- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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When Tina Charles broke the UConn scoring and rebounding records on Monday at Notre Dame, a few reporters brought up with Huskies coach Geno Auriemma the memory of the Nykesha Sales "controversy." And he remembered how ticked off he was about all that.
It was in 1998, when Sales suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon while just two points shy of becoming the school's career scoring leader. So Auriemma and his friend, Villanova coach Harry Perretta, agreed to honor Sales in a game by allowing her to limp out to score the game's first basket, followed by UConn's letting the Wildcats score.
Sales got the record, and both teams started the game at 2-2 instead of 0-0. It was a gesture of affection and appreciation from a coach to a player, and it put some kind of slightly happy spin on a very sad situation.
Sales was not going be able to finish her senior season. She wouldn't get to walk off the floor to a standing ovation after a big performance in her senior night game. She would be facing pain and rehab instead of actively participating in the thrill of March Madness. So Auriemma arranged a one-basket "gift" to her as repayment for the 2,176 points she'd already given UConn. Sweet story, right?
Not if you were to judge by the reactions of many sports columnists across the country. They railed against it, saying that it was another example of why they couldn't take women's basketball seriously, that it "cheapened" the record, that it proved women really "weren't competitive."
At the time, I wrote that most of these columnists would have struggled to correctly pick Nykesha Sales out of a two-person lineup. They didn't watch her or the sport, but this was just another "bandwagon" column opportunity. Another of those rare "drive-bys" on women's sports for the bulk of the nation's sports media that typically paid no attention.
On Thursday, as the Brittney Griner-Jordan Barncastle incident became big "news" in the endless quest for sating the public's interest in inflammatory video, the commentary began to build from the media, bloggers, readers.
Whatever a columnist writes, if it catches interest, starts to pile up comments. Then people are commenting on comments, and commenting on comments on comments.
Then it's all just part of a tornadic force that sucks up what's in its path and whirls it around in a chaotic jumble. It's this way with everything that becomes even a semi-hot topic in our daily online lives.
Sometimes the topic lingers around for a while, other times it's gone in a flash. But in either case, ultimately most folks move on, leaving those who really care still around trying to sort through the debris.
It's this way with topics like steroids in sports, which are increasingly frequent "tornadoes." Folks who regularly monitor the use of performance-enhancing drugs and how they've altered athletics don't ever stop digging through the rubble. They are always watching for the next funnel cloud and know that it will bring the onlookers, who will then go away after a relatively quick scan of the latest destruction.
This is the nature of commentary today, sports or otherwise. So when the dust settles on the Griner-Barncastle incident -- which might not take very long at all, as we are on the verge of March Madness and spring training is under way -- it will be like the other flare-ups in women's sports. These often have not necessarily had much, if anything, to do with any actual result of a game. Things like the Sales scoring record, the Toni Smith-not-facing-the-flag-during-the-anthem debate, the Don Imus comments on Rutgers all became media feeding frenzies, but the actual performance of the athletes involved wasn't part of the meal.
In regard to Griner-Barncastle, most of the people -- media and fans -- who weren't paying attention to women's hoops before that video clip will go back to not paying attention. Maybe their awareness will be raised about a name or two. Maybe a few of them trickle over to actually being more interested in the sport.
But the more nuanced and substantive debate/examination, if there is any, usually comes after the rubbernecking is over. Next week, when the Big 12 tournament is in Kansas City, I'll talk to Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry, and Griner and Barncastle, if they are speaking to the media. I'll talk to Tech and Baylor fans. And I'll listen, too.
Can more be done with officiating to avoid what happened in the Baylor-Texas Tech game? Is it unfair to expect that officials can always stop these things? What can we expect out of student-athletes in the way of decorum no matter how they're emotionally and physically tested?
I never wrote that Griner should be suspended for the rest of the season; in fact, I offered no opinion on what her suspension should be. I said that her actions were inexcusable, because everyone should know that if you punch someone in a game -- regardless of how you feel you were provoked -- you are going to get in trouble. And that would mean a suspension.
There were certainly readers who thought it should be for a long time, and they're angry that it wasn't.
I've watched Mulkey as a player and coach for almost three decades now. I've never known anyone more competitive, nor anyone who has any more of a vested interest in the history and future of women's basketball.
Mulkey feels a two-game suspension and whatever other private disciplinary/teaching measures she takes is enough to effectively get the message through to Griner.
And if there are no further incidents like this for Griner, then there's no reason to doubt that Mulkey's decision was correct. But if there are incidents, then Mulkey will have to address those. I'm sure she's spent a lot of time thinking about what's best for Griner's future.
What of Barncastle? Perhaps Curry will speak to her about how she handles contact in the post and good ways to avoid any future conflicts. But let's not forget she's the one who got punched in the face here.
Why was virtually all the focus on Griner? Well, she threw the punch in reaction to something the officials actually were taking care of by calling a foul on Barncastle. I've often seen players get locked up, and tossed, and elbowed, and shoved and get steaming mad. But very rarely have I seen any of that result in a punch.
Also, when you are the most high-profile freshman in the country in a sport that doesn't really get much in the way of "high-profile," you must expect that you will be targeted and spotlighted. The attention can cut both ways, and Griner has found that out the hard way.
In regard to this incident, WNBA star Diana Taurasi's DUI last summer, and the Los Angeles Sparks-Detroit Shock on-court scuffle of 2008, I received heat from some readers for being too harsh. On Griner for reacting to physical play with a punch. On Taurasi for saying that she should sit out the WNBA All-Star Game, which came so soon after her arrest. On L.A.'s Candace Parker for mixing it up with Detroit's Plenette Pierson, who had a history of conflicts.
In every case, the player I criticized was "star material" -- someone who either already was or did have a chance to be one of the few prominent personalities in women's athletics.
Some might say I should not set the bar any higher for them than it is for anyone else. But I think because of their talent and what they can or do mean to the sport, they should understand why there's a higher bar. To put it bluntly, it reflects their greater importance. Consider it a compliment.
Not everyone agrees with me, of course. Similarly, there are those who point to incidents like any of the aforementioned and say, "Well, if it happened in men's sports, it wouldn't be a big deal. So there's a double standard."
I have to laugh at that. Really? There's a double standard in the way male and female athletes are treated? Gee, after spending much of my career covering women's sports, I somehow hadn't noticed that.
OK, sarcasm aside, here are two further points about that. First, I think a male player would have faced the same criticism for punching someone in a game. But beyond that, perhaps I do have my own double standard. The truth is, I expect good behavior from female athletes.
Those who either criticize or ignore women's sports always say, "Look, they just don't compare to men's sports." The litany of the ways women's athletics are typically called "inferior" are listed regularly: The top male athletes are stronger, faster, quicker and more powerful than the top female athletes. It's basic biology.
I think you can enjoy both men's and women's athletics equally -- at least I do -- because you enjoy any good competition that's evenly matched regardless of the gender of participants. But plenty of people don't feel that way, and that's their choice.
If we're going to regularly list women's sports "inferiorities," why not also at least occasionally include some of their "superiorities" -- the fact that in college athletics the overwhelming majority of women do stay for four years and get degrees, their approachability with fans, the fact that so very few ever end up on police blotters.
My point is not to demean men's athletics for its demons, because like many sports followers, I am distressed about them. But rather, it's to encourage women's athletics to work extra hard to avoid those things. In such problem areas, women's sports will be fortunate if they never compare to men's sports.
I heard one commentator say something to the effect that seeing Griner punch someone made it look "more interesting, like men's sports."
And I thought, "Since when are people tuning into men's college basketball to watch guys punch each other?" But I'm guessing in his mind, seeing a punch absurdly suggested passion, as if fiery competitiveness is something new for women.
I thought back to a magazine story I read last summer about how girls playing basketball could get so heated and competitive that they'd have to be taken out of the game to cool off. This was in reference to a journal entry kept by a high school player in Iowa in 1908.
Women have always had that passion, no matter how many opportunities have been denied them. When it boils over, as seemed to be the case with Griner, it can have bad consequences.
If I sounded harsh in regard to Brittney Griner, it's because I've watched women for decades play their guts out in basketball games and still avoid fighting. I believe that they understand the ways they are role models. And that they expect nothing less of themselves.
Of course, they sometimes slip up and make mistakes. And those carry consequences that can linger a long, long time in regard to how people think of you. And if that's the message that Griner really does take away from the tornado of coverage and debate about her actions, and from the games that she'll sit out, then it should be a lesson well-learned.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.