The Skylar Diggins balancing act
Exceptional talent and beauty might give the Notre Dame guard tough choices to make
In sports every now and then, someone defies the sentence that condemns the rest of us. Every now and then, someone shows up with sovereign skills and supreme attractiveness, and it's unfair. How fair is it that, say, someone who looks like David Beckham is on the FIFA 100 "greatest living footballers" list? Tom Brady shouldn't be able to collect Super Bowl rings and MVP trophies.
The hard thing about beauty is that it can't be ignored. Especially when it's so hard to ignore that it obscures something deeper, something that in this case is the attempt to out-ball damn near every yet-to-turn-pro female basketball player in the world.
Beauty, in Skylar Diggins' case, should come secondary. I said should .
Diggins will tell you that she isn't kind.
In other words: Don't let that face fool you.
"I'm not nice," she says easily. "I don't think [Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw] recruited me as a point guard. But when Melissa Lechlitner left, I just naturally stepped into that role of wanting to make the decisions. I'm bossy, anyway. I got the bossy part down pat."
The smile on her face as she says this tells the story of a young lady coming into her own through the fire of women's college basketball. Finding Skylar.
Last year, when Diggins was moved from the 2-guard to the point, her life changed. She began to see the game differently. She began to invest differently.
Film fiending, for example. She started to break down games and her performance in them in ways Bill Belichick would appreciate. She noticed things. Because no mistake she made was ever the same, no correction of a mistake would ever have the same outcome.
"It was like taking another class," she says with a laugh. "And it was the hardest. My hardest class at Notre Dame: Film 101."
The game also began to see her differently. It began to see that she is Dawn Staley 2.0. It began to see that she could move far beyond the Sports Illustrated "Faces In The Crowd" mug shot that introduced her to the basketball world in March 2009. Beyond her Vashtie Kola resemblance. It began to see her as the face of the game.
THE NEXT BIG THING
Can Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins be the athlete who finally makes mainstream American sports fans fully appreciate the beauty of women's basketball? Luke Cyphers addressed that question in the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine. Read his story here.
During her Kemba Walker-ish run through the NCAA tournament last spring, her status, popularity and Twitter account blew up. R&B star Chris Brown got hooked. ("She's a cutie Congratulations, Beautiful," he tweeted.) Lil' Wayne let it be known he wanted to wife her. (His tweet: "Good lukk to my wife Skylar Diggins and the Fighting Irish.") By now, her Twitter account has 120,000-plus followers, more than any other NCAA basketball player male or female.
She laughs at the suggestion that perhaps she has as many "husbands" on Twitter as Lady Gaga has "monsters." ("I hadn't heard that one before," she says.)
Yet she reveals no diva qualities here.
"She's a humble girl. We talk all of the time. We have weekly meetings about life off the court," says Notre Dame assistant women's basketball coach Niele Ivey, a former All-American point guard for the Irish who was in some ways a prelude to Diggins. "Between the coaching staff and her family and with her mother being so close to her, we try to keep her grounded."
Ivey has been in the world Diggins now inhabits. She's been the basketball player who didn't fit the description of how a female player with elevated skills is supposed to look. She, too, is pretty. But Ivey acknowledges, without admitting that she's "been there, done that," that she's never seen anything, at least in NCAA sports, like what is happening with Diggins.
"Maybe this is what Beyonce has to deal with -- the celebrity of it," Ivey says. "I've never had anyone close to me that's had to deal with what Skylar's dealing with.
"I know it's very challenging for her. I told her, 'Sometimes I don't know if people realize what it's like to be in your shoes.' It's something that hasn't happened that much in our sport. But I can say this: Skylar is the type of player where people may come to the games because of her beauty, but they'll walk away saying, 'Wow, she can really play.' She gains a lot of respect by the way she plays, not because of how pretty she is."
Basketball is her matrimony. Diggins is married to the game, the rest of us are just engaged.
Q: What do you see when you look in the mirror?
A: "I see a woman who is competitive, who wants to win. Someone that's just driven. I don't know what's so surprising about [the way I look]. I mean, I see myself every day, so I don't know where I'm at on a scale of whatever-to-whatever. I just know I'm confident, and I think it shows through."
Q: What do you want to see when you look in the mirror?
A: "I want to see what I see. I mean, I'm just me. So like I'll take it. Whatever it is in the mirror, I'll take it."
Diggins will tell you that she isn't beautiful.
"I don't know what the world's mindset is when it comes to what a 'baller' should look like, but I guess I'm not that picture," she says. "I don't fit that picture."
She has a full understanding of the role and power of physical beauty in this culture, this world. She also understands how subjective it all is, how it takes so much more than an athlete's looks to make him or her beautiful.
Laila Ali, the boxer, has provided something of a blueprint for Diggins. From a distance, Ali seems to have shaped, in a small way, how Diggins moves forward.
"I respect her because she's the best at it," Diggins says. "She's beautiful. She's competitive. At the same time, she walks with a swag about her. A confidence and air. You can tell at any time, she's ready. She's competitive, but, at the same time, she keeps her femininity. And I think that's so important.
"Femininity. That's the common denominator."
And the goal, Diggins' goal, is to maintain a certain level of femininity while displaying dominance.
She doesn't necessarily look to herself to further address the issue of femininity. She looks at other female athletes, Danica Patrick and Lisa Leslie specifically, and sees in them what many see in her.
"When you see Danica Patrick on the [magazine] covers -- long beautiful hair and she's under a helmet. She's hidden," Diggins says. "Yet this beautiful woman came out of a race car, dominating in a male-dominated sport. It's the same thing as [Ali]. I see that and I just say, 'Wow. There's another woman representing herself in a male-dominated sport with femininity.'
"And then Lisa Leslie c'mon. She's the mother of the WNBA. She's my mentor. Like I said, femininity, that's the common denominator in all of these women. I try to be like [Leslie], her femininity. I can relate to that."
When asked about the prospect, maybe even likelihood, that she will one day be marked and marketed as the face of the WNBA, Diggins says, "I've never really thought that far I always only think about my chances of going to the league, playing at the next level, and just keep preparing myself in case that opportunity comes. So I don't know about 'the face of [the WNBA]' or whatever. I just want to play. I just want to win. So whatever all of that other stuff I'll just leave that. I leave that up to you all."
There are other women athletes who've survived the balancing act between excelling on the field of play and maintaining a marketable femininity. Lindsey Vonn. Anna Rawson. Maria Sharapova. Jennie Finch. Kim Glass. Ana Ivanovic. Just to drop names.
But in differing degrees and for a variety of reasons, not every female athlete keeps that kind of equilibrium. Michelle Wie, Allison Stokke, Francesca Piccinini, Malia Jones, for example. It isn't easy to control what ultimately defines them. Will it be the looks and the sex appeal that often is attached to them? (That's the Anna Kournikova experience, in which the young, attractive tennis player's looks were held against her by some because of the perception that she chose to emphasize her appearance rather than her skill.) Or will it be their talent that is their contribution via performance to the sport they play?
The question was put to Ivanovic, the three-time Grand Slam tennis champion: How difficult is it to be taken seriously as a world-class athlete and be considered "beautiful" or a "pretty girl" at the same time? She responded via email: "I don't feel that. I think that maybe the media are more concerned with this issue than the players. I see myself as a professional athlete and I am not thinking about my looks, or other players' looks. When I receive a compliment for how I look, it is very flattering. All girls like to receive compliments like this and I am no different. But it's not a big issue for me, to tell the truth."
No true athlete -- female or male -- cares to be remembered for not winning, or for using his or her sport as a jump-off into something else. That is why it is significant that Diggins sees a "competitor" in the mirror rather than the future face of the WNBA.
Diggins will let you know that her beauty means more to you than it does to her.
She appears comfortable in her awareness that she is much deeper than what we see on the surface, as beautiful as that surface might be. At 21 years old, Diggins seems to have found a place that doesn't allow her to see herself as anything less than the "craftiest" (her word choice), smartest and (Brittney Griner, Nneka Ogwumike and Elena Delle Donne notwithstanding) possibly best nonprofessional women's basketball player in the world.
That's her mission: Possible.
As Leslie -- the former WNBA, Team USA and Southern California star -- says over the phone, "I don't know that a person who is truly beautiful on the outside knows how cute they are. A lot of the time, it's everyone else's perception. The good thing with Skylar is that she's dealing with what's on the inside, and that's where her true beauty shines through."
Is this objectification? Is it sexist?
Is it fixated too much on looks and attractiveness and the role they play in our thoughts and behavior and how we celebrate certain people?
Or is Diggins an example of how and why certain beauty just can't be ignored?
Newsweek magazine recently did a cover story on Angelina Jolie, unarguably one of the most beautiful people breathing. The story is about her directorial debut with "In The Land of Blood and Honey," and how she might soon be a more influential power broker in Hollywood than she already is. It's about how talented she is both on and behind the camera, about how through film and activism, she has earned the power to literally change the world. A close-up of her face graces the cover.
Inside that magazine is a photo spread straight out of Vogue. It's the sort of layout you'd never see with a story about Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Or Kathryn Bigelow, Nancy Meyers or Sofia Coppola.
Beauty, at the Jolie level, does that. It forces us to pay attention to it, even when it isn't part of the story. It's unfair. She has everything, yet we can't stop just looking at her. More to the point, we often don't look past her surface.
To some degree, this eventually will be Diggins' challenge. Whether that challenge is eternal is the question we'll watch play out. Will her game have the power to make it disappear?
In the context of sports -- and probably for the greater good of the game -- maybe it is best to ignore it. Act as if no one sees her beauty because, at the end of the day, that isn't what makes Skylar Diggins a special basketball player.
What's interesting about Diggins is that the beauty is her mind. She gets it, it seems, and refuses to fall victim to it. So when she leaves Notre Dame -- she's in her junior season -- and enters the next phase of her life, the hope is that this issue can be an afterthought. The hope is that what she does will speak for her, not how she looks.
Skylar Diggins will tell you that, for her, it's ball above all. It's on us to look past her beauty to see that.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
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