Clinton Yates wrote in a Washington Post article yesterday about the upcoming Washington Mystics season, and the team’s struggle to attract more and more fans to watch WNBA basketball, particularly as it competes against other D.C. sports franchises and more importantly, negative media concerning issues involving players and the league itself. Yates asked the question, “Is any publicity good publicity for the WNBA?”. I want to answer that in two ways. First, by saying that no, bad news is not necessarily good news for the WNBA. But second, the way the WNBA handles on or off the court issues, not only internally, but with the media, will be crucial to the WNBA’s future growth and success.
Why do I say that bad news is necessarily good news? Well, because you only have to look at the comments thread on ESPN to get an idea of people are saying about Brittney Griner and her wife, fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson. And unfortunately, many if not most of the comments were negative, either wondering why ESPN is covering the issue or making light of the situation, many comments boiling down to gender-stereotypical jokes about Griner. I don’t need to go into the details, but most of the comments are not surprising, given the male-dominated culture that is American sports.
My argument is that the WNBA, from President Richie on down, can handle the on and off the court issues it faces at the beginning of the 2015 season, and beyond differently than other pro and college sports leagues have in the past. The WNBA can openly and honestly address issues, and it can do so in a timely matter. In the case of Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson, Yates mentions in his article that the 7 game suspension was seen by many as controversial, and I honestly can’t decide whether I feel the 7 game suspension is too harsh, too lenient, or just right. But what I like is that the WNBA is dealing with relatively promptly and that President Richie has stood firm and not caved once she came to a decision. As a sports league still trying to find growth and acceptance among the American public and finding itself still fighting gender stereotypes about women and sports, the WNBA has a chance to set a new example and a higher bar among American pro sports leagues. From Major League Baseball bumbling PED and steroids scandals to the NFL fumbling with sexual assault and battery charges, the WNBA has an opportunity, and I would say an obligation, to deal with its own issues the right way, in the right time. And the WNBA can do so the first time, not waiting until media speculation and backlash forcing its hand in acting, whether that be with player conduct and discipline, or with issues involving teams or games, say with officiating. The NFL alone gives us plenty of examples of how not to deal with issues surrounding itself, whether it was last year with Ray Rice, or with the Deflategate and the AFC Championship between the Patriots and Colts. The WNBA is still young, and even though we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the league next year, everyone involved has an opportunity to show other leagues around not just the U.S., but the world, how to deal with controversy, and how to do it openly, honestly, and simply how to do it right, right from the beginning. I believe that the WNBA can be and should be a league of honesty and integrity, and such honesty and integrity can and will ultimately help the league grow.