“In My Skin” co-author Sue Hovey on writing Brittney Griner’s story

At only 23-years-old it might seem like Brittney Griner hasn’t lived a life warranting a memoir. Should that be the way you think, I offer to you In My Skin, the book in question from the out WNBA star as penned with former ESPN editor (and openly gay writer) Sue Hovey.

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Even if you are not a sports fan, there is still plenty of story for you to enjoy in In My Skin. The book chronicles Brittney’s misfit youth in Houston, Texas where she shared a deep bond with her mother and a painful relationship with her father. An outsider for her height, voice and sexuality, Brittney found it difficult to fit in at school and was bullied until she was prompted to fight back. Detailing her sadness and anger as a child up through her coming out process before entering Baylor University as the number one women’s college basketball recruit in the country, In My Skin has Brittney opening up as both an honest and humble person who admits to mistakes and has faith in even those who do her wrong.

Sue Hovey said she met the Phoenix Mercury player through Brittney’s agent, and then spent several weeks flying to talk to with her throughout her first WNBA season last summer.

“I did say to her right up front that the more open and honest you can be, and also talking about whatever mistakes she thinks she made along the way, the more powerful it would make her story,” Sue said. “And I think she really grasped that right from the beginning.”

Brittney’s candidness makes In My Skin an accessible read for even those who aren’t sports fans. While there is a lot about her time spent on the court and in the locker room, it’s her relationships with the people around her — her family, her coach, her peers, her girlfriends—that really make up the bulk of the content.

“She was just really open and honest from the get go, and I think a lot of that goes back to once she left Baylor and focused on her pro career, it was like she didn’t want to hold back anymore,” Sue said.

Although Brittney had been out to the people in her life since she was a teenager, she wasn’t allowed to be publicly gay while attending Baylor University, the Waco, Texas Baptist school with one of the nation’s best basketball programs. She writes in the book about her coach, Kim Mulkey, forcing her to stay in the closet and how it took a huge toll on her emotional well being.

“What’s always impressed me about her from the beginning was her openness, her honesty, her rawness,” Sue said. “I think you make a really good point that too often I feel like it’s always great when people when a name or celebrity comes out and it feels like they never then want to talk about it. Not everyone has to be a role model and everyone has to do what’s in their comfort zone, but I just think the more she puts out there, the more she gets back. The way people respond to her–it becomes this wonderful kind of circle to watch. She puts it out there and then she gets this warmth back and I think it encourages her to keep on being who she is.”

Sue Hovey
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And because Brittney is out and proud, she has also forced the discussion about lesbians and the WNBA, a league that has had many queer female players, coaches and fans, but not necessarily embraced them up until the last few years. That’s something Sue knows a lot about after a career in sports journalism.

“I still think there’s a little bit of reticence on their part to acknowledge their LGBT fanbase,” Sue said. “I think that they are getting better, honestly. I think in a lot of ways Brittney didn’t give them a choice, really, because she’s been out since day one and she’s one of the the faces for the league, and they are really—the WNBA is happy to have her as a face for the league. It’s good for them. She’s controversial in certain ways and I think that they’re realizing that that’s not a bad thing either.”

In the book, Brittney writes that the WNBA attempted to sex up the uniforms, which elicited laughs from the players. They were not interested in tight shorts and barely-there tops. They were (and still are) interested in being comfortable and playing ball.

“For far far too long women’s sports has been packaged in this really narrow feminine way and in the past couple years, we’re seeing that more women want to be marketed authentically, including straight female athletes, too,” Sues aid. “Sex doesn’t actually sell. Studies have shown that marketing somebody as authentic and athletic is going to help them more.”

Brittney’s being so unapologetic has led to some controversies, which is one reason fans will be picking up the book. And she doesn’t shy away from those topics, because she, too, knows what people are curious about. From her infamously punching Jordan Barncastle during a game her freshman year to her outspokenness about Baylor’s homophobic policies since having graduated, Brittney lays it all out without placing blame or pointing fingers.

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“There’s this vocal minority, a lot of folks in the Waco community who—they seem to be taking it really hard,” Sue said. “It’s almost like they think Brittney has somehow rejected them. Because they like to think they were very supportive while she went there. And I think if somebody actually reads the book, I’d say read it carefully but I think even if you try to read it, it’s not so black and white. I think a lot of people set it up like Baylor vs. Brittney or Brittney vs. Kim Mulkey, her coach and it’s more complicated than that. She has a very complicated relationship with Baylor because she met some really wonderful people there, she loved playing basketball there. The Baylor community loves her. I think what people seem to not understand and I see this comment a lot, people say, ‘We supported her there! We showed her love. Look at how she’s acting now. She seemed so happy when she was here! She didn’t look like somebody who was upset.’ I kind of want to say, ‘Is it really that hard to understand the concept that somebody might be trying to put their best face forward in public but then they go home and they’re crying because they don’t feel like they can totally be themselves?’”

Sue noted that Brittney was only 16 at the time she committed to Baylor, who was only one of several schools working hard to recruit her early on. Before moving to Waco she reached out to her coach to ask if her being gay was a problem, and was told it wasn’t; that as long as she could come play basketball, that was all that mattered. But once she began playing, it was a different story.

“She had some positive memories of Baylor, but it was a struggle for her too,” Sue said. “And I just think too often people say, ‘We’re not saying you can’t be gay, just keep it behind closed doors’—I think when you start to see that means different things for gay people as opposed to her straight teammates who talk about their boyfriends on Facebook. She couldn’t really be public about it.”

Some critics think that Brittney was naive about choosing to go to a school with such a policy in place (Baylor does not allow any kind of pro-homosexual activity on campus) but Sue said she thinks that’s an unfair assumption.

“People say like, ‘Well she didn’t do her due diligence, especially having grown up in Houston, three hours away from Waco. She should have known that Baylor was conservative Baptist school and she should have learned more about the policies.’ I’m sorry—she was 16 years old when she committed,” Sue said. “Speaking from personal experience, I decided when I was 16 that I was going to go to Syracuse University because they have a great journalism program. Do you think I was reading the student handbook and figuring out the policies? I don’t think that’s realistic to expect a teenager who, the main reason she went to Baylor, let’s not forget, is because they have a great basketball program.”

Besides the fact it was close to home, and one of the best basketball schools in the country, Brittney also knew several of the players and assistant coach from summer camps, so going to Baylor felt like a comfortable decision for a teenage girl whose father never let her leave the house.

“I don’t think she was going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out ‘What are the politics of the university?’ And we talked about that a lot,” Sue said. “It was very clear to me that she didn’t know and her parents did not know.”

And of course Baylor was not about to lose their recruit because she was a lesbian.

“She’s this amazing athletic talent. She’s 6 foot 8. Baylor wants her to play basketball!” Sue said. “I don’t think they really wanted to address this. I don’t know too many coaches in the country that would have said to her, ‘Oh well actually, yeah maybe you should go to Tennessee instead, or some other school.’ I could go on and on about that because I think the people making those comments are making those from a very comfortable privileged place and they’re not really putting themselves in the shoes of a 16-year-old who went to Baylor for a very specific reason.”

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There are light-hearted moments in the book, too, such as Brittney’s longboarding adventures and victories in dunking. Moments where she speaks of meeting and courting her girlfriend, Cherelle, are heartwarming and offer another side to the star ball player. These parts, Sue said, will not get as much attention as the controversial items, but she loves them the most.

“[I like the] chapter that shows her summer in Phoenix as she’s playing her first season in the WNBA and she’s living with her girlfriend for the first time and they kind of spontaneously—it wasn’t super spontaneous—but decide to adopt a dog,” Sue said. “Britney spends a lot of time her senior year in college yearning for the freedom that comes with being a professional player and being an adult. I think we all go through that in college: ‘Finally, we’re out in the ‘real world.’ And then you realize, ‘Oh, oh I am an adult now!’ and you have to figure out what that means. And she’s very honest in talking about some of the mistakes she made and she realized that maybe dog ownership is not the best thing for her right now with her travels. So I think that there’s parts in the book along the way where you nod your head and smile, because you see … where she’s struggling a lot with people, but then she’s struggling with the stuff that we’re sort of all struggling with: growing up, growing older, learning who we are. And she’s really smart about those things.”

Sue said that Brittney is really a very funny woman to be around, a warm person with comedic timing.

“She’s great with people. I saw her at her book signing in Nashville and there’s a long line of people and every person who went on that stage to get her autograph, she’s just so warm with them,” Sue said. “She has that thing that celebrities have. I mean that in a good way. She has a lot of charisma. I’ve met lot’s of talented athletes who are smart and wonderful people and great to talk to, but she just oozes charisma.”

As for why Brittney, at only 23, is releasing a memoir now? Sue said it was the perfect time for someone who had a lot to add to the conversation on bullying and self-acceptance, two major themes of In My Skin.

“When she left Baylor, she was the number one pick in the WNBA draft, she came out in the beginning of her career, she signed with Nike, Mark Cuban said they tracked her for the Dallas Mavericks — so she was definitely in this moment and I think she realized that this is a great time to capitalize on getting this message out there,” Sue said. “And it coincides with, over the past year I think we’ve seen, especially in sports but in broader society, much more conversation around the issue of bullying and how destructive it can be.”

What Sue said Brittney wants most is to give young people someone to look up to, a role model in professional sports who is proud to be who they are, even if that’s different from what everyone else wants her to be.

“She wants to tell her story so that somebody younger who might be struggling with some of the same things that she struggled with can look at her and say, ‘Things turned out pretty well for Brittney Griner.’ She herself didn’t really—she felt like she didn’t really have somebody like that when she was struggling with these things. This confluence events and the timing of the book is perfect. I think she understood that and probably understands that even more now. As the process went along, in doing the book, it also helped her develop her own voice. And I just really admire her willingness—when you step out as a gay athlete, you’re putting a lot on your shoulders. And she’s willing to take power and I think that’s very admirable.”

In My Skin is available now.

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