WNBA star Brittney Griner broke barriers when she became the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike, and on the eve of Saturday’s National Coming Out Day, she discussed why her $1 million contract is opening doors for the LGBT sports community.
“It was really important to partner with Nike as I believe in what they are doing,” Griner told TheWrap at the 5th annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit in Dana Point, Calif., explaining that she wouldn’t work with a brand that didn’t support LGBT athletes.
Nike recently launched its 2014 #BETRUE Collection celebrating the LGBT community with rainbow-colored collection of sports shoes and T-shirts. Meanwhile, the WNBA tipped off Pride in June, a national platform celebrating inclusion and equality, and fighting bias.
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The 6-foot-8 Phoenix Mercury center said she would love to work with Pride partner Cover Girl. “I am not their target market but I could do with some help putting on eyeliner and mascara,” said Griner, who will be getting made up for her upcoming wedding to fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson next May.
Earlier Thursday, Griner was joined on stage at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, Calif. by espnW columnist Kate Fagan, Wasserman Media Group VP Lindsay Kagawa Colas and professor Nefertiti Walker, for a Jeremy Schaap-moderated panel called Breaking Barriers in Women’s Sports.
“I am not setting out to be the pioneer, but I definitely want change so I guess it puts me in those pioneer shoes,” Griner said.
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ESPN reporter Schaap asked Griner if her fans just related to her sexuality.
“It is everybody; I am all about who you are — whether you’re gay, straight or transgender. Being true to yourself and giving your authentic self,” she explained.
Discussing the importance of the Nike deal, Fagan said: “Being first in the space is smart, that is always so difficult to navigate. There are lot of people in women’s sports who can’t say the word lesbian without fainting.”
Kagawa Colas said more brands need to follow Nike’s lead.
“Women are leaving sports to work for Fortune 500 companies because they have more open LGBT policies,” she said. “Nike saw it worked and realized they can use it outside of their brand. This is going to be the norm. People are going to be marketing to the LGBT segment like they are with the Hispanic or African-Americans.”
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Fagan added, “Things are moving so quickly in this space. As of this week, in 30 states it is legal for gay marriage. What is the next milestone?”
Griner said the sports world has come a long way in removing barriers.
“It is easier now; 10 years ago it wasn’t easy to come out,” she said. “I remember going to a game and it wasn’t a friendly atmosphere. Now you see lesbian families, gay families, with the pride nights — I give a lot of credit to the WNBA. I want to see what is next and what we’re going to do.”
Griner is no stranger to prejudice, and she’s talked openly about being bullied. “I wasn’t 6-foot-8 when I was three, but I was definitely different. Even now I am being bullied on social media,” she said. “Now I am at a stage where I am so comfortable with myself that it doesn’t phase me.”
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The 23-year-old made a profitable move to play in China during the WNBA’s offseason. Though she didn’t act differently, she was well aware of the cultural change in attitude.
“I was definitely myself, but I had teammates who were gay and lesbian, it wasn’t talked about. After a few months they opened up and said they were gay, but it’s not talked about there,” Griner said.
Schaap asked Griner if she was closeted, would she still be as marketable? Kagawa Colas responded no, as the basketball star’s strength is in how she overcomes challenges.
“She has a lot of fans who want to have sex with her,” Kagawa Colas said. “Brittney is very sexy! A lot of women love that she is herself and is embracing her sexiness. There is nothing less sexy than someone who is not themselves. Brittney would make zero dollars if she was something else off the court.”
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Fagan added that while NFL player Michael Sam might face homophobia, “Brittney occupies this inner sanctum in space — she is facing all these ‘isms’ that no other athlete embodies. She is one of the most important athletes who exist in this age.”
Later in the day, Griner gave Little League baseball sensation Mo’ne Davis advice on her newfound fame, with the 13-year-old telling TheWrap, “We talked about sneakers.”