Brittney Griner made it clear, way in advance: No matter what happened Tuesday in the NCAA championship game against Notre Dame, she’s returning to Baylor for her senior season.
While most male college basketball stars of Griner’s caliber would have left for the NBA after their freshman year, the 6-foot-8 phenom will stay in school to earn her general studies degree in recreation.
”I’m staying. I made a commitment,” Griner said. ”I’m going to stay here until my time’s up, so all the speculations of me leaving early are false.”
After hearing her star player say those words at the press conference Saturday, coach Kim Mulkey asked her to repeat it again, ”A little louder so everyone could hear.”
Really, it’s not a huge shock that Griner will be headed back to Baylor.
Staying in school is the norm for marquee women’s college players. Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore played all four years. Candace Parker left Tennessee with a year of eligibility remaining, but she already had graduated when she was the top pick in the WNBA draft in 2008.
One big reason: The money offered to female players, whether in the United States or even abroad, just isn’t on the same scale as what men can earn.
While women players would certainly appreciate better pay in the pro ranks, they are more likely to graduate. An annual report released in March by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found players from the women’s teams in the NCAA tournament graduated at an overall rate of 89 percent, compared with 67 percent for the men.
Having players stick around also helps grow the women’s game, since fans actually get to see them blossom from freshmen to seniors. Only a few players have ever ventured out early, with former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince being the biggest star to do so, in 2009.
And in fact, it’s not as easy for female players to leave early as it is for men, even if they want to. The WNBA has a much stricter code of eligibility for players than the NBA.
To play in the WNBA, a player must turn 22 during the year they are drafted, graduate from college or see their class finish its coursework during the three-month period following the draft, or the player must be out of high school for four years.
”I think it’s a great rule,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. ”I think getting your education is the reason you go to college. I think that you want to come out with that degree so after your career ends at the old age of 30 or so you’re ready to go into the world and do something else. I think the money is so small that there isn’t the attraction that the men have to leave college and make that kind of money.”
While the top pick in the NBA could earn roughly $5 million dollars, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA makes about $48,000. The real financial windfall comes overseas for those players who choose to play in Russia or Turkey. Griner could potentially earn over $1 million.
”Everybody tells me I can make millions, but money isn’t everything,” Griner said. ”Money doesn’t buy happiness, and I made a commitment. When I make a commitment, I keep my word. And these are your best years, in college. I’m just trying to have my full experience. It was never tempting. I never really even had to think or debate about it.”
Griner isn’t the only marquee star playing Tuesday night who could play in the WNBA this summer. Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins is also eligible to enter the WNBA draft on April 16. Yet she also emphatically dismissed the idea, making it very clear she plans to stick around and get her degree in business.
”I’m committed to this program,” she said. ”I’m going to use all of my eligibility. I’m going to stay a kid as long as I can. I’m not ready for bills and things like that. I’m going to stay out of that. I’ve preached this before and I’m going to stick to it – getting my education is the most important thing. That’s a big reason why I chose Notre Dame, the education and what comes with that degree. It’s important. A lot of people take notice.”
While Diggins can’t play above the rim like Griner, she has already mastered the art of marketing herself. The junior guard has become one of the most followed female athletes on Twitter with over 191,000 followers.
She has said after graduating from Notre Dame she hopes to be a television analyst as well as a basketball player.
”We understand that we don’t make millions our first year out like the guys are capable of. And at the same time, I think it’s a loyalty to the program, the fans, the community, coach McGraw. I’m excited for next year at Notre Dame. I’m working on finishing this year, but I’m excited about coming back and finishing school. I only have 20 credits left. Knocking that out and being able to graduate in January would be perfect.”