It has been a whirlwind year for WNBA players Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson: announcement of their engagement last August, a league title for Griner’s team in September, arrests for domestic violence this past April, their wedding in May, and now (announced just before this essay was posted) news that Johnson is pregnant. Is this relationship of young, professional athletes on opposing teams a unique event, or a glimpse of what’s to come in sports?
For fans of women’s basketball – and especially for fans of Brittney Griner – it has been a chaotic spring.
Griner was planning to marry her fellow WNBA star, Glory Johnson, on May 8 in Phoenix. The two have been publicly dating since June 2014, and announced their engagement via Instagram a few months later. In the image that documents their engagement, Griner adopts the expected pose for a marriage proposal by crouching down on one knee and holding up a small box. Johnson is partially visible and appears to be touching her face in surprise. Her pose, to be certain, is no attempt at concealment; Johnson and Griner shared (and continue to share) many images of their romantic relationship on their public Instagram accounts, including selfies of the two kissing, cuddling, sharing “inside” jokes and building a life together. Griner’s openness about her identity as a lesbian has been evident since her arrival to the WNBA and is in marked contrast to the silence surrounding her sexuality while she played at Baylor University.
There now are a number of “out” lesbian athletes within the realm of sport and even those who force discussions about dating or marrying their teammates (such as US soccer players Abby Wambach and Sarah Huffman, and Joanna Lohman and Lianne Sanderson). Despite this, the chronicling of the Griner-Johnson love affair and their impending wedding via Instagram was something that had never been seen before in the realm of sport. It included clips from their appearance on the TLC show, “Say Yes to the Dress,” a reality show which features couples preparing for their big day with the help of wedding professionals. Their wedding prep also included a screen shot of their gift registration at the US retailer Best Buy (showing an all-white, heterosexual couple in the stock wedding photo), a photo of their wedding invitation, and several images of the couple of the couple engaging in public displays of affection.
But just over two weeks before the wedding, on April 22, fans were surprised to see mugshots of the couple instead of screenshots and declarations of love. Griner and Johnson were arrested in their suburban Phoenix home on charges of assault and disorderly conduct following a domestic dispute that became physical. The two both suffered minor physical injuries from the fight. Several journalists called for USA Basketball and the WNBA to somehow address this issue. The WNBA had an obligation, wrote journalist Mechelle Voepel, to deal seriously with this issue and “take a stand” on domestic violence. The problem, of course, is that taking such a stand would require the league to acknowledge and meaningfully engage with lesbian lives and experiences, something it has struggled to do in its 19-year existence. As pundits debated and discussed the appropriate response to the incident, Griner and Johnson followed through with their plans and exchanged vows at a ceremony on May 8.
Some may wonder why Griner and Johnson choose to continue with the nuptials so soon after this incident. We posit that there are complex reasons – including love, history, and civil rights – that make this marriage important for Griner and Johnson and for the marginalized communities they represent. More specifically, we note its importance for young people of color and queer youth. Since graduating from Baylor University, Griner has stepped into the spotlight as an out and proud black lesbian woman, an identity she embraced and fought for, against the wishes of her father. She recounted her fight to publicly be a lesbian while at Baylor in her 2014 autobiography, In My Skin, and in interviews. Her role as the first openly-gay endorsed athlete for Nike highlighted her lesbian identity, and she described her experiences in a video for the series It Gets Better. She has alluded to her obligation as a role model on many occasions, including her public statement on the domestic violence incident, which was released through her lawyer:
It is never OK for an argument to turn physical. 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.
Before Griner, the WNBA seemed to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it came to its lesbian players. Moreover, this non-acknowledgement spilled over into a lack of recognition that there are many lesbian fans of the league. Though individual teams may have had involvement with lesbian and gay fans in the past, the WNBA has only formally been acknowledging and courting LGBTQIA fans since summer of 2014. The squeamishness of the WNBA around issues of non-heterosexuality or queerness may be why there was such a lapse in time in announcing sanctions for Griner or Johnson following their arrests. While this was not the first incident of same-sex partner violence involving WNBA players, it was the first with such high-profile stars.
It was encouraging that the league’s president, Laurel J. Richie, was diligent in her investigation of the case, including contacting experts in the area of same-sex violence. Unfortunately, however, the slow move of the WNBA towards penalizing both athletes keeps form with many other US professional leagues, which have been not only slow but also careless in dealing with cases of domestic violence, particularly when black women are the targets of that violence. The Griner-Johnson episode is interesting because black women were both perpetrators and victims. Of course, that has not been the case when men from the NBA and NFL have been convicted of abusing their female partners. When Ron Artest pleaded no-contest to domestic abuse in 2007, the NBA suspended him for seven games. More recently, after Charlotte Hornets forward Jeffrey Taylor pled guilty to domestic assault and destruction of property in October 2014, he received a 24-game suspension. The difference in penalties, we argue, is due to the fact that Taylor’s guilty plea came after the release of the security video showing NFL player Ray Rice punch out his then-financée (now his wife) in an elevator. Rice had first received a two-game suspension over the incident, but public outcry after the video surfaced prompted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to increase the suspension. Subsequently, Rice was released by his team, the Baltimore Ravens.
The poor handling of the Ray Rice case and Goodell’s initially lenient suspension reflected poorly on the NFL. Many questioned the league’s moral compass, which essentially held that the lives of women came secondary to winning games. Considering this public shaming of the NFL, the WNBA’s seven-game suspension of both Griner and Johnson (the longest suspension ever given by the WNBA) in understandable. The league sought to make a strong statement that violence against women is not tolerated in their league, especially, it seems, when it is perpetrated by women. In contrast, when former and current WNBA players, Lisa Leslie and Swin Cash, spoke of their experiences with domestic violence in the wake of the Ray Rice episode, there was little outcry for the WNBA to deal with the issue. Instead, these players’ admissions and their decisions to leave the relationships in which they experienced abuse were described as brave and individualised. They were celebrated for their acts of courage to disclose.
What we have seen confirmed this year is that violence against women is an epidemic around the world. But people recognizing it as an epidemic is another matter. In the US, black women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence/intimate partner violence. Although they account for 8 percent of the general population, black women are 22 percent of the victims of intimate partner homicide. Hopefully, the WNBA can be a leader in tackling the issue of domestic violence for all women. But to do so at this particular moment and in this context, it must begin by taking the intimate relationships of lesbian athletes seriously. The league needs to understand the similarities and differences between same-sex domestic violence and violence among heterosexual couples, and it must be aware of the unique challenges and pressures of homophobia and heterosexism on lesbian couples. When a couple’s relationship is under scrutiny, demonized and disavowed by (some) family and friends, it can be difficult to discuss problems and stresses within the relationship. Furthermore, the controlling and coercive behaviors that make up same-sex intimate partner violence may be less familiar. Public awareness campaigns about domestic abuse have brought greater responsiveness to the sign and symptoms of violence within heterosexual relationships than to those within same-sex relationships.
The WNBA must work to affirm and promote its players not only as daughters and mothers but also as Athlete Allies, who work to end homophobia and transphobia in sport, as lesbian mothers, and in the case of Griner and Johnson, as athletes who are both opponents on the court and married partners. Their unique situation as spouses and opponents seemingly puts them in a league of their own, but that will not likely be the case in the future. There is space for the WNBA to celebrate Griner and Johnson as athletes, daughters, competitors, intimate partners, and All-Stars. To do so will require the WNBA to fully embrace all athletes in the league.
Megan Chawansky is a senior lecturer in the School of Sport and Service Management at the University of Brighton. Her articles on gender, sexuality, and sport have appeared in the journals Sport in Society, Sociology of Sport Journal, and Women’s Studies Quarterly.
Anne Michelle Mitchell teaches in the Department of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include the history of the African American Civil Rights Movement, women’s and gender history, and sexuality studies and queer theory.