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What Anti-Domestic Violence Advocates Are Saying About The WNBA Suspensions

Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner stops to sign autographs for fans before a WNBA basketball game against the Seattle Storm in 2013 in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner stops to sign autographs for fans before a WNBA basketball game against the Seattle Storm in 2013 in Seattle.

On April 22, WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson were arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct after the couple reportedly had a fight in their Phoenix home. A week later, Griner pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and agreed to participate in a 26-week domestic-violence diversion program. On May 8, the couple got married in an outdoor wedding that was written up in The New York Times, and then, on May 15, each woman received an unprecedented seven-game suspension from the WNBA.

Though severe, the punishments mirror recent efforts within the NBA to take a zero-tolerance approach to domestic violence.

In many cases, the WNBA's decision is being lauded. Deborah Larkin, CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation, an advocacy group for women in sports, has been a WNBA season-ticket holder for the past 15 years and agrees with the league's response. "When you say there's zero tolerance and you have a strict punishment, it sends the message to the league, to other sports, to boys and girls and to league owners: We're serious."

And ESPN's Mechelle Voepel wrote last week that the suspension was the "right thing to do. And the WNBA went about it in the right way."

But even if this response is warranted, will losing a star player like Griner cripple an already overshadowed league?

WNBA Commissioner Laurel Richie has previously stated that only 6 of the 12 teams were expected to be profitable in 2014. Viewership for games aired on ESPN is growing, but ratings still hover around a measly 0.3. (To compare: Regular-season NBA games score around 2.2). In a recent essay, Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore lamented the lack of enthusiasm and fan support, writing, "If we want to grow the women's game, we've got to grow the visibility."

People are certainly paying attention to Griner and Johnson's troubles, though this is hardly the exposure that Moore was hoping for. But Larkin thinks that, rather than losing interest or drifting away from the WNBA because of the incident, fans will rally around the league and "respect the WNBA for doing the right thing," she said over the phone on Tuesday. "That's the kind of people we are and that's what's important to us. I'll back them for that."

Still, the WNBA doesn't appear to apply these tough standards equally. While Larkin supports the strict response to Griner and Johnson's fight, she has openly criticized the WNBA for allowing Isiah Thomas to become president of the New York Liberty. In 2007, a jury found in favor of a woman who claimed that Thomas sexually harassed her when he was head coach of the New York Knicks. That Thomas is now team president and could become a part owner of the Liberty feels unfair.

"I would like to see the same standard applied when there's sexual harassment, and racism," Larkin says. "Don't just stop when there's domestic violence."

Though Griner and Johnson are making moves to take responsibility for what happened, Thomas continues to dispute the claims of sexual harassment. For this reason, many continue to object to Thomas' new role in the league, at the same time they support a second chance for the players.

Lack of awareness and understanding about domestic violence within same-sex couples is another reason institutions should dole out punishments and suspensions with caution. Until recently, domestic abuse within same-sex couples was largely invisible. "It takes some pretty detailed assessing to figure out the power dynamics of a relationship," says Chai Jindasurat, director of national programming at the New York City Anti-Violence Project.

Counselors and domestic violence advocates look at relationship history, how financial decisions are made, and the circumstances of the violent episode to determine whether a fight like the one between Griner and Johnson is an abusive situation or the result of an "unhealthy" relationship.

"Without a detailed understanding of relationship history and dynamics, in a same-sex relationship it can be hard to tell who's the survivor and who's the abuser," Jindasurat says.

People arrested for domestic violence or abuse often have to go through intervention programs, like the one Griner agreed to take part in. "It is detrimental to a survivor to have to go through a program and be told everything's your fault need to take accountability for it," Jindasurat says. "If the abusive partner is not going through these programs they're really validated in what they've been doing."

Griner has said that the diversion program "is definitely making me a better person and I'm taking full advantage of it." Johnson has yet to respond to the charges against her, but the WNBA is requiring counseling for both women. If the couple can heal and return to the basketball court, will fans stick around to cheer them on?

"We're there for basketball and we're there for the players — for them to be role models," Larkin says. "I won't always look at those two and say, 'Oh my god they did this.' I would say, 'They're human.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicole Pasulka
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