How Brittney Griner Shook Up The WNBA’s Identity, And Why Nike Is Next

ESPN The Magazine’s “Taboo Issue” centers on Kate Fagan’s excellent profile of Brittney Griner, which follows Griner’s growth from a girl experimenting with her identity, to a teenager at a university eager for her basketball skills but uncomfortable with her sexual orientation, to a woman who is singlehandedly upending gender expectations for athletic women.

The WNBA, like many women’s sports has, either consciously or subconsciously, pushed sexuality to the backburner in an effort to appeal to straight fans they fear may be turned off by an open embrace of a lesbian-friendly brand. But as Fagan’s profile makes clear, the league is now planning to use Griner, who came out just before the Phoenix Mercury made her the top overall pick in the league’s draft in May, to change that:

Griner happily embraces what the WNBA has long shied away from: controversy. “It’s always been, ‘Oh, it’s just so nice the girls can play,'” says Mercury president Amber Cox. “We want role models, but we need lightning rods to balance things out. In that sense, Brittney has taken us to the next level. If someone is invoking emotion in people, they care. And apathy has been our biggest enemy.”

Griner’s arrival coincides with intriguing new research about WNBA fans. League executives admit that their marketing efforts have been schizophrenic at times as they’ve searched for a common thread among their eclectic audience. Now the research shows a theme: People who support the WNBA have progressive views on gender. “They share the ultimate goal of living in a world where gender equality exists in all its forms,” says league president Laurel Richie.

The WNBA has been building toward the emergence of a player who can embody this philosophy, and now here she is with her size 17 sneakers and 88-inch wingspan. “This feels like a magical moment,” Richie says. “I think years from now, we’ll look back on 2013 as the pivotal year for this league.”

And the WNBA isn’t the only organization that’s ready to embrace–and market–Griner for who she is. Nike’s also signed Griner to an endorsement deal in which she’ll wear both men’s and women’s clothing. “We can’t get into specifics,” Nike spokesman Brian Strong told Fagan, “but it’s safe to say we jumped at the opportunity to work with her because she breaks the mold.” It’s entirely possible that before the end of her career, athletes of both genders could be rocking Air Griners like the Air Jordans of a generation ago.

All this, it seems, is evidence of what Grantland’s Wesley Morris calls the “quiet queering of professional sports,” where the culture has made it apparent that it is ready to be more open about sexuality and gender even without a wave of athletes rushing to come out (though the recent high-profile coming outs have only helped). It’s a world where women like Griner and her fellow draftees are wearing men’s suits, jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers and men like Dwyane Wade are wearing capri pants, tight jeans, and lens-less glasses. A fashion culture that might have caused derogatory inquisitions about sexuality among media and fans several years ago — from Paul George’s outlandish green pants and paisley top, Russell Westbrook’s frames and patterned shirts (which have spawned blogs of their own), or Griner’s suits and bowties — may still be fodder for intrigue and amusement, but there’s a fair bit of stylistic admiration in the mix,, too. Male athletes are paying attention to fashion, and often times dressing, more like we think women should. Women athletes are dressing more and more like we think men are supposed to. And few of them — and fewer of us — see anything wrong with it. Instead, we seem to be enjoying it.

Sure, there are still people who call Griner a man, who question Westbrook’s sexuality, who think there is something wrong with a female athlete whose body doesn’t look the way society tells us a woman should or any athlete, male or female, who is attracted to the same sex. The reality, though, is that the “utter whateverness” Griner and other athletes display about how they express themselves, their sexuality, and their gender isn’t relegated simply to the athletes themselves. The “accept us or not” attitude is also more prevalent among fans, particularly the young, impressionable fans professional leagues are always trying to ensnare. That doesn’t mean sports won’t be open to men in three-piece suits and women in dresses and heels, too. It just means there will be room for everyone.

The NBA, perhaps unknowingly, has already accepted its shifting gender norms. That the WNBA is doing the same through Griner doesn’t just mean we’re another step closer to equality and acceptance in sports — it may turn out to be a key moment for a league still searching for its identity and still hoping to prove its self-sustenance more than a decade after its inception. The future of the WNBA is a lot to put on Brittney Griner, but the good news is that as rebellious as she seems right now, there are a lot of people out there just like her.