Liz Cambage denies report she used racist slur and gains support from Sparks teammates

Sparks center Liz Cambage and general manager and coach Derek Fischer answer questions at a news conference
Sparks center Liz Cambage and general manager and coach Derek Fischer answer questions during Cambage's introductory news conference. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Sparks center Liz Cambage denied that she referred to Nigerian national team players as "monkeys" and was supported by her WNBA coach and teammates Sunday.

Australian and Nigerian national team players accused Cambage of making the slur and telling Nigerian players to "go back to their third-world country" during a five-minute outburst in Las Vegas ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, according to a report by the Daily Telegraph. The publication granted anonymity to the players quoted. The Daily Telegraph also posted a video clip of the workout during which Cambage elbows a Nigerian player in the face. The report also noted Cambage was struck and fell onto the Australian team bench.

"I am very disappointed and hurt by the events and accusations that have unfolded in the Australian media. The recount of what took place is inaccurate and misleading," Cambage posted on Instagram late Sunday. "I did not use the racial slur towards the Nigerian team that has been circulating.

"After I unintentionally fouled a Nigerian player on court I was then physically assaulted by this player on the sideline of my bench. I was hit in the face and pushed to the ground but I walked away."

Cambage stated that there were no professional referees working during the scrimmage.

"This is not an excuse or justification to the events that unfolded or my actions, however, I genuinely apologised to the Nigerian team and I once again, am sorry that these events are being rehashed," she wrote.

Sparks general manager and coach Derek Fisher and forward Nneka Ogwumike said Sunday that Cambage remains a welcomed member of the team in the wake of the allegations.

Fisher said the Sparks “don’t really respond as much to rumors and allegations” and the matter was investigated by the teams involved, but he added the Los Angeles franchise evaluated what it meant to acquire Cambage during the offseason.

“For us, we had some conversations internally — [with] ownership, with some of our players, management. Made the decision that Liz would be a welcome part of our team and that’s the way we’re looking at that at the moment,” Fisher said before the Sparks earned an 85-83 win over Minnesota. “If there are things that I guess continue to trend or come out that are confirmed at a later date, we’ll address that at that time in terms of how we feel about it. But right now, it’s something that in our opinion is pretty much complete, it’s just folks bringing it back up and expressing how they feel about it.

“But at this point, we don’t have much else to comment on, other than it was investigated, looked into and all we can do right now is focus on tonight and how we’re going to handle things moving forward. And if there are things to address to speak to at a different time, we’ll definitely do so.”

Ogwumike, who is Nigerian and unsuccessfully petitioned to join the Nigerian national team for the Tokyo Olympics, questioned the timing of the report.

"We got past it. So whatever agenda is happening with it resurfacing, that's other people's business," she said after the Sparks' win Sunday. "And quite frankly, we talked about it before she came to the team and, granted, people have their own accounts of what happened, but we addressed it and we talked about how important it is for us to be together, be transparent and also empower giving people second chances.

"She could probably have more to say to her side of the story, but as a team, we talked about it and addressed it and anything else is really not anyone else's business unless Liz comes out and says what she wants to say. That's kind of all I have to say about that."

Sparks teammate Chennedy Carter added: "And we have Liz's back."

Players interviewed by the Daily Telegraph described Cambage as combative throughout Olympic training camp, with the altercation the last straw. Cambage is of Nigerian and Australian heritage, which Nigerian players said made her remarks especially confounding.

Cambage withdrew from the Olympics, citing concerns about living in the Tokyo Olympics bubble without friends or family because of COVID-19 precautions. She reportedly apologized to Nigerian and Australian players, but they reportedly chose to speak with the Daily Telegraph after Cambage characterized the Sparks as a more supportive team and told ABC she never felt her Australian teammates wanted her “to be the best I can be.”

Fisher urged his players to try to ignore the report and focus on the Sparks' schedule.

“I just try and mention to her and our group as well that some of this, it comes with the responsibility of being who we are and there’s a high bar that’s been set and you have to carry,” he said of Cambage. “You can’t control what other people say about you and a lot of what this year is about, I think, for our team and for Liz is you have to just show people who you are as time goes on and not control any narrative or any assumptions or allegations that people make about you from what you did or didn’t do in the past.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.