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Analysis

As WNBA faces domestic violence problem, new commissioner stresses ‘protecting the brand’

Cathy Englebert inherited a festering problem from her predecessors. Now her first big test will be solving it.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 15: Riquna Williams #2 of the Los Angeles Sparks handles the ball against Tanisha Wright #30 of the New York Liberty during a WNBA basketball game at Staples Center on June 15, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 15: Riquna Williams #2 of the Los Angeles Sparks handles the ball against Tanisha Wright #30 of the New York Liberty during a WNBA basketball game at Staples Center on June 15, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

The WNBA doesn’t have a domestic violence policy. But, as this season has shown, it needs one. Desperately.

Last week, Los Angeles Sparks guard Riquana Williams was suspended 10 games for an alleged domestic violence incident with her ex-girlfriend during the offseason. Two weeks ago, the wife of Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard accused Howard of domestic violence in Twitter posts that included graphic photos, videos, and text message conversations. Howard is still playing. This week, she was named the WNBA’s Player of the Week. On Saturday, she will start in the WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The WNBA usually revels in being at the forefront of social justice causes. However, they’ve been rudderless when dealing with the Williams and Howard cases. Unlike sports leagues such as the NFL, NBA, and MLB, the WNBA’s current collective bargaining agreement does not address domestic violence specifically. Further complicating matters, both of these cases occurred while the WNBA was without a commissioner. Cathy Engelbert, the former CEO of Deloitte, was named the new WNBA commissioner in May, and just stepped into the role on July 17.

On Sunday afternoon, Engelbert met with ThinkProgress and two other reporters for an intimate conversation in Washington, D.C., ahead of a game between the Washington Mystics and Atlanta Dream, and addressed the steps the league needs to take when it comes to domestic violence.

“First, we take these all very serious, and obviously, I’ll jump right in,” Engelbert said.

She said that the current CBA negotiations — the players opted out of their current CBA last October, and the current one will expire this fall — provide a great opportunity to get all parties at the same table and “make sure that everybody understands this is a league where brand is really important.”

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Engelbert’s concern over branding evokes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s often amoral edict to “protect the shield.” Mere days into her tenure, it’s worth extending her the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, the league is under a spotlight, and needs to show it is willing and able to appropriately address the severity of the allegations its players are facing, handle the nuances that come with situations where women are the abusive partner, and show transparency and sincerity along the way.

Concern about “the brand”

Engelbert is very proud of her corporate background, and it’s a huge reason why she got the job. She is supposed to bring the business savvy that the WNBA craves as it attempts to stop merely sustaining, and start thriving — in the financial sense, of course. But her corporate career is very evident in the vocabulary she uses when discussing domestic violence.

“We need to make sure that we’re protecting the brand and enhancing the brand and that we’re doing the right thing around discipline and training and resources,” she said on Sunday. “[We need to make] sure everybody understands their obligations around that, because the brand is so important. Our brand here at the W is that important.”

Engelbert added that she wants to come up with a comprehensive way to address domestic violence, one that involves preventative and support resources, not just discipline.

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“The league has to do its role in investigating them and getting all the facts. So that’s important,” Engelbert said. “But I do think we have an opportunity, because we’re in collective bargaining negotiations now, together with the players, to develop training, discipline, and resources for the players and their families, and make sure that we’re supporting them in these tough situations.”

Overall, she described this as an “opportunity” for the league to make a positive change, and said that because of her experience working in the corporate world, this was “something that I know how to tackle.”

The WNBA has dealt with domestic violence issues in the past. In 2015, when the then-married Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury and Glory Johnson of the Dallas Wings were both arrested for domestic violence, the league suspended them both for seven games. Griner pleaded guilty, while Johnson pleaded not guilty. But even after that high-profile incident, the league failed to take steps towards developing a comprehensive policy.

In conversation with ThinkProgress, Engelbert could not immediately offer concrete recommendations on how to accomplish this goal — again, an understandable situation given the fact that it was only her fourth day on the job. Unfortunately, her predecessors’ lack of response will force her to act quickly. Fans are frustrated because domestic abuse — and the WNBA’s subsequent inaction — has cast a shadow over the season. And these allegations are far more than an exercise in bad branding.

The severity of the allegations

Williams was arrested in January on two felony charges stemming from a domestic violence investigation into a dispute with her ex-girlfriend. She faces one count of burglary with assault or battery, and one count of aggravated assault with a firearm. She has pleaded “not guilty” to both charges, but the videos and police reports from the night in question paint a disturbing picture.

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Even given this information, the Sparks re-signed her in May, and played her in every game this season until the suspension was handed down last week. She was frequently promoted on social media channels for the Sparks and WNBA during this time, and her teammates and head coach Derek Fisher have stood by her.

The WNBA Players Union is currently appealing the suspension, saying that the league should have waited until her court case was complete to hand down discipline.

“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,” said WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson. If the league had a specific policy in place for these matters, such grey area could be avoided.

And now, just as the league was finally dealing with Williams, the allegations against Howard surfaced. Howard’s wife has not pressed criminal charges — she said she wants Howard to get help, not be put behind bars — and Howard has denied the allegations, filed for divorce, requested a restraining order, and accused her wife of stabbing her and stealing $600,000. But the photographs, videos, and text messages her wife shared on twitter, which have not yet been verified, are incredibly damning.

If the WNBA had a policy that allowed it to put players on a paid suspension while investigations into this matter were pending — similar to what the NFL and NBA do — then this wouldn’t be quite as big of a problem. The league wouldn’t have to put Howard front and center during its All-Star week celebrations. But, five years ago, when pro sports leagues across the country were revamping their domestic violence policies in the wake of the Ray Rice case, the WNBA wasn’t proactive.

“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 told High Post Hoops.

The question is, why didn’t a league which considers itself to be so progressive, not lead the way on this front? There’s no way to know for sure, but the answer might be right there in the name.

Same-sex intimate partner violence

Domestic violence is typically associated with with straight relationships where the male is the abuser and the female is the victim. But, of course, women can abuse their male partners, nonbinary individuals can abuse and be abused, and women can abuse their same-sex partner. This is why Aditi Bhattacharya, the the deputy director of client services at the New York City Anti-Violence Project — a group that specifically works to reduce violence against LGBTQ individuals — told ThinkProgress that she prefers to use the phrase “intimate partner violence (IPV).”

“There is a lot of sexism that has been engendered in domestic violence research over many, many years. So we are very explicit about naming intimate partner violence, over domestic violence,” she said.

It’s likely that the WNBA has been behind the times when it comes to addressing intimate partner violence because it’s a women’s league, and policies around IPV typically frame women as the victims, not the abusers. But in some cases, they’re both. Compounding the problem is the fact that until very recently, the league did not publicly embrace the reality that many of its players are members of the LGBTQ community.

Bhattacharya says that while there is very little research on the intersection of intimate partner violence and same-sex relationships, she knows that it is a “very prevalent problem.”

“We do know that [intimate partner violence in] same-sex relationships are notoriously underreported, even more so than heterosexual relationships,” she said.

Because society views domestic violence through a gendered lens, women in same-sex relationships who suffer IPV deal with unique challenges when they seek assistance, be it from law enforcement, courts, doctors, or therapists.

“[Survivors share] their suffering from having been silenced by systems,” Bhattacharya said. “Because their orientation was not understood, or was indeed misunderstood. And so a survivor was not given the necessary support, because they didn’t seem like a survivor, or the person who was harming them was not shown adequate justice, because they didn’t seem to be what a typical ‘abuser’ needs to look like, behave like, sound like, etc. And that’s the problem.”

Recently, Bhattacharya has noticed a growing number of women who identify as lesbians reaching out to AVP looking for help. And while that could indicate an uptick in violence, it likely has more to do with the fact that they are becoming more comfortable opening up to AVP about their sexual orientation. That’s progress. Ultimately, as awful as it is to see cases like Howard’s and Williams’ in the news, Bhattacharya is hopeful that this will bring awareness a problem that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

“I want to really emphasize that one good thing that is coming out of all of this discourse is that it is beginning to tell our community that speaking about survivorship is okay,” she said. “And the only way that we can get change to happen is when we are able to engage with the community, and were able to rally more voices and more volume.”

On Sunday, Engelbert talked about how excited she was to work with an organization that promoted women, and led the way when it comes to women’s empowerment. While the league has dropped the ball on domestic violence in the past, it’s not too late to start leading the way on this issue, too.