Los Angeles Sparks guard Riquna Williams returned to the court on Aug. 22 after serving a 10-game suspension for allegedly attacking ex-girlfriend Alkeria Davis and threatening another person with a gun. She had been arrested in April in Palm Beach County, Florida, on charges of “burglary with assault or battery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill.”
On July 13, Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard’s wife, Jacqueline Howard, accused the All-Star of mental and physical abuse in a series of tweets.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious public health issue, especially for women. The CDC reports that one in five American women will experience “severe physical violence” from an intimate partner.
WNBA fans, sportswriters and analysts are clamoring for the league, the union and even the teammates of the accused to take action against Williams, Howard and anyone else accused of IPV.
But the actions of the league, the union and players who are in union leadership positions are constrained by the law and by the collective bargaining agreement. And these constraints are good. They protect players’ rights to due process, they prevent the union from discriminating against its members and they may protect victims from further escalation of violence.
Here, we dig into contract basics, union imperatives and why swift, harsh punishment helps neither victims nor players who have allegations lobbed against them.
How contracts work — the basics
WNBA players — like most professional athletes in the United States — are represented by a union, the WNBPA, and covered by a collective bargaining agreement (also called a “contract”) jointly negotiated between their union and the league. The purpose of the contract is to define the wages, benefits and working conditions players can expect, including rules governing their personal conduct and procedures for discipline.
Once the contract is signed by both sides — the league and the union — it is legally binding on all parties until it expires or a new contract is negotiated.
The WNBPA and WNBA have been in negotiations to determine their next contract since late 2018 but the league can discipline players in accordance with the terms of the current contract. It does not have any language regarding domestic/intimate partner violence, but it does have a broad personal conduct policy that holds players to “the standards of good citizenship, good moral character, and good sportsmanship.” If the league or a team determines that a player has violated this policy, it can impose fines or suspensions.
Contracts with discipline procedures give workers the right to “just cause” discipline: The employer must conduct an investigation and the investigation process must be fair and unbiased. Some fans and sports media have called for immediate suspensions when players are accused of IPV but, under the contract, the league cannot administer discipline without conducting an investigation.
There is obvious value to players and teams here: If the league suspended players based on un-investigated allegations, innocent players could be held out of meaningful games with irreversible consequences for players and teams. Moreover, falsely accused players would suffer further damage to their reputations.
In Williams’ case, the WNBA says it conducted an investigation, one separate from the ongoing legal proceedings in the case. Williams was suspended under this policy based on the league’s findings. Meanwhile, the WNBA and the Storm say they are currently investigating the allegations against Howard.
What unions must do on behalf of workers — and why
If the union thinks a particular disciplinary action or investigation is unfair, it can appeal the action or investigation through an official grievance process.
The WNBPA has filed a grievance on Williams’ behalf concerning her suspension. While the details of the grievance are unknown, WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson has publicly expressed the union’s position that the league should have allowed the legal process to play out before imposing discipline on Williams.
Fans and commentators have expressed frustration with the union’s role in this process. Some have even called the WNBPA, which advocates for the rights of women, hypocritical. But the union has the right to defend its interpretation of the contract and a legal obligation to represent all of its members — the WNBA players — equally.
Across industries, negotiating a contract with management is only the first step in the union’s role as a defender of its members’ rights. After the contract is settled, it still has to be interpreted and implemented by both sides. When a union believes that the employer has violated the terms of the contract, the union can file a grievance to protect the rights they won in negotiations. If a union does not file a grievance when the contract is violated, they forfeit the right to that protection in future cases, no matter what the contract says.
So, if the union believes Williams was subject to an unfair process, they must file a grievance on her behalf in order to protect the rights of future players who may be subject to an unfair process, whether they believe the allegations against Williams or not.
Furthermore, the union is subject to a legal standard called the “duty of fair representation.” This means that the union must represent all its members (the players) equally, without favor or discrimination. A player could file legal charges against the union if the union failed to live up to this standard. The union’s job isn’t to determine whether a player is guilty or not. It is to ensure that all players have access to a fair process and to uphold the union’s interpretation of the contract for future disputes.
The legal constraints on union leaders
Two of Williams’ teammates are high-profile leaders of the union. Nneka Ogwumike is the WNPBA’s president and her sister, Chiney Ogwumike, is second vice president. The Ogwumikes and other union officers and representatives are particularly constrained by the legal obligations of the union. If they publicly condemned their teammate for allegedly engaging in IPV, as some have called for them to do, they would be exposing the union to legal risk.
Imagine a defense attorney condemning their client in public in the middle of a trial. This is an imperfect analogy, however, because the union’s role is not necessarily to defend Williams (or anyone else) — it is to ensure that she, and everyone else who is accused of IPV after her, is subject to a fair process.
Since the union believes Williams has not gotten access to a fair process yet, it would be inappropriate for the Ogwumikes or any other player involved with the union to publicly condemn Williams. Furthermore, it would expose the union to potential legal charges for violating its duty of fair representation.
Why race and sexual orientation cannot be overlooked
There are other important reasons for fans and observers to reconsider their calls for a rush to action by the league, union and other players when someone in the WNBA is accused of IPV. In every case of IPV violence the WNBA has acknowledged so far, the accused players have been black, queer women. Black people — especially LGBTQ black people — are much more likely than other groups to be criminalized (that is, seen and treated as “criminals”) in the United States.
There are countless examples of black women and girls being arrested and even incarcerated for defending themselves from violent attacks, including the cases of Marissa Alexander, CeCe McDonald and Bresha Meadows.
In many jurisdictions in the United States, the local police or sheriff’s department has a policy that they must arrest at least one person when they respond to a domestic dispute. With LGBTQ couples, this often results in both partners being arrested, whether they were the victim or the perpetrator of IPV. Thus, it is especially important for the league and the union to proceed slowly and carefully. A rush to judgement would serve to further criminalize members of these marginalized groups.
Furthermore, the evidence that punishing perpetrators of IPV prevents future violence is shaky at best.
Financial factor — Does suspending/firing alleged perpetrators help victims?
A 2003 study found that male abusers are more likely to kill their female partners when the abusers are unemployed. In fact, unemployment is the single most important factor in predicting whether IPV would escalate to eventual murder. It is not clear that the men in these cases were unemployed because they were engaging in IPV, but it should raise serious questions about whether suspending or firing perpetrators of IPV will help their victims/survivors.
Many of us who take IPV seriously may assume that sports leagues (and perhaps even other employers) should respond to IPV by punishing their employees. But what if that doesn’t help survivors, or makes the problem even worse?
It is easy to imagine how financial difficulties resulting from a suspension might further inflame a tense domestic situation. It is also easy to imagine that survivors and perpetrators of IPV might be deterred from seeking the help they need if they are worried about the financial consequences.
When IPV arises, sports fans and observers often point to the NFL and its model — one that is punitive but obviously failed. NFL players are not engaging in less IPV because of their league’s punishments. But alternative interventions like mandatory counseling (which the WNBA imposed on Williams) or financial, legal or mental health support — provided to both perpetrators and their partners and families — are likely to be much more effective.
WNBA fans who care about survivors of IPV should be demanding more from the league, but the “more” should not be swifter or harsher punishments. The league, the union and the players in union leadership positions are constrained in how they can respond, and for good reason — to protect the rights of accused players. But we can take players’ rights seriously while also supporting the rights and welfare of survivors of IPV. Players and their families experiencing IPV deserve resources and support in healing.
Instead of the usual cycle of fan outrage and league PR stunts, what would it look like for a league and its fan base to prioritize what survivors and perpetrators of IPV actually need?
As a fan of the WNBA, I hope we find out soon.
Amy Livingston is a labor educator at the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is particularly interested in unions and other forms of worker/player organizing in women’s sports.