As corporate America continues to warm to the LGBTQ community, advertisers have begun to recruit new types of faces as role models. Following that cue, Nike is now sponsoring its first openly gay professional athlete: new WNBA player Brittney Griner.
But it’s not just Griner’s sexuality that makes the endorsement excitingly progressive: Griner has also been granted free reign when it comes to her gender expression. Rather than wearing womenswear like Nike’s other female athletes, Griner will don apparel designed for men like Nike SB, the company’s skateboarding brand.
“It’s safe to say we jumped at the opportunity to work with her because she breaks the mold,” said Brian Strong, a Nike spokesperson, told ESPN Magazine. The same publication ran a fantastic profile on Griner and her journey over the years.
Although the financial figure of the deal comes to under $15,000 (falling well short of the million dollar endorsements of some of the big-name NBA superstars), Griner, who admits she often shops in the men’s department at stores, is happy to have the opportunity to put her atypical personal style on display. “It’s what I feel comfortable in, it’s my dress identity.”
Griner is currently one of the hottest names in women’s basketball, making headlines after scoring a record two slam dunks in her very first WNBA game. She also earned attention when (as Care2 reported) NBA bigwigs stirred speculation that she would be drafted to play professionally with the men instead. In the short couple of months between college and starting in the WNBA, Griner has been busy making her true identity known: “I am a strong, black, lesbian woman,” she said. “Every single time I say it, I feel so much better.”
Technically, Griner first came out her freshman year of high school, but found herself more or less closeted again when she arrived at Baylor University. In her first weeks at school, college personnel instructed her to delete Tweets that openly made reference to an ex-girlfriend.
While Griner never pretended to be someone she was not, due to the ongoing pressure, she wasn’t explicit about her identity either. “It was a recruiting thing,” Griner said. “The coaches thought if it seemed like they condoned [homosexuality], people wouldn’t let their kids play for Baylor.”
Unlike Baylor, the WNBA seems happier to have a controversial figure like Griner. Amber Cox, the President of the Phoenix Mercury (Griner’s team) said, “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.”
Indeed, since making her sexuality public, Griner admits she has faced some criticism. Some have tweeted her things like “Ur a man” and “What are you? #man? #ape?”, but Griner takes it in stride. “Reading what people say makes me want to be me even more,” she said.
And now Nike (which we should acknowledge is far from a great company) will give Griner a chance to be herself in a heightened public spotlight, while helping to redefine the idea of what types of people are considered marketable.
Photo Credit: Sphilbrick