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An effort to make sense of the Los Angeles Sparks’ flaming organizational mess

The dismissal of general manager Penny Toler failed to address the issues in Los Angeles. In fact, it only has raised more questions. Here’s an attempt to sort out what has happened and what should happen in LA.

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Los Angeles Sparks Announce Derek Fisher Head Coach
Penny Toler introduces Derek Fisher as head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, as Fisher and Candace Parker listen. All three were at the center of LA’s end-of-season drama.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

While it now may be hard to remember, the Los Angeles Sparks entered the 2019 WNBA Playoffs with notable momentum. Not only had they tallied an 11-4 record since the All-Star Break, but they also, finally, were healthy. With a fully-loaded and focused squad, a run to the Finals seem far from impossible.

Retrospectively, of course, it seems like it was impossible.

A dominating victory over the Seattle Storm in the second round single-elimination game turned into a disastrous series against the Connecticut Sun. After falling short in a well-fought Game 1, the Sparks were outclassed in Game 2 before turning in an abominable Game 3 performance.

The criticisms that were quickly levied at head coach Derek Fisher for benching Candace Parker and limiting the minutes of his other stars in Game 3 were soon compounded by ESPN’s exposé of then-general manager Penny Toler’s obscene and profane post-Game 2 locker room rant, as well as the revelation of other organizational issues.

Needless to say, LA now faces even more season-ending questions. Should Penny Toler have been fired? Should Fisher be fired? Where do the Sparks go from here?

Let’s attempt to make sense of this Hollywood brouhaha. Today, we’ll discuss the decision to dismiss Penny Toler.

Should Penny Toler have been fired? No way!

Penny Toler, in and of herself, is a WNBA institution. As a member of the Sparks, Toler, who starred at Long Beach State University in the late 1980s, scored the first points in WNBA history. Immediately upon her retirement in 1999, Toler was named general manager of the team. She was therefore responsible for constructing the Sparks’ 2001, 2002 and 2016 championship teams.

Due to Toler’s decisions and dealings, the Sparks entered the 2019 season with a star-studded squad that, while seemingly situated for immediate contention, conceivably could contend for years to come, with 2018 and 2019 draft selections Maria Vadeeva and Kalani Brown sitting as stars-in-waiting.

All the more, Toler was a Black woman in a position of power in a league that, although dominated by women of color on the court, often has failed to assemble front offices that reflect this diversity. Because of her rare practical power, Toler, long-tenured and with full authority, had potent representational power.

The combination of her proven resume and her important representation should afford Toler the benefit of the doubt. As such, the ignominious episode in Uncasville, as long as it was an outlier, should not have been cause enough to end an accomplished career as an executive.

Should Penny Toler have been fired? Of course!

While Toler’s identity as a Black woman makes her a rarity in professional sports’ executive circles, so does her longevity. Had the league passed her by?

In recent years, athletes, led by LeBron James, have demanded that they be respected as “more than an athlete.” Both Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, as well as Candace Parker, previously have partnered with James’s UNINTERRUPTED platform to share aspects of their stories. Prior to the playoffs, the Ogwumike sisters, Parker, Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones all starred in documentary shorts produced by The Players’ Tribune, which abides by a similar ethos.

While their on-court accomplishments should afford these stars automatic respect, the Ogwumikes, Parker and Gray have also made self-respect central to their personal brands. Unsurprisingly, an anonymous member of the Sparks told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne she experienced Toler’s words as “total disrespect.”

As a Black woman and former player, Toler may have believed that she had the status and experience necessary to speak to these women and their teammates using often-fraught language and an overly-fierce tone. But her speech suggests she was ignorant of the politics that govern the Sparks’ stars and an increasing number of WNBA players.

Toler defended her fiery speech when speaking to ESPN:

”If I offended someone, I didn’t mean to offend anyone. But my point is, I was saying what I was thinking. And I have the right to do that as the GM. I’ve been the GM for 20 years and this is the first time something like this has occurred. Clearly, some people were offended. That wasn’t the message I was going for, obviously. And that clearly is not the reason we lost Game 3. And if that was the reason, what was the reason we lost the first two? I wasn’t in the locker room then.”

Toler’s actions and words indicates a lack an understanding of the priorities of the modern player. Her attempt at motivation was so outmoded that it reads as problematic. The increased attention to the mental health of athletes also makes Toler’s words unacceptable. More than the explicit, headline-grabbing language she used, this mindset suggests that the Sparks organization needed new leadership.

One player told ESPN’s Shelburne: “I won’t go back there until the culture changes. It’s unprofessional.” While it is unclear if the player’s complaint includes Toler and her conduct, general managers often act as culture makers in modern professional sports organizations. This suggests that, even if Toler had not been the primary problem, she had not implemented the solutions expected of someone in her position.

The still rather mysterious departure of former head coach Brian Agler and the supposedly comprehensive head coaching search that ended up only involving Derek Fisher, who had an unsuccessful coaching tenure with the New York Knicks and no ties to the women’s game, raises further questions about Toler’s managerial culture. And while Toler assembled a squad of stars and potential stars, the majority of these talented women play the same two positions. To compensate for this imbalance, some players had to play too much (see: Gray, Chelsea), while others did not play as much as they likely would have preferred.

Because of such personnel circumstances, some poor, profanity-inspiring performances should not be all that surprising. Ill-fitting rosters rarely produce positive team cultures, much less prove able to weather playoff adversity. Choosing to re-sign a player who was facing alarming domestic violence accusations, and then would be suspended because of this situation, could have intensified this culture of instability.

What’s the (imperfect) verdict?

At first, the decision of the Los Angeles ownership group to dismiss Toler seems to be a matter of optics, an effort to make the progressive, politically correct and overall mostly popular decision. This is not untrue. Optics are important, especially as the WNBA still strives to establish a firmer purchase in the American sports landscape. But, the optics of the decision are not unrelated to the substance.

The WNBA has recently gained greater cultural traction because it is a league that respects the rights, integrities and autonomies of women (although it is far from perfect in this project). Firing Toler, even with her individual representational power, reflects and reinforces this league-wide philosophy. The decision demonstrates to fans that the league and its franchises prioritize the women who make up the WNBA. This message should resonate with the groups that compose the WNBA’s fan base — a signal to women, people of color and gender non-conforming individuals that their rights, integrities and autonomies should also matter.

So, should Derek Fisher follow Toler out the door? Check back in a few days for the (imperfect) verdict.