You probably watched Serena Williams dominate the field at Wimbleton and the U.S. and French Opens this past year. You definitely got caught in the Olympic fervor as Gabby Douglas and Missy Franklin combined to bring home six gold medals last summer. Did you see Brittney Griner smash every record in her sport?
As the 2013 ESPYs roll in on ESPN Wednesday night, one of the four aforementioned stars will take home the hardware for best female athlete. And at an award show determined entirely by popular vote, chances are the most recognizable nominee will win. Throw resumes and stats right out the window — how many female athletes can the average sports fan name off the top of his, or even her, head?
Griner likely won't win Wednesday because her sport, women's basketball, receives next to no coverage in mainstream media. The gaggle of cameras that were glued to Williams, Douglas, and Franklin last summer made each of them household names, and deservedly so. But it's apparent that if Griner's success was in tennis, gymnastics, or swimming, she would be the undeniable choice.
In a calendar year, Brittney Griner won every major player of the year honor at Baylor, catapulted atop the NCAA's all-time blocks leaders, finished second in the NCAA in career scoring and was drafted first overall by the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. Off the court, Griner became one of the first active professional athletes to come out as gay, shared a stirring story on the adversity and bullying she faced through high school, and got Mark Cuban to consider drafting her into the NBA. It shouldn't detract from the accomplishments or courage of the other three women, but it's a year that's hard to contend with.
A popular vote largely constituted by male viewers (studies show men watch almost three times as much sports on television as women) makes the female athlete of the year award a bit misleading. Griner won't garner as many votes because she's not as palatable as Williams, Douglas or Franklin, both physically and athletically. Griner's controversial openness about her sexuality and more masculine appearance — at 6'8", she towers above just about any ESPN watcher — put her at an unfair but immense disadvantage. Her prowess in a sport that lacks a stable audience makes votes even less likely. It's hard to believe that ESPN fans watch women's basketball, seeing as they'd probably have to change the channel to find consistent coverage of it.
The other three nominees also represent the U.S. in foreign competition, while Griner plays on a team that has under 20 thousand followers on Twitter. "Best" female athlete, perhaps, should be renamed to "most popular."
Griner's likely loss Wednesday should fuel conversation on why we don't seem to care much about women's basketball. We know women can play hoops competitively, and we know that women and men can play the same sport and each engage with a healthy following. After all, if Serena can be as popular as Andy Murray, why can't Griner be as popular as LeBron James, or for that matter, any NBA starter?
Ultimately, it doesn't matter. A fan vote shouldn't mean much to Griner, who's accomplished so much over the past year, and all four candidates are impressive to say the least. But if Griner won every major player of the year award in women's tennis instead of women's basketball, then this would be a different conversation.