Cathy Engelbert: League will investigate GM Penny Toler’s behavior after ESPN Report

The WNBA will investigate the Sparks following a report from Ramona Shelburne documenting the culture within the organization, including use of racial slurs during the playoffs

During an appearance on ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Thursday afternoon, the WNBA’s Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league will be formally reviewing allegations against Sparks GM and former WNBA player Penny Toler. According to the report, Toler used profane language and racial epithets in a speech to her players after game two in the playoff semi-final round against the Connecticut Sun.

“We’ll be looking into this as a league,” Engelbert told Ryan Smith of OTL. “We understand the heat of the moment and that the Sparks lost in the semifinals but we don’t condone that kind of language and will be reviewing it over the next couple of days. We have to review the situation…certainly something we’re going to look at.”

“[We] don’t condone that kind of language,” Engelbert said. “[There is] no place in our league [for that].”

Ramona Shelburne appeared on ESPN’s Coast to Coast to discuss her story with host Cari Champion just before 1PM ET on Thursday afternoon. When asked to clarify the players’ reaction to Toler, Shelburne clarified that the current and past Sparks players she spoke to had heard Toler speak in this manner before and understood she was trying to “fire the team up.”

“So people understood where she was coming from in addressing the team like that, but not in the way that the message was delivered,” she told Champion. “The descriptions I’ve got just made them really uncomfortable. For people who haven’t heard her give a speech like that before and use that kind of language looked at people in the room like ‘Woah’… they hadn’t been addressed like that.”

A player she spoke to mentioned the change in the current culture noting that “you can’t talk like that” in 2019.  According to the Shelburne’s reporting, the nature of Toler’s locker room speech, which included threatening remarks to players regarding their future on the Sparks’ roster if the team got swept by the Sun, prompted Head Coach Derek Fisher’s game three benching of 2X League MVP Candance Parker. 

“I think that was bracing,” Shelburne said. “That set the stage for what happened in game three because Derek Fisher was [Toler’s]  hire as the head coach. And when the coach hears a message like that, it puts pressure on them. They were obviously facing elimination at that stage. There was a confrontation between [6X All-Star] Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker and Derek Fisher in the practice before game three and it led to what…was a very strange performance in game three and all five starters were on the bench at the end of the third quarter and didn’t play the rest of the game.”

A few hours later on Thursday afternoon, ESPN’s The Jump discussed the situation. Joined by six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen and ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan, Rachel Nichols expressed her frustration and confusion over the allegations while citing trust in the reporting of her colleague.

“… I certainly trust Ramona Shelburne and her sourcing on this and if the players came to her and said ‘this really bothered me,’ that’s enough for me.”

Elhassan was startled by Toler’s presence in the locker room, citing that providing a “speech that [she] hoped would get [the Sparks] going” was not part of her portfolio as the general manager.

“Generally you want to let your coaches handle the fiery speeches…” he said on air. “The GM, the  front office doesn’t enter the locker room and do that because there’s a chain of command when it comes to this.”

In a statement to ESPN, Toler explained her side of the situation and aims to move forward as  General Manager of the Sparks.

“In my 20 years as General Manager of the Los Angeles Sparks, my mission has been to help the Sparks grow as a franchise and compete at the highest levels, while creating a supportive culture for our athletes. Like any executive, coach or player in professional sports, I am extremely passionate about our organization and have at times used spirited language to motivate the team.

“However, no one is above criticism or feedback and I am committed to ensuring my words consistently reflect the Sparks values of a productive and positive working environment moving forward. I will take this as a learning opportunity and grow from this and make sure that not only myself, but my staff, team and the entire organization is cognizant of the language we use in the locker room.”

The stage is set for Commissioner Engelbert to handle her first situation as the league’s lead disciplinarian. The last time the WNBA took disciplinary action was on July 16, the day before Engelbert began her term as WNBA Commissioner. The league suspended Sparks Guard Riquna Williams for 10  games as a result of her April arrest on two felony charges of domestic violence.

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