This post has been updated.
A sports star is embroiled in a high-profile domestic violence incident. The star is widely condemned — perhaps suspended, perhaps prosecuted. And there are calls for reform.
Or, in the case of the Women’s National Basketball Association: not. After two engaged WNBA stars — Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner and the Tulsa Shock’s Glory Johnson — were arrested after a domestic dispute Wednesday, some are asking why the WNBA has not been scrutinized as closely as the NFL, the NBA and other professional sports leagues for what may be an endemic problem.
“Intimate partner violence among LGBT couples is also a huge problem that gets considerably less attention,” Jamilah King of Take Part wrote in a piece called “Women Pro Athletes Have a Domestic Violence Problem Too.” “. . . Last summer, they announced their engagement on Instagram. But as the details of this week’s ordeal emerge, the couple also shows that intimate partner violence within same-sex relationships is a problem that must be confronted.”
Of course, one can’t equate domestic violence in the WNBA with domestic violence in men’s professional sports. Last year, ESPN counted 48 players “considered guilty of domestic violence under league policy” in the NFL since 2000, and Bleacher Report noted nine NBA players charged with domestic assault in the past three years. Even the most creative Googling for “WNBA domestic assault” won’t return numbers like these.
Still, the league is not immune from the problem. Though WNBA players in legal trouble are not covered as closely as male pro athletes in similar jams, there were reports that Jantel Lavender of the Los Angeles Sparks was hit with a restraining order by her ex-boyfriend in 2011 after a fight; that former WNBA player Deanna “Tweety” Nolan was arrested for allegedly assaulting her wife in 2012; and in 2013, former WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw pleaded guilty to assault after her girlfriend, another WNBA player, reported Holdsclaw shot at her SUV.
Yet, when Congress wrote a letter urging professional sports leagues to clarify their domestic violence policies after the Ray Rice incident last year, the WNBA was not on the list of recipients.
“Congress’ failure to include the women’s leagues in this matter highlights the continual misconception that women can’t be perpetrators,” Alicia Tolar wrote at SB Nation’s Dynamo Theory last year. “Domestic violence isn’t a crime only committed by men, it is also committed by women.”
The WNBA’s players have not been totally silent on the issue. Former Charlotte Sting center Clarisse Machanguana once wrote about domestic violence in an undated column on the WNBA’s Web site, and retired WNBA player Ruthie Bolton has spoken of her experiences.
“He drank a lot and had about 15 guns,” Bolton, who played for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs from 1997 to 2004, said of her ex-husband at a panel on domestic violence in sports last year. “. . . Abuse doesn’t have a color, an age or a status. I lived through it.”
The WNBA, however, has not made its policy on domestic violence public, if it has one. The league retweeted the Tulsa Shock’s statement about Glory Johnson — more or less, a no comment — but has yet to offer a statement of its own. (Update: A brief statement released by the league is appended to the bottom of the story.)
Griner and Johnson’s four-to-six-minute altercation — which left Griner with a laceration on her left wrist and “a tooth mark on the middle finger of her right hand after it ended up in Glory Johnson’s mouth,” as the AP put it — comes at a bad time for the league. This was the dream couple that was supposed to bring the WNBA out of the closet.
“That something like this could happen — and to widespread positive reception — was not always a given in the WNBA, which used to shy away from its reputation as a league with a large lesbian fan base and a disproportionately large number of lesbian athletes,” The Washington Post’s Soraya McDonald wrote last year. “In 2009, the Washington Mystics eliminated the kiss cam from games, the better to head-off arena-wide broadcasts of lesbian kisses, sparking consternation from bloggers like Pat Griffin. In 2002, lesbian fans protested the New York Liberty when they felt the team was actively ignoring them.”
Now, that narrative is in shambles — and the explanations, apologies and, perhaps, changes in policy — appear to be on the horizon.
“The last few months have been an extremely stressful time for Brittney and Glory. They will continue to work through these hardships together and ask that the media respect their privacy as they handle this family matter,” Griner’s attorney, David Michael Cantor, said in a statement released Thursday. “Glory and Brittney sincerely apologize for the distraction this has caused their families, respective teams, the WNBA, sponsors and fans.”
Here is the WNBA’s statement on the incident: ““We are aware of the incident involving Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson and are working with the Phoenix Mercury and Tulsa Shock organizations to obtain more information.”