Trigger Warning: This story discusses issues that may be upsetting for some readers. Some of these issues include violence, domestic violence and mental illness.
The Riquna Williams situation is complicated. It thus raises complicated questions for the Sparks, WNBPA, NBA and WNBA that deserve consideration. Here, we delve into the considerations for each of those entities.
Los Angeles’ approach to Riquna Williams smells of “Sparks’ Exceptionalism”
Like their NBA brothers, the Sparks appear to believe that they are exceptional. As with the Lakers, this exceptionalism partly is earned, exemplified by the Sparks becoming the first WNBA franchise to win 450 games. However, again recalling their purple and gold brethren, the Sparks’ organization increasingly appears willing to allow this sense of exceptionality to excuse poor management and personnel decisions.
Last fall, former head coach Brian Agler seemed to resign rather surreptitiously, with his departure announced almost a month later. The Sparks then asserted that a “comprehensive search to identify the next Sparks head coach will start immediately.” Yet, this “comprehensive search” resulted in “a very short list” of candidates. Or, only one candidate, a candidate who not only had made news for a domestic altercation but also is involved with a predatory lending company. While Derek Fisher may have injected a new energy into the stagnating Sparks, these questionable personal characteristics, not to mention a more than questionable coaching resume, suggests L.A. envisions itself above normal operational standards.
However, the Sparks’ handling of the Williams case impeaches their organizational integrity.
A week after her April 29 arrest for allegedly assaulting her former girlfriend, Williams was re-signed by the Sparks. On Williams’ legal situation, the Sparks released the following statement:
The Los Angeles Sparks are aware of the allegations surrounding guard Riquna Williams. We’re monitoring the situation and will have no comment until the legal process is completed.
According to Williams, Los Angeles has offered her unflagging support, telling the Associated Press (AP):
There’s really nothing to think about. If [General Manager] Penny [Toler] didn’t believe that and the L.A. Sparks organization did not believe that, I’m sure I would not be here so I don’t even think about it, I don’t even think twice about it. I come in, I work hard every day for myself and my teammates and I let the rest be.
Publicly, the Sparks have manifested this support, featuring Williams in their social media postings without reference to her ongoing legal situation.
Of course, some may declare, “Innocent until proven guilty!” Others, meanwhile, may insist the allegations against her are irrelevant, as only Williams’ on-court performance should determine her value to the squad.
But the Sparks, like all WNBA franchises, see themselves as more than a basketball organization. Williams’ place on the team openly contradicts the Sparks’ 2019 organizational initiatives. The team’s slogan for the season is #LeadTheCharge because:
What became clear is that our players, executives and owners shared something in common: an unflinching and relentless commitment to innovation, growth and impact. Whether it’s on the court or in the boardroom, this is a group of people leading the charge.
Yet, what kind of impact are the Sparks making by employing and promoting Williams? In particular, what kind of impact are they making on survivors of domestic violence?
Such questions should be of especial concern to the Sparks due to their “Spark the True You” campaign. According to the Sparks’ website:
Spark the True You, presented in partnership with the Los Angeles County Departments of Military and Veterans Affairs and Department of Mental Health, educates, assists, and activates a growing community of support across Southern California for women in active duty, women veterans, and their families who are looking for ways to be successful and achieve their ultimate physical, spiritual, emotional, mental health and well-being goals.
The Sparks’ professed sensitivity to veterans’ “physical, spiritual, emotional, mental heath and well-being” is undermined by Williams’ presence, as she is alleged to have endangered the well-being of others. Alternatively, transparently addressing Williams’ circumstance, as well as the often prevalent connection between domestic violence and mental health struggles, could make the organization’s effort more powerful.
The Sparks’ lack of accountability to these potentially positive initiatives is indicative of a blind exceptionalism, a belief in the inherent rightness of their organization regardless of obvious contradictions or empty convictions. Instead of continuing to take advantage of their believed exceptionality, the Sparks could choose to be exemplary. Proactively addressing the Williams situation, such as by not re-signing her initially or by suspending her indefinitely, would allow the Sparks to exemplify the values they claim to hold.
The Williams situation, likewise, should encourage the WNBPA to re-evaluate the gap between their words and actions.
Should the WNBPA “bet on” Riquna Williams?
When explaining the WNBPA’s decision to opt out of their current CBA, president Nneka Ogwumike announced in The Players’ Tribune:
This is not just about business. This is deeply personal. This is about the kind of world we want to live in.
Ogwumike connects the WNBPA’s effort for improved rights and conditions to issues that are bigger than basketball. With a fair and forward-thinking CBA, the league and its players can express the possibility of a more equal, inclusive society. In closing, Ogwumike writes:
It’s about what the future of the WNBA can mean to all people. It’s about what the excellence of female athletes can mean in a more universal sense — with enough investment, and resources, and respect. We’re opting out of our CBA because of the world we want to live in. It’s a little different than this one. ... but we think it’s time for different.
Ogwumike, of course, is teammates with Williams.
Is domestic violence part of the “world we want to live in”? Is sweeping a domestic violence incident under the rug because those with power deem doing so more convenient than addressing it something “different”?
In her interview with the AP, Williams emphasized her appreciation for her teammates’ support:
It definitely has not been a distraction, mainly because you have such a positive group in L.A., starting at the top of the organization down to the players. It’s such a family feel and the love, you can’t help but to move forward from it. Whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen, but at the same time this is my focus. ... Not that any of them been there before, but they trust me, they fully understand. I’m just thankfully.
Yes, Ogwumike may be privy to some of the still-private dynamics of Williams’ situation. However, publicly, the presence of Williams on the same team as the president of the WNBPA, as well as players’ association vice president Chiney Ogwumike, seems problematic. The WNBPA’s silence on Williams compromises the CBA argument they are seeking to make.
In contrast, the Ogwumike sisters and the WNBPA could demand that the WNBA or Sparks prevent Williams from playing until her situation is resolved. While doing so might be difficult, it would be something “different.” Making such a demand would model “the world we want to live in.”
Furthermore, calling on the WNBA and Sparks to better address the Williams situation would allow the players to assert and exercise their ownership over the league, demonstrating that they deserve the additional power and privileges that they are seeking in the next CBA.
What’s the WNBA’s stance on Williams?
Of course, the WNBA, more than the Sparks or WNBPA, should be most proactive about Williams’ legal circumstances.
In April 2015, when then-partners Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson were arrested for domestic assault and disorderly conduct, then-WNBA president Laurel Richie acted promptly. Before the beginning of the season, she announced that both would be suspended for seven games, without pay. As Richie asserted in a public statement:
The WNBA takes all acts of violence extremely seriously. It is our strong belief that violence has absolutely no place in society, in sports or in this league.
She further stated:
The WNBA will continue to focus intently on the issue of domestic violence. Along with our partners in the Players Association, we will continue to educate our players so that they are equipped with the appropriate tools and resources and provided with necessary support systems. As such, we will be conducting education sessions with all WNBA players and team personnel throughout the season focused on domestic violence and related issues. We recognize that our league has an obligation and an opportunity to set an example for people around the world, and we will continue doing everything we can to ensure that situations such as this do not happen again.
Thus far, neither WNBA interim president Mark Tatum nor incoming commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who officially assumes the role on July 17, has failed to act. Upon assuming the commissionership, she announced:
It is an absolute privilege to be joining the WNBA at such an exciting and important time in its history. I see tremendous opportunity to bolster visibility for the sport of women’s basketball, empower the players, and enhance fan engagement. I look forward to using my business expertise and passion for basketball to promote women in the game and beyond, and to working with the teams and world-class athletes to help grow this league into a thriving business.
Yet, along with “exciting” things like “engagement” and “empowerment,” serving as the WNBA’s first commissioner also requires a willingness to reckon with difficult circumstances and uncomfortable decisions.
Instead, it is the NBA’s legal counsel that most aggressively has pursued a punishment for Williams. As first reported by Swish Appeal’s Tamryn Spruill:
According to Orlando Castaño, the agent for Los Angeles Sparks guard Riquna Williams, NBA legal counsel is urging the team to suspend his client under the Player Conduct and Discipline clause of the WNBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.
It is worth noting that the NBA has not appeared nearly as eager to preemptively punish its players and coaches who have been accused of reprehensible behaviors, such as Derrick Rose, Kristaps Porzingis and Luke Walton. Maybe, the NBA believes Williams’ identity and image indicts her whereas it may view the Rose redemption, the potential of a pairing of young European stars and the new coach of a team on the rise as enticing stories that excuse any wrongdoing?
Rather than allowing the NBA hypocritically to exert its priorities, the WNBA’s executive leadership needs to take charge, and publicly. The WNBA should transparently take steps to establish a fair resolution to Williams’ situation, one that respects her rights, as well as the sensitives of victims of domestic violence.
What should happen next?
In the end, Riquna Williams does not necessarily have to be punished or suspended. Possibly, more details will emerge that explain the inaction of the Sparks, WNBPA and WNBA.
However, until then, these three entities at least need to address the complications involved. Not doing so is a dereliction of the public duties they have embraced, as the Sparks, WNBPA and WNBA all have situated themselves as stewards of not just women’s basketball but women’s rights.
More particularly, it is easy to celebrate Pride and declare, “Love is love.” It is harder to discuss the fact that LGBTQ persons, especially LGBTQ persons of color, experience higher incidence of domestic violence.
Even as all the details of the altercation with which Williams was involved remain unclear, the Sparks, WNBPA and WNBA can use this unfortunate event to raise awareness of the struggles and dangers LGBTQ persons encounter as they strive to experience the rights and privileges that all people deserve. By proactively responding to the complicated issues at stake in the Williams incident, the Sparks, WNBPA and/or WNBA can contribute to the making of “the world we want to live in.”
Riquna Williams’ agent informed Swish Appeal that she is working on a statement at the league’s request and more information will be provided as it becomes available.