‘Kelsey Plum plays like James Harden:’ Why do great female athletes always have to be compared to men?

Wow, that Lonzo Ball kid plays just like Elena Delle Donne. 

That’s a statement you’ll likely never hear. Because no one would compare this year’s predicted No. 1 NBA draft pick to a female WNBA basketball player, right?

Turn the tables, though, and comparing a great female athlete to a male player is totally commonplace. Case in point: In January, Bleacher Report published a video that compared Kelsey Plum, the predicted No. 1 pick for the WNBA Draft this Thursday, to the NBA’s James Harden of the Houston Rockets. The video has since gone viral, sparking similar copycat videos, including one by University of Washington Athletics and causing a firestorm of discussion on Twitter. 

Being compared to men is nothing new for female athletes, however. In fact, it’s pretty standard practice to equate a female athlete to a male great in her sport once she reaches a certain level of skill and dominance. Katie Ledecky is the next Michael Phelps. Alex Morgan is the Lionel Messi of women’s soccer. And so on and so forth. Because at that height of their athletic careers, these women are so good that they couldn’t possibly be compared to another woman, right?

Wrong.

So why does this happen? And why don’t we see the reverse happening, too?

In a press conference held last Thursday in advance of the 2017 WNBA Draft, ESPN analysts Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson offered a few explanations.

Lobo, in particular, says the WNBA is still so new—only 20 years old—to boast the kind of talent pool that engenders easy comparisons in the instance of Plum, who possesses a unique skill set in the sport. 

“When have we seen a player [in the WNBA] with this skill set, with this efficiency, with that body type? I can’t think of one, and so I think that’s why we sometimes go to comparing them to the men’s players,” Lobo told reporters. “Five years down the road or whatever, if theres another 6-foot-4 kid that can play like Breanna Stewart, it’s easy, then you can make that comparison. But right now, that’s the great part of the WNBA that you have these unique physical specimens, unique skill sets that are coming along and we haven’t seen them before and that’s a perfect example of how the game is evolving.” 

Lobo also points to a sheer difference in volume between professional male and female players. Look at the numbers and you’ll find at least five times more players in the NBA’s 71-year history than women in the WBNA since the league’s inaugural season in 1997. That makes trying to find a great male basketball player to compare Plum to a whole lot easier than staying within her same gender.  

“You want to whenever possible try to compare WNBA players to other WNBA players, but I think we’re just seeing a generation that’s doing things we haven’t seen before in terms of the talent level, the skill, the athleticism,” Robinson said. “So we find ourselves making a different comparison at this point [to men’s players].”

[More from Excelle Sports: Washington’s Kelsey Plum breaks NCAA record, loses dance-off]

On the other hand, perhaps the WNBA has seen Plum’s level of talent before—it’s just that few have ever witnessed it or, if they have, they can’t recall it so distinctly. Think about the player attributes of three WNBA legends: Lisa Leslie’s athleticism, Sheryl Swoopes’ skill set and Cynthia Cooper’s basketball IQ. These three comprise more talent than a few entire NBA teams cobbled together. 

In other words, isn’t the WNBA’s 20 years and roughly 140 players per season enough talent to provide a pool of apt comparisons? 

Still, though, there’s another murkier question at hand: Would a video comparing Plum to Cooper have gone viral like the one that likened the Husky to Harden? Definitely not.

In fact, most traditional sports fans don’t even know who Cynthia Cooper is, while Harden, on the other hand, is a big name in mainstream America who instantly rings a bell with almost everyone, thanks to the unrivaled amount of media exposure NBA players receive compared to those in the WNBA.

All this throws up a big barrier for many female athletes: They want the recognition and publicity that comes when they’re compared to male players, but they don’t want the frustration that they have to be equated with male, not female athletes since women aren’t yet recognized to the extent they should be. 

Last year, WNBA Rookie of the Year Breanna Stewart, after being constantly compared to NBA player Kevin Durant, didn’t hold back about her preference to be compared to the female players.

“Every time I’ve been compared to someone, it’s most likely a men’s player,” she told The New York Times in 2016. “Very rarely is it someone like Elena Delle Donne, who also has that versatility. When people compare me to K.D., yeah, that’s a compliment. But then, it’s like, whoa, men’s basketball and women’s basketball are two different sports. What we do is different. How we play is different. So, you know, I think we need to start making more comparisons to women who are equally successful as K.D., but in our sport. Taurasi. Maya. Tamika Catchings. Delle Donne. Candace Parker. They deserve to be rewarded for that.”

[More from Excelle Sports: WATCH: Kelsey Plum gets closer to NCAA scoring record with a 44-point performance]

While Lobo and Robinson can help us understand from a cultural-historical standpoint why WNBA players are compared to NBA stars, the phenomenon goes beyond the two leagues and even the sport itself. Female athletes in all sports and across all different levels can likely recall at least one time when someone told them, “You play like a guy.” It’s a twisted compliment that can corner you into feeling flattered, but confused at the same time. That feeling, unfortunately, is another subtle example of how female athletes are often perceived, as well as marketed in mainstream media, as inferior to male athletes in the first place.

So what will it take to put women athletes on the same level as men?

According to Lobo and Robinson, the WNBA in particular needs a longer history and a bigger talent pool of players.

But perhaps on a more universal scale, it also takes a time when someone, finally, says about a great male athlete, “Oh yeah, he definitely plays like her.”

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