This story has been updated to include the change in Penny Toler’s employment status with the Los Angeles Sparks.
The 2019 WNBA season for the Los Angeles Sparks ended as it began: mired in a spectacle of head-scratching decisions. This time, general manager Penny Toler has been placed directly on the hot seat by players’ anonymous disclosures to media about a locker-room incident following the team’s Game 2 loss in the semifinals.
Anyone who watched Game 3 of the WNBA Playoffs semifinals matchup between the Los Angeles Sparks and Connecticut Sun in Long Beach, Calif., knew something wasn’t right. Before a national viewing audience and with their season on the line, Sparks coach Derek Fisher played 2016 Finals MVP Candace Parker just 11 minutes and sat her and the team’s other decorated starters — 2019 All-Star Chelsea Gray, 2017 and 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard and 2016 league MVP Nneka Ogwumike — for the entire fourth quarter.
Instead of allowing the recent champions to dig themselves out of a deficit, Fisher threw in the towel on the game, the Sparks’ 2019 season and, ultimately, the players, sparking conspiracy theories about what went on here: Was Parker injured? Did Fisher throw the game and, if so, for what purpose?
Now, we know.
Something smells fishy.
Sparks general manager Penny Toler launched a barrage of racial epithets and insults at her future Hall of Fame players after their Game 2 semifinals loss to the Sun in Connecticut. So damaging was her locker-room tirade that players past and present were willing to speak with ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne about it — off the record, of course, for apparent fear of reprisal.
In her postgame presser, Parker looked crestfallen, her face red from fighting back tears. When asked about her limited minutes, she declared that she was healthy, mentally and physically, and directed further questions to Fisher. When asked about his decisions, Fisher’s answer didn’t add up for anyone other casual onlookers. For those who actually follow the WNBA, fans and press alike, something smelled fishy.
“I know it’s Candace Parker, and [critics are] going to try to make it about her 11 minutes, but it was just about trying to do something different that I thought would try to help us win,” Fisher said.
Right. It wasn’t just about Parker, but starters Beard (18.6 minutes), Gray (29 minutes) and Ogwumike (26.6 minutes) in an elimination game. With Ogwumike scoring 17 points in Game 3, there is no justification other than injury for her not to play as close to 40 minutes as possible.
On Thursday, ESPN’s Shelburne identified the source of the stench: Toler’s behavior after Game 2, which prompted WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert to launch an investigation.
Englebert told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines”:
We’ll be looking into it as a league. We understand heat of the moment and that the Sparks lost in the semifinals, but we don’t condone that kind of language, and we’ll be reviewing it over the next couple of days.
Name-calling, even with racist epithets, is bad: unacceptable and disgusting in any context, especially in a work environment. But to threaten players’ jobs as Toler is reported to have done amounts to worker intimidation, which often gets filed under the label “abuse of power.”
Toler wisely did not deny the allegations, knowing that someone could have recorded the incident with their cellphone. But her response to the players’ claims demonstrate abject cluelessness to the weight of her actions. In other words, she minimized them, showing she just doesn’t get it, which means the statement she issued is hard to take seriously because of its apparent lack of contrition.
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.
Anyone who has followed the Sparks this season is aware of the relentless criticism that has been launched against the team, from the hiring of Fisher to the signing of Riquna Williams, and left unaddressed, at least publicly — irrespective of the Sparks’ values to which Toler takes claim.
Furthermore, it is hard to believe Toler will “take this as a learning opportunity and grow.” She failed to acknowledge fans’ concerns about the team’s decision to sign Williams following her April arrest for domestic violence involving a firearm. She failed to break the organization’s silence about Williams’ presence on the team amid increasing backlash from fans. It was the WNBA — not the Sparks — who suspended Williams for 10 games, bringing forth concerns that the Sparks’ values do not align with the values the organization asserts in community outreach efforts, like the “Spark the True You” campaign.
In other words, Toler’s management of the Sparks this season has been characterized by an attitude of what Swish Appeal contributor Cat Ariail calls “exceptionalism” — a perspective of not needing to answer to anyone, not even to season ticket holders, of not needing to explain a thing, not even to save face. If the Williams’ debacle didn’t foster growth in Toler — or, better yet, humility — why should this?
“Locker-room talk” wasn’t an acceptable excuse when Trump bragged about grabbing women by the p**** and it’s not an okay excuse now.
Toler’s minimization of the incident to “language we use in the locker room” is hardly dissimilar to Donald Trump’s claim that bragging about kissing and groping women without their consent amounts to “locker-room talk,” to which Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve decried as “behavior that’s been accepted for years,” but needs to change. The players who spoke with Shelburne, including a former player who said she’d never play for the organization again under its current culture, didn’t consider it locker room talk, but disrespectful diatribe stuffed with intimidation.
“I won’t go back there until the culture changes,” the player told Shelburne. “It’s unprofessional.”
Toler expressed that she did not intend to cause harm to her players with her comments, but she also never apologized, at least not publicly. Furthermore, she seems displeased that her actions have been exposed and she seems to be digging her heels in.
“I think that this whole conversation has been taken out of context because when we lose, emotions are running high and, unfortunately and obviously, some people feel some type of way,” Toler said.
Most people, in their private or professional lives, would take offense to being pelted with words like “m*****f*****” and “n*****.” Most people definitely “feel some type of way” about having their jobs threatened while doing their best to succeed, but also having their suggestions shot down by a coach incapable of hearing feedback from his players.
As alleged in Shelburne’s report:
There were also frequent player requests to install new offensive plays and looks — Fisher tended to preach better effort and execution instead of new strategies and plays — and several players said they didn’t feel Fisher took that feedback well, often seeming “defensive,” as one player put it, when he was challenged.
Whether Fisher’s coaching decisions were at the direction of Toler or motivated by his ego’s need for control — even when he was wrong, even to the detriment of the team’s season — will probably come out in the WNBA’s investigation. But neither possibility is excusable, with both possibilities resulting in a terrible representation of WNBA basketball before a national viewing audience, punctuated by players on the bench in tears.
Fisher’s job appears to be safe, though.
According to ESPN, Sparks managing partner and governor Eric Holoman said he feels “good about Derek as our coach next season, excited to see what our core players will do, and confident that we will have a winning culture in and out of the locker room.”
Let’s see if that perspective changes following the league’s investigation.
UPDATE: Toler has been fired.
As for Toler, the NBA didn’t tolerate Donald Sterling’s racially-abusive speech to players for the Los Angeles Clippers, so the WNBA shouldn’t tolerate Toler’s either. Moreover, threatening players’ jobs after a loss amounts to worker intimidation, which also shouldn’t be tolerated. Although this does not necessarily mean a person in her position should be fired (unless wrongdoing goes much deeper), the Sparks organization felt differently and took steps to relieve Toler of her duties, effective immediately.
The organization issued the following statement:
The Los Angeles Sparks announced today that Executive Vice President and General Manager Penny Toler was relieved of her duties and will no longer be with the organization, effective immediately. A national search will begin immediately to identify the next general manager of the Sparks. Managing Partner and Governor Eric Holoman will assume the duties in the interim.
Holoman thanked Toler for her contributions to the organization as a “foundational figure in the growth of the WNBA,” including 20 years as general manager of the Sparks.
This story was originally posted on Friday, Oct. 4, at 12:00 p.m. ET.