on video -- and Riley's reputation as hothead was cemented for a lot of people.
Now, if you talk to Riley or Griner, they both come across as nice people. I know it has pained Riley and everyone who cares about her at Oklahoma State that she has this reputation. But that's the nature of your behavior having consequences: It can take awhile to build up a great reputation, but it takes only an instant to get a bad one.
Another thing: Griner, a 6-foot-8 player in women's basketball, has no doubt taken her share of abuse -- both physically in the paint, like all post players, and from the verbal taunts of some fans.
I remember the mother of one very tall player telling me several years ago she had a hard time going to games because she struggled to deal with the terrible things some people would shout at her daughter.
And the 6-8 Anne Donovan -- former Olympic standout and longtime coach, now with the Liberty -- talks of how even to this day, people will go up to her and say stupid and hurtful things. Worse, some of them do it with a smile because they actually don't seem to realize how it sounds. Such as the woman who went up to Donovan a few years back and said, "Wow, you're the biggest thing I've ever seen!" To which Donovan said, "I'm not a 'thing,' and you're old enough to know better than to say something like that."
Donovan said the woman was surprised; it was as if all she saw with the "tall person" was the tall part, not the person part.
Big guys, of course, virtually always get abuse from fans. The bigger you are, the easier target you are. The one difference with guys is that most of the taunts directed at them are not going to be about attacking their gender, gender identity or sexual orientation as a reaction to them being big and/or strong.
Women, though, almost always have to deal with that. And it can take a toll on anyone's psyche, no matter how old she is or how she feels about herself.
None of this is meant to in any way excuse Griner's punch or even say that she has struggled with remarks other people have made. I don't know for a fact how she has felt about that. But look no further than some of the hideously cruel reader comments bound to come up on this column or those already up on the story and video out of Wednesday's incident in Lubbock, and it will be obvious some of the things Griner has heard and read about herself for a while. Ask yourself how you might feel if you were in her shoes.
Again, that doesn't explain or rationalize the punch. Oklahoma's Courtney Paris got tons of physical pounding and plenty of verbal abuse in her four college seasons, and she didn't snap. Are some things harder for Griner and fellow big women than they are for a lot of other players? Yes. But you still can't lose control like she did.
Furthermore, players of all sizes in women's basketball have resorted to on-court violent actions in the 25 years I've been covering the sport. The worst fight I've seen is still the on-court battle between Missouri and Oklahoma way back in 1987, which took awhile to break up and ended with some broken bones.
There is no violent "trending" going on in the women's game -- there's just much more visibility these days when it does happen. And that's what Griner has to deal with now. With one loss-of-control act, Griner has changed the perception a lot of people will have of her not just right now, but permanently. Is that completely fair? Probably not, but guess what? That's what can happen when you do these things.
And, depending on how long Griner might be out with a suspension, she has damaged her team at the most critical time of the season. Baylor has been playing very well of late; the win over Texas Tech was the team's fifth in a row. With the regular-season finale coming up at home against Texas on Sunday, Baylor is in a logjam in fourth place in the Big 12 at 9-6. A loss to the Longhorns could mean the difference in getting a first-round tournament bye or not.
Griner letting her frustration boil over into a punch physically hurt Barncastle intentionally, and that's unacceptable. I don't care what happened before the punch; it was inexcusable to do what Griner did.
But Griner also has hurt her team and herself. Especially considering she has been the most high-profile freshman in the country this season, Griner's actions Wednesday were very careless as to her own future and that of her teammates.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
16dBonnie D. Ford