Being Out, Not Coming Out: Brittney Griner

Even people who don’t give a hoop about basketball are rallying around Brittney Griner, and what’s not to like? This Baylor center, best known for her spectacular dunks, is now publicly chatting and writing (most recently in the New York Times) about what it’s like to be OUT, and why it matters.

And it does matter, to all of us.

Learning that a female basketball player is gay cannot exactly shock anyone. So compared to Jason Collins’ announcement that he is gay (wow – a MALE basketball player? Finally!) the Brittney story is a yawn.0402010951_zpsfc873352-1

I had already heard through the grapevine she was gay – and she herself didn’t see it as an announcement. Unlike Jason, she wasn’t “coming out.” She was “being out,” which is different. Coming out is revealing a secret, or making a revelation that will surprise the audience. Being out is “just being who you are,” as she put it.

But as long as discrimination  exists, being openly gay matters. “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way,” she told

Even in 2013, being out takes courage – and many athletes still fail to live courageously. They’re afraid of losing corporate sponsorships, and thus sacrifice authenticity for money. That’s counterproductive, because as long as corporate America can in effect pay athletes to feign heterosexuality, we will not achieve the equality we deserve. Plus we’ll feel miserable and ashamed.

When I came out as a Stanford basketball player in 1976, I said the same things: “I’m just being who I am.” That was at the height of the feminist movement and the beginning of the gay liberation movement. I naively expected that 37 years later, gay people would have achieved full legal rights and full acceptance. We’ve come a long way, but we aren’t there yet.

What WILL surprise – and please – me is when gay college coaches start “being openly who they are.” Now THAT will be newsworthy.

In the future, who’s gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, or “fluidly” sexual or asexual over the course of their lifetimes will not be a big deal. That’s the goal, or my goal anyway: To create a world where human diversity is appreciated but nowhere near as interesting as a good game of basketball.

— Mariah Burton Nelson has written six books about gender and sports. She enjoys “being out” – and being shorter than Brittney Griner, as pictured above.

Game-Changer: Let Athletes Major in Sports

I sometimes joke that at Stanford University, I “majored in basketball.”

Truth is, I spent hours each day immersed in a highly educational experience involving leadership and team-building lessons that were far more hands-on than anything I might have picked up at the Biz School. I also took those lessons and used them as a foundation for a career as a sportswriter.

The author shooting (#12)

But what if athletes could really major in sports? In today’s Washington Post, always-thoughtful sportswriter Sally Jenkins makes the case that NCAA Colleges Should Consider Offering Sports as an Academic Major.

Jenkins’ proposal is a game-changer because her plan would legitimize sports participation for the educational experience that it is – and encourage universities to create integrated curricula including existing courses such as sport science, sport psychology, sport sociology, sport management, physical education, kinesiology — and the currently missing piece, the connection between theory and practice: varsity participation.

Most athletes are not football players, and most sports do not generate revenue (nor do most football teams, but that’s another story). Her main point has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with challenging the way we think about sports as an educational experience.

Congrats, Sally, for raising a fascinating new subject.

Maybe if I had been encouraged to study sports as an academic discipline, I would have thought of your wonderful idea myself! 🙂

Mariah Burton Nelson now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Pat Summitt R Us

When we talk about Pat Summitt, we’re talking about ourselves.

We’re talking about her, too. Alzheimer’s is a progressive, terminal illness. Unless a cure comes along, the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach was recently handed a fatal diagnosis. Her legendary steely resolve notwithstanding, this is a heart-breaking situation for her, her family, and everyone who cares about her – and millions do.

But when we talk about Pat Summitt, we’re also talking about ourselves. All of us who admire brilliant female leaders are reeling from yesterday’s news. One reason some of us are reeling, I believe, is because we identify with Pat.

This is often true of sports fans. When we celebrate a Women’s World Cup soccer victory by saying, “We won,”  we’re identifying with the team. “We” won because we feel empowered by their victory.

In Pat’s case, we identify with her because she’s incredibly strong and successful. We don’t share her career victory total (no one does) nor her determination or drive (“You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” she told one doctor) but like her, we care about success. We care about young women. We love basketball. We’re athletes.

I have only met Pat a few times, have interviewed her briefly, edited a book (The Summitt Season) about her back in 1988, and last saw her at the 2011 Final Four, where we chatted about the agony of defeat. Yet I feel like I’m taking this news personally – and surmise that others (especially athletic Baby Boomers?) might be as well.

She’s vulnerable; therefore we’re all vulnerable. An unsettling reminder.

My father has Alzheimer’s, and lives nearby. For the past seven years I’ve been visiting him, overseeing his care, and watching as he loses the ability not only to remember, but to read, write, tell time, shave, bathe, dress, speak clearly, understand what I’m saying, and manage the telephone, the remote control, and silverware.

It can be a strangely blessed thing, shepherding someone through the mystifying haze of Alzheimer’s. But for caregivers, it’s also just plain upsetting.

And I identify with Dad and Pat. So I have to wonder: Will Alzheimer’s be my fate?

I’m not alone. Baby Boomers are notoriously nervous about memory lapses that physicians try to assure us are “normal at your age.” A recent international AARP poll showed that Alzheimer’s is the second-most feared disease after cancer – despite the fact that many people polled do not even realize Alzheimer’s is fatal.

Exercise, healthy food, mental stimulation, quality sleep, stress management, and active social engagement are the six “pillars of a brain-healthy lifestyle,” according to researchers. Sally Jenkins tells us in a heart-breaking article in today’s Washington Post that Pat is determined to improve her cognitive abilities through reading, puzzles, and math problems.

But Ponce de Leon was wrong. Ballroom dancing and sudoku will not save us. Yoga will not save us. Nor all the Body Flow classes at the new gym. With each step, we’re descending toward death, just like every other living being.

My friend Kate Cudlipp died last month after a bicycle accident in Rock Creek Park. Kate was an avid cyclist with an inner strength reminiscent of Pat’s.

Kate knew how to ride a bike. But accidents happen, and Alzheimer’s happens. The strongest women in the world are also vulnerable. They (and we!) live in bodies that will decay, or break, and die.

Last week I had lunch with a colleague in her thirties, a committed weightlifter. “After menopause, it’s harder to build muscle,” I told her. “Fortunately you don’t have to worry about that for a while.”

“I don’t think it will affect me, because you’re thin, whereas I’m bulkier,” she responded.

“She doesn’t get it,” an older friend commented later, laughing. I don’t blame my young colleague for not getting it; I didn’t get it either, in my thirties. But each news flash about a friend, relative, or basketball icon who succumbs to death or disease deepens our growing sense of “getting it.”

Like Pat, we are mortal. When Pat gets sick, we all feel sickened – and reminded that we, too, will die.

I hope you don’t think I “should” be focusing only on Pat, and not on myself. I do grieve for Pat. “It’s not going to be a pity party,” she insists. I hope it will be a “compassion party” instead. My heart goes out to her, and I’m sure yours does too. I admire her courage, and feel sure her candor will help raise money for Alzheimer’s research and treatment.

But our feelings about other people are never just about them.

It’s always about us too.

Mariah Burton Nelson played basketball at Stanford and now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.

The Art of Excellence (Interview)

The following interview appeared in the May 2011 edition of Sport Management Academy Newsletter.

An award-winning athlete, author, journalist, speech writer and speaker, Mariah Burton Nelson has played a leading role in redefining what it means to be a success in the sports industry. She currently serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.

Q. What do you feel is your greatest achievement?

A. Populating the world with more female athletes. When I ride my bike (in the Washington DC area), and see trails full of female cyclists, runners, walkers, and in-line skaters of all ages, I feel gratified that I have played a small role in creating those opportunities. I reflect on how far we’ve come from my childhood.

My mother was a swimmer (and still is, at 87,) but she and her friends never ran or rode bikes or played team sports. When I was growing up, people expected “tomboys” to “grow up and be ladies.” Now girls and women take for granted their right to move, and they understand the relationship between exercise, health, and happiness.

Many women have told me, “You inspired me to be an athlete.” That was not my initial intent — I just wanted to write books and give speeches about women’s sports experiences — but what a satisfying result!

Q. What qualities do you think are key to professional success?

A. Discipline. We do so many things because we’re in the habit of doing them. And those habits — the good ones — are what lead to success. I swim or lift weights or ride my bike or do yoga every day because I made a decision many years ago to be an athlete, and that’s what athletes do. I don’t need to re-decide every day. That’s the good news: Discipline itself becomes a habit. You become the kind of person who does the right things, over and over again.

The same is true for discipline at work. After a while, you dispense with the inner dialogue about whether or not to work, or work harder. You write the proposal, then polish it until it shines, because you made a deal with yourself a long time ago. You might not even remember why or when you made that deal, any more than you recall your original tooth-brushing agreement.

Another word for discipline is practice. This is more good news: When you do something repeatedly, you get better at it. You feel increasingly competent, and confident, which leads you to try even harder.

I just submitted a proposal, and the recipient told me that in the 25 years he’s been writing and reviewing proposals, he’s never seen a better one. I was happy, but I wasn’t really surprised. I’m sure that much of my own professional success is largely due to the fact that I work harder, and have higher standards, than most people.

I think this is rooted in self-discipline. I learned it in sports, and continue to benefit from the daily discipline of sports, but discipline begins with commitment. Anyone, even someone without athletic training, can start there.

Q. What role do you feel mentors play in achieving career goals?

A. I’m reading a new biography of Babe Didrikson called Wonder Girl (coming out in June 2011). She died the year I was born, but I read her autobiography as a young girl, and she inspired me by being so incredibly disciplined, hard-working, passionate, competitive, and successful. I also looked up to my mother, an exuberant swimmer and physician who was openly, playfully competitive. They were my two role models: Babe and Mom.

But I did not have any mentors per se because so few women were playing sports when I was growing up (I was born in 1956), and so few people were writing about women and sports when I started doing that, in 1980. Basically, I invented my career (as a sportswriter focused on women and gender issues.) I admired Frank Deford and George Leonard and other male sportswriters, but I didn’t know them personally, and often wished that I had a mentor I could turn to for advice. Perhaps I would have made fewer mistakes. Given a chance, someone certainly would have taught me something about respectful silence and tact. Sometimes I’ve been too outspoken for my own good.

So I can’t really comment on mentors from personal experience, but I’ve heard good things about them, and try to be what I think of as “the kind of person who’s worth looking up to, in case anyone’s looking.”

Q. If you could give one piece of advice to today’s sport managers what would it be?

A. Actively seek diversity. Birds of a feather flock together, so we must consciously transcend our natural tendency to hire and promote people who look and sound and think as we do. My current staff of nine includes people of Indian, Korean, African, European, and Iranian descent, someone who is legally blind, and someone who is gay. (That’s me.) Do we talk about those differences? Rarely. We’re too busy talking about how to promote physical activity, and how to best serve our members. But does our diversity make us stronger as a team? Surely. To achieve this sort of diversity, one must recruit widely, and make a commitment to putting aside personal prejudices in order to get to know people as people. The rewards – personal and professional – can be great.

Open Letter to Stanford Women’s Basketball Alums

The following article appeared in the Stanford Women’s Basketball Alumnae newsletter, May 2011.

Today I gave a speech about nonprofit management. As soon as I finished, a man eagerly raised his hand. “Did you play for Tara?” he asked.

This happens all the time. Everywhere I go, people want to talk Stanford hoops. Kate Starbird. Candice Wiggins. The Ogwumikes. Beating UConn’s streak. Even that scary tree.

It’s my own darn fault. I proudly include my Stanford basketball story in my bio. I’ve written about sports at length. My body itself – at six-two – makes its own bold statement, prompting the question, “Did you play basketball?” – or, when I was younger, “Do you play basketball?”

But this is also your fault, my Stanford sisters. You’re the ones who made Cardinal basketball famous. My teammates and I pried the “Men Only” signs off the Maples Pavilion doors, then marched defiantly inside. You blew those doors off their hinges. Thousands of fans (and one dancing tree) streamed into that merry arena, eager to celebrate your many achievements.

That’s who I meet: your fans.

Funny, we never thought about fans in the seventies. We never anticipated your popularity. We just wanted access. Equal coaching, training, recruiting, scholarships, uniforms, and travel. Equal rights. Equal respect.

In an era of daily insults and exclusions, sports were becoming a symbol of women’s nascent power. When I arrived at Stanford in 1974, Billie Jean King had just beaten Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised tennis match (1973). Title IX had just passed (1972). A poster in my dorm (Larkin) showed a photo of women running, swimming, and cycling. “Women in Sports,” it read. “WE CAN.”

Yes, we can, and yes, you did. Because of you, I meet people all over the country whose lives have become more exciting, hopeful, and inspired. They tell me about watching you, admiring you, wanting their daughters – and sons – to be like you.

I, too, am a fan of yours – and not only because you make my resume look good. You have taken the Stanford program farther than we pioneers dreamed possible. You probably played (as we did) for the love of the sport, but because of your strength, spirit, and success, you helped transform the way society perceives women, and how we all perceive ourselves.

Thank you!

Mariah Burton Nelson

More from Mariah about Stanford women’s basketball history.

Tara VanDerveer: “You ARE On the Team”

A week before the WNBA draft I am at the Final Four. Tara VanDerveer has just been named Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

I tell her that I really appreciate the two receptions Stanford held for former players this year: One chairs-in-a-circle discussion between current players and about ten former players, and one casual conversation in an Indianapolis bar.

“It’s been 33 years since I played at Stanford,” I marvel. “But you make me feel like I’m still on the team.”

“You ARE on the team,” replies Tara. She introduces me to her mother, and to her sister Heidi.

I have accomplished many things since Stanford. I’m socially and professionally connected. Still. It feels weirdly satisfying to have Tara tell me I’m still on the team. Even though I live in the DC area, never get back to Maples Pavilion for games, and — though this is heresy to admit — don’t even FOLLOW the team closely until it’s Final Four time. I’m too busy living my life.

For instance: Tomorrow I’m travelling to Amelia Island, Florida, to speak to the Executive Women’s Golf Association. I’ll be keynoting their annual Golfpalooza. My topic: Competition, Leadership, and Teamwork. Those executive women golfers are also “on the team.” Which is why they attend conferences — why we all do. Sure, we want to learn, but we also want to connect. We want to belong. We want to feel part of something larger than ourselves, and work to achieve goals in collaboration with others who share our values.

“You ARE on the team,” Tara said. Same thing the Minnesota Lynx told Connecticut superstar Maya Moore in the WNBA draft.

Isn’t that what we all want to hear?

–Mariah Burton Nelson, who only wishes she had stood up straighter when this photo was taken! Tall sisters, however — power players who were on magnificent display in Indy during the Final Four — will understand: It’s hard to talk to shorter people without bending over!

Black Power, Female Athletes, and a Controversial Poem Called “The Change”

Tennis is not usually a topic of conversation at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual convention, which was held in Washington DC in February. But this year the buzz was about a tennis-player poem, of all things.

Called The Change by Tony Hoagland, the poem drew criticism from the poet Claudine Rankine, many audience members, and numerous bloggers, all of whom think it’s racist. (Rankine’s comments seem to have been removed from at least some blogs. She asks good questions, though, for writers about race.)

True, Hoagland describes a Venus/Serena Williams-like figure as “that big black girl from Alabama,/ cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,/some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite” and he claims he “couldn’t help wanting/the white girl to come out on top,/ because she was one of my kind, my tribe,/ with her pale eyes and thin lips.”

But I think the poem is ironic.

I think the narrator actually admires the black player, with her “complicated hair/and her to-hell-with-everybody stare”… so big/and so black, so unintimidated… hitting the ball…like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.”

Is this not a heroic portrait? Surely compared to that pale-eyed, thin-lipped white girl, who warrants no more description. She’s neither engaging nor powerful. The poet’s eye cannot rest on her; he’s clearly drawn instead to the black woman’s audacity and strength.

I think “the change” of the title is the end of white domination, and I cannot see that as an unwelcome change by the narrator. Note also his depiction of like the “little pink judge” who “had to climb up on a box” to adorn the black goddess with her medal.

Isn’t that just plain funny?

The world is changing. This is a good thing. Athletes are leading the way – and female and African-American athletes have long changed white attitudes, simply by showing up and showing off their athletic skills.

While I’m sorry the poem seems racist and offensive to some people, I like it, and admire Hoagland for tackling this subject.

I also see the poem as a man dealing with female size and strength; he’s intimidated, but in effect admits that.

When he depicts the black player holding her racket “over her head like a guitar” in triumph, how can readers not celebrate with this rock-solid rock star, and with all strong, minority people who have fought hard for their rights, and won?

— Mariah Burton Nelson, who loves it when her twin passions of sports and creative writing merge

When is a Basketball Player Not Just a Basketball Player?

In today’s Washington Post, Lenny Bernstein writes about his outing to a Fairfax, Virginia gym. There he found a basketball league where the athletes play hard, play full court, have fun — and do not keep score.

Two things make this league unusual: The not-keeping score part, and the fact that the players are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

However, he chose to interpret this scene through a gender lens: Because the players are female, he made enormous assumptions about the relationship between gender and noncompetitive games.

Mariah (wearing 1974 Stanford pinney - a whole other story) with Bonnie of NOVA United

(Things started looking suspicious when the author, alone in a gym with at least ten female athletes, referred to men as “the elephant in the gym.” Funny – lots of people can walk into a gym filled with female athletes and not even think about men, not beg the question: How do these athletes compare to male athletes? Those people, when they see people playing basketball, just see people playing basketball.)

Bernstein interviewed one (one!) male player who proclaimed that in his league, noncompetitive games would be “inconceivable.” That man also conjectured, based on his experience with his one (one!) son, that “competitive juices” are “hard-wired.”

I can’t tell from the Fairfax gym photos, but it could be that all of the players in this league happen to be white. Why not make gross generalizations about how black players would never dream of noncompetitive games — based on a quote by one random black player?

Brings to mind Susan Faludi‘s famous line: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. This league’s decision to play score-free MIGHT be related to gender, or gender socialization, or age, or even race or religion – but these players are people first.

More than 3 million girls play high school sports on a competitive basis, with basketball being the most popular sport. So it’s misleading to say, as Bernstein does, that “research shows that girls tend to favor more cooperative games.”

I hope no one fills Brittney Griner in on this hard-wired, cooperative-game secret on her way to the Final Four. Could ruin things for fans if she and her Baylor teammates discovered their true nature and refused to keep score against Stanford or Connecticut.

Even if there is a gender difference, the gender SIMILARITIES are enormous. (The author admits that this league is full of former college players, and players who keep score in other leagues.)

There are many ways to play sports, stay fit, socialize, have fun — and define winning. Women of all sizes, abilities, ages, and colors experiment with all of those ways — as do men.

The real story here is that these people are still playing hoops in middle-age — and making up their own rules, to suit themselves. Good for them!

— by Mariah Burton Nelson, who recently watched two NOVA United women’s 50+ teams play at halftime of a George Washington University basketball game, who knows their founder, Helen White, who is a member of the National Senior Women’s Basketball Association, and who would still be playing basketball – and keeping score – if she had any cartilege left in her knees.