Six years ago, the biggest story in women’s basketball was about Don Imus calling the predominantly black Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos.” Now Skylar Diggins, the number three pick in Monday night’s WNBA draft, represents the opposite side of the coin. She’s a black female player who’s still judged by her looks, but this time favorably. In fact, thanks to social media, the point guard drafted by the Tulsa Shock has become a sex symbol.
Diggins, who holds the women’s scoring record for her alma mater, Notre Dame, was relatively unknown outside of basketball circles until last year’s NCAA tournament. At the time Lil’ Wayne tweeted to Diggins calling her his wife and wishing good luck to her team. Chris Brown followed with a tweet of his own, and soon the South Bend, Ind., had a national profile. She currently has over 300,000 followers on Twitter, and fans consistently post messages like,”OMG your [sic] the most beautiful baller I [sic] ever seen” and “Forget WNBA you could be a runway model.”
The testosterone-driven media circus surrounding Diggins certainly hasn’t helped. We don’t hear how she’s a former McDonald’s All-American who turned down perennial powerhouse Stanford to play in front of her family, or that she’s led her team to three Final Four appearances. Instead, there are entire ESPN columns about Diggins’ “sovereign skills and supreme attractiveness.” In a story about how everyone on Twitter wants to marry her, Mashable noted how Diggins is “blessed with model looks and an All-American game.” An article on Bleacher Report about Notre Dame’s defeat of UConn in the Big East tournament leads with “sweat still pouring from [Diggins’] body and tears cascading down her cheeks.” From interviews, we know about Diggins’ pre-game ritual of plucking her eyebrows and painting her fingernails (a dark color so that they’re noticeable on camera). No word yet on what college men’s stars like Michigan’s Trey Burke do to prepare for games.
A Risky Proposition
Of course Diggins isn’t the first female athlete to have her looks placed at the forefront of her story. Think of former WNBA star Lisa Leslie, tennis player Anna Kournikova, and Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones, for instance. What makes her case unique, however, is that she is among the first female athletes to become famous amid—or even because of—social media.
Through her Instagram and Twitter accounts fans have instant access to pictures of her clowning around with her younger brothers or hanging out with friends. It’s both a risky and privileged position for her to be in as a rookie.
“For women athletes who are incredibly successful, there is great surveillance of the boundaries of sexuality and looks,” says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of Sports Management at Drexel University. “We’re only in the beginning stage in terms of where this next phase of sexualization of female athletes is [heading]. There are so many ways you can manipulate [the images] of female athletes. You can falsify photos, use them as tools of extortion, or just hold female athletes up for humiliation all in the name of competition.”
Diggins had this problem during her college career. Someone claiming to be a jilted ex-boyfriend posted nude photos of a woman he said was Diggins online. The images turned out to be fake, Notre Dame took legal action, and the athlete responded on Twitter. “There are those who try to put other’s [sic] lights out, so theirs can shine brighter. Pay them no mind.”
The photos are still easily searchable on the Internet.
The End Justifies the Means?
Despite the fine line between fandom and fetishizing, Diggins’ fame is considered a plus for the 16-year-old WNBA. The league has struggled to fill arena seats and capture television viewers and as a result has heavily marketed players who fit the mold of traditional femininity.
Some players have been critical of this strategy: “Sometimes it wasn’t the best players who were being promoted, but the best image,” former WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw told the New York Times last year. “I see the league getting away from that and saying, hey, we want to promote the players who are the best players.” The league has since said that it will reach out more deliberately to the LGBT community and youth—two demographics that have long been very supportive of the league.
Diggins herself seems to have embraced all of the attention and at times reinforced some of society’s deeply problematic ideas of women in sports. In an interview with ESPN’s Scoop Jackson about the difficulty of being a beautiful athlete, Diggins said she looks up to the Danica Patricks and Lisa Leslies of the world. “Femininity, that’s the common denominator in all of these women,” she said. “I try to be like Lisa Leslie, her femininity. I can relate to that.”
There’s certainly nothing wrong with embracing your own gender expression. But in women’s sports, it’s not that easy. Women’s basketball in particular has long been associated with masculinity, and Diggins knows this perhaps better than anyone. After the Wayne-Chris Brown Twitter hoopla two years ago, video model Draya Michele played dirty by tweeting that Diggins is “aight for a ‘dude in a dress.’ “
But the straight male demographic remains a highly coveted one, and Diggins clearly understands this. “People have drafted up a picture of what a basketball player is supposed to look like, and I don’t think I fit that description,” Diggins recently said in an interview with Chicago news anchor Kate Sullivan. When Sullivan asked her directly if it bothered her that her appearance gets more attention than her game, Diggins replied, “I don’t care why they watch. I just want them to watch.”
* The story has been updated since publication.