When the skirmish broke out in Saturday’s Phoenix-Dallas game, the initial key questions were how long Brittney Griner would be suspended and how it would affect the Mercury’s playoff hopes.
But since then, another big question has arisen: How much has this incident and subsequent punishment damaged Griner’s relationship with the WNBA? Based on what she has said, it’s a lot.
That highlights a bigger conflict than what happened on court Saturday: The league’s stars, in particular, feel they are undervalued and underappreciated by the WNBA. And that’s something new commissioner Cathy Engelbert can’t ignore as she attempts to put her leadership stamp on the league.
Tuesday, Griner was suspended three games. Even without their 6-foot-9 center, the Mercury likely won’t lose all three. Each game she’s out is at home: Wednesday against Connecticut (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET), Friday against Atlanta, and Sunday vs. New York. At 11-12 and currently in eighth place, the Mercury’s odds of being in the postseason are still pretty good.
Griner isn’t contesting the length of her suspension, but said she felt it was unfair that the primary Dallas players involved — Kristine Anigwe and Kayla Thornton — were suspended just two games.
Monday, Griner sent a kind of warning shot across the bow of the WNBA, telling Arizona Republic reporter Jeff Metcalfe that the league’s decision could end up influencing her future in the WNBA. Asked by ESPN on Tuesday, after the suspensions were announced, if her remarks still stood, Griner said they did.
“Does it impact my career in the WNBA? Yes, it does,” Griner told ESPN. “Not right now, this second. But how long I go, yeah, it’s definitely going to affect it. I mean, I love playing for the Mercury; that’s the only reason I’m playing here right now. Definitely not playing for the W. The W don’t do nothing.”
Is this a case of Griner blowing off steam while the incident is still fresh? Or might we really see her take a break — perhaps even an extended one — from playing in the WNBA after this season?
As for the punishments, Dallas’ point of view is that Griner elbowed Anigwe in the face first Saturday. Phoenix disagrees, saying Anigwe had engaged in excessive contact with Griner in previous games — when she was still with the Connecticut Sun, who drafted her — and that all Griner did Saturday was defend herself, since she felt the referees weren’t doing that.
The league, in its release, says Anigwe instigated the incident, but that Griner escalated it, threw punches, and pushed Thornton in the face. Hence, one extra game of suspension.
I don’t know all the information the league was working with. But based solely on what we saw, I wouldn’t have any quarrel with all three players getting the same suspension. I can also see the league’s view that Griner’s escalation, which included contact with an official who was trying to calm her down, warranted one extra game. As with all such scuffles, each side is convinced it is correct.
But this is about much more than this incident and these suspensions.
Griner is a former No. 1 draft pick, a WNBA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, a seven-year veteran, and it’s clear that she feels she has been disrespected by the league. Not just in regard to this incident, but by how physical play against her has been called her entire career.
Teammate Diana Taurasi, who was suspended one game for leaving the bench Saturday, criticized the referees for letting things get out of hand. Complaining about officials — either for calling too many fouls or not enough — is a regular part of basketball at all levels. (And something Taurasi has done a lot.)
But in this case, Taurasi and Griner link this issue with officials to what they see as the WNBA’s overall lack of commitment to look out for its players — particularly the marquee players.
Top players command bigger salaries and more perks overseas. So the WNBA’s salary-structure rigidity is somewhat of an irritant for them, as it generally keeps the league’s stars from maximizing their earning potential the way stars do in other pro leagues. The players’ union must balance this in its current collective bargaining negotiations with the league: advocating for better salaries, travel conditions, etc., for all players, while also trying to meet the wishes of the WNBA’s stars.
These are realities in all professional sports; it’s a cauldron that has been bubbling for quite a while in the WNBA.
Taurasi has become more and more critical in recent years about what she sees as the WNBA’s flaws that haven’t been fixed during her career. She uses hyperbole to comedic effect at times, but there’s no mistaking that she’s disappointed — not with her franchise, but the league’s leadership. Griner voiced similar sentiments, praising the Mercury but castigating the league.
Taurasi sat out the 2015 WNBA season at the request of her Russian team, which paid her much more than she got in the WNBA. Griner also makes much more overseas and could do the same thing, although the WNBA provides visibility that overseas leagues don’t. And their WNBA success is at least some part of what builds players’ profiles for overseas compensation.
“I love playing for the Mercury; that’s the only reason I’m playing here right now. Definitely not playing for the W. The W don’t do nothing.”
How do players balance their own self-interest vs. their support of a league still in growth mode and trying to become self-sustaining? That has been a debate for a long time.
The answer was automatic in the league’s early years, when all the players involved had grown up without the WNBA. Players had issues then with salary, travel, perks, facilities, officiating, etc., too, but didn’t talk much publicly about it. They also didn’t have social media to amplify their concerns and sometimes become an echo chamber.
At the same time, any business that won’t listen to criticism from its employees has sustainability problems anyway. The WNBA needs to be strong enough to hear and respond to the players’ complaints, but that criticism also needs to be constructive and realistic.
If this one incident pushed Griner away from the WNBA, that would be an overreaction on her part. But she indicates this is a long-building disenchantment where she feels her concerns have been ignored. And she’s not the only player to feel that way.
Engelbert just joined the league in July, so her credibility with players is being established right now. A marquee player saying she feels no obligation or connection to the league — even if those statements sound excessive — should be a concern for Engelbert, and prompt a discussion with Griner.
Communication with players hasn’t been the league’s strongest trait, but it needs to be.