The WNBA has historically been the most forward-thinking sports league in America when it comes to gay rights. The league has actively courted LGBTQ fans for several years (, if anything), has had several star players come out of the closet with little controversy, and generally been ahead of the NBA, its relatively socially progressive parent league, on every related issue. While the WNBA hasn’t always made the LGBTQ community proud with how it chooses to promote and accommodate its gay players, it’s fair to say that they’ve made meaningful strides. There’s a level of acceptance on the court, in locker rooms, and in the stands that virtually every other pro league in the United States cannot match.
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One prominent retired WNBA player says that culture consequently makes it difficult for straight players to thrive. Candice Wiggins, the No. 3 pick in the 2008 WNBA Draft and a champion in 2011 with the Minnesota Lynx, announced her retirement last March. In a new interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Wiggins says that “98 percent” of the WNBA is gay and that she would have played two more years if not for the “toxic” environment that affected her as a straight woman:
“I wanted to play two more seasons of WNBA, but the experience didn’t lend itself to my mental state,” Wiggins said. “It was a depressing state in the WNBA. It’s not watched. Our value is diminished. It can be quite hard. I didn’t like the culture inside the WNBA, and without revealing too much, it was toxic for me. … My spirit was being broken.”
Wiggins, a four-time All-American at Stanford, asserts she was targeted for harassment from the time she was drafted by Minnesota because she is heterosexual and a nationally popular figure, of whom many other players were jealous.
“Me being heterosexual and straight, and being vocal in my identity as a straight woman was huge,” Wiggins said. “I would say 98 percent of the women in the WNBA are gay women. It was a conformist type of place. There was a whole different set of rules they (the other players) could apply. […]
“People were deliberately trying to hurt me all of the time. I had never been called the B-word so many times in my life than I was in my rookie season. I’d never been thrown to the ground so much. The message was: ‘We want you to know we don’t like you.’” […]
“It comes to a point where you get compared so much to the men, you come to mirror the men,’ she said. “So many people think you have to look like a man, play like a man to get respect. I was the opposite. I was proud to a be a woman, and it didn’t fit well in that culture.”
Players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike, reigning WNBA MVP and a Stanford product like Wiggins, released a statement on the comments to Howard Megdal of VICE Sports:
“Our union is only as strong as our loyalty to and support for one another. What is key to that loyalty and support is our commitment to diversity and inclusion. As a union, we should and we will continue to celebrate the diversity that makes us special and lead by example. We must respect the rights of those we don’t agree with when they speak their mind. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the comments made recently by a former player or whether one has seen or experienced anything like what she has described, anything that impacts an inclusive culture should be taken seriously.”
Megdal also reached out to WNBA president Lisa Borders, who declined to comment.
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Several current players have strongly disagreed with Wiggins:
How i feel reading the recent article about heterosexuals being bullied in the WNBA .. ???????? pic.twitter.com/aGIgDMBNNR
— Tiffany Mitchell (@TiffMitch25) February 20, 2017
It’s tough to assess all of Wiggins’s statements, because she is ultimately describing a personal experience that have not yet been refuted. It’s entirely possible that she was bullied by her teammates and had such a bad experience in the WNBA that retirement was her best option. Plus, the interview features several less controversial reasons for her decision to step away from the game, including the toll of having to play a physically demanding sport year-round due to the salaries in women’s basketball.
In fact, Wiggins specifically cited those financial and physical stresses — she’s had eight surgeries — when she retired via a The Players’ Tribune article. That piece did not feature any explicit reference to the pressure of being straight in a very gay league.
It’s difficult to read this piece, then, without wondering exactly where Wiggins is coming from. For one thing, her “98 percent” estimate seems laughably extreme. Each of the WNBA’s 12 teams has 12 players, which means it would take just three straight women to exceed her two-percent threshold. Using hyperbole to make a point is not inherently wrong, but doing it to cast a historically marginalized group (gay women, many of whom are also black) as a bullying force raises concerns. For that matter, Wiggins’s comment that she was “proud to be a woman” makes it unclear if she alienated her peers while they were looking down upon her.
There is clearly more to this story than what has been revealed. In such circumstances, the best approach is that of San Antonio Stars forward Monique Currie, who tries understand Wiggins even as she disagrees with much of what she has to say:
I can say in my eleven seasons in the WNBA I’ve never witnessed the kind of bullying Wiggins describes in her interview. This does not mean it did not happen but I’m proud to be apart of a league that supports inclusion and celebrates all players regardless of their race, religion or sexuality. We are a family made up of players that love and respect the game of basketball. We are dedicated to growing the game and our league through integrity, honesty and hardwork. I feel awful that Candice had these experiences while playing in the WNBA but I encourage her to not only speak out about the negative aspects of her career but also shed light on how we can prevent this from ever happening again. The WNBA gave you a platform to emerge as an advocate for HIV/AIDS in which you have a very personal connection. The WNBA supported you, worked with you, gave you a voice. Why now? Why bring down the league you say you want to be successful? Why not uplift, advocate, and encourage young women to be themselves as you were during your playing days. Let young girls know that it’s ok to be “different”, teach them how to overcome, how to survive and to come out on top. Your voice will be much more appreciated and received that way.
In a world where we are already so divided I think it is important for people to tell their stories and to share their experiences. It’s equally important for people to listen and to care. I commend Candice Wiggins for telling her story and I look forward to seeing how she uses her experiences to to ensure this never ever happens to anyone again.
If nothing else, this sensational story is an opportunity to learn more. Here’s hoping it doesn’t end with a few attention-grabbing headlines.