If you are a fan of women’s basketball, it’s tough not to be a little freaked out about what Candice Wiggins said this week. The WNBA has been on life support for several years now, with many of its stars forced to play overseas in order to earn anything close to what their skills are worth. Regardless of how much or how little truth there is in what Wiggins said – we’ll ponder that later – there is a certain segment of sports fans that will have their latent prejudices reinforced and lose interest in the league. If that segment of the fan base is at all significant, it could be the death knell for the league.
To review, Wiggins maintains that she retired from the WNBA at the age of 29 because she had been bullied relentlessly for being straight in a league that is “98 per cent” lesbian. While she has since backtracked slightly and has been evasive when asked to clarify what she meant, none of that has been reported as widely as the original statement. Nor have any of the vehement rebuttals issued from the league or women who have been teammates of Wiggins at one time or another.
We could fact check what Wiggins said to some extent – for instance, mathematically, she is saying that the number of straight players is somewhere in the single digits, which seems somewhat refuted by the number who are married or have had babies. It doesn’t hold up logically either, unless you believe that there is some inherent correlation among women between being gay and being athletic, the odds of 98% of any randomly selected group of women being gay is about the same as Steph Curry missing twenty free throws in a row. Add to that the total lack of corroboration, and you either have a magnificently orchestrated coverup or Wiggins is exaggerating to make her story more sensational – which has apparently worked.
But that’s not the point. The point is that there are gay women in the WNBA, and that they conduct themselves in a way that makes Candice Wiggins uncomfortable. Whether this rises to the level of bullying is something outsiders cannot fairly judge. By avoiding any specifics in her accusations, and because she played for four teams during her career, which makes it impossible to pinpoint who she might be accusing, Wiggins is leaving the exact nature of what is happening to our imaginations, which, with a subject like lesbian bullying, can go in an infinite number of directions. Unfortunately, it seems inevitable that the more likely we are to allow this story to impact whether we watch the WNBA, the more likely we are to believe the worst case scenario.
All of which puts the league in a no-win situation at a time when it can hardly afford it. Bullying is still an evolving concept in our culture, which allows for a wide range of definitions, but it is also an emotionally charged word so that one defends oneself against the accusation at one’s peril. If the league acknowledges the accusation and either defends its culture or takes steps to improve it, it keeps the story alive for another news cycle when it would very much prefer our attention be on the upcoming season. If it tries to make the story go away by ignoring it, it is being insensitive to what could, even if some of Wiggins’ assertions seem flimsy, be a real problem.
There is doubtless, though, a segment of the population who will fixate on the 98% number and allow it to affect how they feel about the league. It won’t be a conscious choice in most cases – most of us don’t think that hard about things. But if you have four sports options on television on a Sunday afternoon and one of them has even the slightest twinge of negative feeling about it, whether that feeling is validated by facts or just a feeling in your mind, you’re likely to watch something else.
It’s sad enough that this situation could impact the survival of a league and the livelihoods of magnificent athletes. It’s important to remember, though, that we are only a few decades removed from an era when girls participating in athletics past adolescence was considered odd. The struggles of the WNBA, along with the resistance of USA Soccer to paying the national women’s team in proportion to their achievements, demonstrate that the gains women have made, while substantial, are still tenuous. Even today, young women often don’t see athletics as an obvious choice unless they are encouraged by parents or mentors to do so; some are in fact steered away from athletics by those they view as role models. This is despite the proven correlation between participation in athletics and achievement in academics and professional success in adulthood, in addition to being less likely to engage in high risk behaviors. All of which means that when institutions which are seen as emblematic of women’s sports have an image problem, it can tip the scale ever so slightly toward discouraging young women from participating in sports. Even if the number of minds changed is too small to be noticed, somebody’s life will be less rich as a result.