WNBA, USA Basketball's silence on Brittney Griner risks double standard

Last December, several major professional sports leagues were called to Congress to testify on their efforts to combat domestic violence. The proceedings grew heated, with NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent becoming emotional over his own experiences as a child, and more than one accusatory exchange between public officials and representatives of the sport.

Brittney Griner, left, and her fiancée Glory Johnson, were arrested on April 22. (AP)
Brittney Griner, left, and her fiancée Glory Johnson, were arrested on April 22. (AP)

One league that was not brought before Congress: the WNBA.

Four months later, on April 22, one of the nation's most celebrated women's basketball players, Brittney Griner, was arrested after an altercation with her fiancée, Glory Johnson, who also plays in the WNBA. Both suffered minor injuries, including bite marks and a bloodied lip, according to the police report, which classified it as a domestic violence offense. Griner acknowledged the seriousness of the situation, vowing, "it will not happen again." She pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and began 26 weeks of domestic violence counseling.

Two weeks later, her overseers have not yet meted out any punishment, nor have they censured the behavior.

Reached by Yahoo Sports on Monday, both the WNBA and USA Basketball said they were still investigating the matter. "The WNBA's investigation into the incident involving Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson is ongoing," was the statement relayed by spokesman Ron Howard – the same statement released a week ago. USA Basketball has not even spoken with the players involved. "We've got training camp right now," spokesman Craig Miller said by phone on Monday. "That's the priority right now."

So it's hard to see how an investigation is moving forward.

There is a risk here of conveying a double standard that domestic violence isn't worth punishing harshly when only women are involved. Although it has only been two weeks since the arrest, Griner has already pleaded out and any inertia on the part of the WNBA and USA Basketball shouldn't be excused. Every league needs to hold to a better societal standard.

"The fact that she's already taken the plea, I don't think it's a legitimate reason for a delay," said Nicole Ford, a longtime domestic violence attorney based in San Francisco. "To say we're still gathering evidence, she took a plea, that's her admitting it happened. They're protecting their trademark, their brand. That's more important than anything."

Griner pulled out of this week's USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas, and the response from coach Carol Callan to ESPN was this:

"As you can imagine, the last couple of weeks have been difficult for her and she has a lot going through her mind. We understand, and she has our support."

That kind of reassurance would have been widely decried if, say, LeBron James had been arrested for domestic violence, took a plea deal, and Mike Krzyzewski expressed his support.

Callan went on: "Clearly [domestic violence] is an important issue in this country and something we do have to look at, but it's not just a one-person situation. There were several people involved. So we are trying to continue to gather information before we make any statement on that issue."

That's hardly a condemnation of domestic violence. Saying "it's not just a one-person situation" is a little too close to "there are two sides to every story," which is often used to downplay a victim's version of events. Yes, two people were involved – two people are always involved in domestic violence situations – but again Griner has already pleaded guilty, which should be enough to deplore the entire incident.

USA Basketball need only consult its own code of conduct, the first tenet of which calls for "behavior and attitude reflective of respect for self and others both on and off the basketball court."

Clearly that did not happen here.

No, this does not warrant a lifetime ban or some draconian suspension. What Griner did is not on the level of Floyd Mayweather. This is not like the Greg Hardy incident, where assault weapons were involved. But to offer such a bland response is disrespectful, particularly to the WNBA audience, which consists largely of females and children.

All domestic violence is bad. And all domestic violence is beneath the standards of a sports organization – especially one that gives athletes the chance to wear the American flag.

Griner, to her credit, seems to understand this.

"It is never OK for an argument to turn physical," she said last week in a statement. "This will never happen again, and I take my relationship and my responsibility as a role model seriously. I am committed to making positive changes and I plan to use what I have learned to set a good example and help make a difference in the world around me."

It's easy to rate domestic violence on a scale, based on the size and strength of the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim. That's not a fully appropriate view of the dynamic involved, though. Violence in the home is often about power and threat, and physical force is not the only ingredient in that frightening mix.

"Domestic violence happens in same-sex couples, and it matters, and it's wrong," says Ford, who has worked with clients in the LGBT community. "In a lot of same-gender relationships, one of the biggest threats is, 'I'll out you.' "

Although Griner and Johnson are both out, Ford's example shows how emotional coercion can easily feed into physical confrontation in all relationships. That further underscores the need for all sports organizations to be vocal and strident on this issue.

In one particularly testy exchange in Congress last winter, Nevada senator Dean Heller grilled NFL Players Association representative Teri Patterson about what would be an appropriate punishment for an individual hitting his wife.

Patterson replied that the union "is not in the business of applying discipline."

Heller shot back: "You're either for stopping domestic violence, or you're not."

This holds true for the WNBA and USA Basketball as well. It's not enough to "gather information" after a plea agreement has already been settled upon. It's time to say something, and time to do something.