What have we learned from the WNBA’s domestic violence cases?
Good news and bad news — which do you want first?
The WNBA has been the subject of recent stories on major news websites and mainstream sports outlets, such as NPR, The Washington Post and FOX News. Unfortunately, these stories don’t relate to the on-court product the league works tirelessly to promote, but rather the recent off-the-court drama surrounding instances of domestic violence among its players.
It’s refreshing to see such respected channels lending coverage to the WNBA and acknowledging the significance of domestic violence. However, the conflicting messages that the players and the league are providing in the media have only further justified the need for a domestic violence clause in the WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
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While the current CBA does not include any policies relating to punishment for a player involved in instances of domestic violence, the agreement is set to expire at the end of this year.
It’s paramount for the next one to include the creation of a formal set of consequences and treatment. With every new player’s name mentioned as having possibly engaged in DV, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is an issue the league can’t, and shouldn’t, simply ignore or deal with on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s sad to think about, but it’s almost like fixing something once it’s broken instead of taking the precautions to prevent situations like this from happening,” Los Angeles Sparks forward and WNBA Players’ Union president Nneka Ogwumike said on Saturday.
Due to the absence of such a policy, the league has drawn criticism in its handling of the cases that have made headlines this year, most recently after suspending Sparks Guard Riquna Williams 10 games on Tuesday. Williams, whose case was reported in detail by High Post Hoops, will miss over 29% of this season — a steep penalty for a situation involving an ongoing criminal case.
The league announced this suspension shortly after news of another player, Natasha Howard, potentially committing acts of violence against her significant other. The league has yet to release a formal statement on Howard, but her team, the Seattle Storm, simply mentioned that they’re collecting additional information.
The main confusion surrounding the Williams case and all of its involved parties is rooted in the statements to the press that have already been made. They present conflicting viewpoints and only promote a greater sense of ambiguity around the league’s opinions toward DV among mainstream audiences consuming this news.
When Williams was officially suspended, the league’s statement read, “Based on the investigation, consultation, and a careful weighing of all the facts and circumstances, the WNBA determined that a ten-game suspension was appropriate,” which is strong, conclusive language for a criminal case that is ongoing.
The Sparks’ official statement also implied that they were, in essence, conceding, and willing to fully accept the league’s consequences.
“As an organization, we abhor violence of any kind and specifically take domestic violence allegations very seriously,” the statement read. “We will provide whatever resources we are allowed to help Riquna learn and grow from this unfortunate situation.”
This is clearly a player with whom Los Angeles is reluctant to sever ties — the organization re-signed her in May even after the ongoing charges were announced, and the 29-year-old guard is averaging 11.5 points per game this year. Explicitly stating that it will provide resources to help a player through an “unfortunate situation” immediately following its condemnation of domestic violence implies that the Sparks believe the matter is over, and that it’s already willing to begin the reparation process.
However, where the lack of a policy has further skewed the public perception of DV within the WNBA has been the responsibility of Williams’ fellow players to address the matters themselves.
The WNBA Players Union, in somewhat of a shocking contrast from the previous information and press releases already published, sharply opposed the suspension and deemed it unfair to Williams to deprive her of the opportunity to defend herself. The Union also filed a grievance in relation to the matter.
“We are disappointed with the league’s actions. There is an ongoing criminal proceeding and in fairness to the player, the league could have and should have awaited its completion before taking any action,” Union Executive Director Terri Jackson said.
An aim of a potential comprehensive DV policy shouldn’t simply account for how and where the two sides should express their positions on an individual case, but explicitly state at what point throughout the entire process a player’s official punishment will be released to the public.
Jackson is directly criticizing the timing of the league’s suspension, and although she implies she believes a decision was reached too early, Sports Illustrated detailed how Williams was initially hit with serious felony charges.
Williams was arrested on April 29 for aggravated assault with a deadly firearm, and the weapon was known to be in the mix of the story from the initial news release — the timing for the suspension seems odd and misplaced. These charges could’ve been grounds for immediate suspension, but Williams has already played 15 games this season for the Sparks.
A policy should also outline how other players discuss the subject with the media. Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka’s teammate and sister, made a statement at practice on Wednesday that didn’t address the incident itself, or Williams’ actions, at all.
“When people go through personal situations, it’s tough,” Ogwumike said. “For her [Riquna] to deal with that, our whole team has really been proud of her, because we have jobs at the end of the day. And for her to come ready, be team-first, and be a selfless player and to also help us get wins while dealing with the situation, which is unfortunate, is not easy for anyone to deal with.”
The situation was a no-win moment for Ogwumike, largely the making of a lack of policy structure. Ogwumike was asked to comment about an ongoing criminal investigation involving her teammate. Speak out in support of the teammate and look callous about what the victim alleges. Speak up in support of the victim and look like you are criticizing your teammate.
All of it avoidable with a league protocol that includes, for instance, administrative leave while the incident is resolved legally, followed by punishment if deemed necessary, as it is done by Major League Baseball.
“When situations like that occur, it’s no longer players, teams, organizations,” Nneka told High Post Hoops on Saturday, “This is a person. We have to understand that these are lives that are being affected in ways we don’t want [them to be].”
Other sports leagues have formal rules in place to handle instances of domestic violence: the NFL’s rules specify a six-game suspension upon first offense and a potential lifetime ban from the league upon subsequent offenses. The NBA and MLB have also instituted formal policies — there’s no reason the WNBA, a professional basketball association, shouldn’t do the same.
This isn’t about the punishment in one case. It’s a question of the review process and manner in which a final decision is communicated to the media — and whether that is to be dictated by a formal domestic violence policy, not on a random, case-by-case schedule.
It is worth mentioning that the league, among its other sanctions enforced against Williams, is requiring the guard to attend counseling sessions. This is a vital component to any new policy — taking harsh action and cracking down is insufficient without the ultimate well-being and mental health among its players remaining a priority.
New WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert began her tenure on July 17 and, according to Forbes, identified her immediate priorities as improving financial metrics and business models. The day the current CBA expires, there should be one other task that slides above the rest for Ms. Engelbert to accomplish.
“It just takes bringing it to the table and to discussion,” said Nneka Ogwumike. “It’s definitely something on the agenda that we can come together to discuss to make sure we can really handle as professionally and fairly as possible.”