When Candice Wiggins retired from the WNBA in March 2016, she cited physical wear and tear on her body and said she didn't really love the game anymore. She wrote in The Players' Tribune she was happily moving on with her life.
But in a story published Monday in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Stanford graduate said she had a miserable time in her eight years playing in the WNBA, in part because of what she termed leaguewide "bullying." She said players were particularly hostile toward her because she was heterosexual, and that they were also jealous of her popularity.
When contacted by espnW, she said she did not want to talk about it as she "wished for privacy and peace." She added that she found the attention to her remarks "curious."
Not surprisingly, though, Wiggins' claims that the WNBA has a "very, very harmful" bullying culture has prompted many responses and discussion.
Wiggins, the 2008 NCAA Wade Trophy winner, spoke extensively to the Union-Tribune before she was inducted into San Diego's Breitbard Hall of Fame. Her grievances included the familiar lament of the difficulties of playing in a league still establishing itself and the physical toll of trying to maximize income by playing nearly year-round.
But Wiggins' remarks suggesting the bullying culture was pervasive, and tied to players' sexuality and gender expression, sparked the biggest controversy. Other players "were deliberately trying to hurt me all of the time," said Wiggins, attributing that to her being straight and "proud to be a woman," things she said weren't accepted in a league where she claimed "98 percent" of the players are gay. The Times-Union did not quote any other WNBA player or coach about their experiences.
The WNBA has not responded to Wiggins' allegations about its workplace environment and culture. After espnW made multiple requests, the league late Tuesday said there would be no official statement "for now." Instead, the WNBA seems content to let its players fend for themselves with the news media and on social media, addressing Wiggins' statements by sharing their own experiences.
DeLisha Milton-Jones, who won two WNBA titles and appeared in more games than any player in league history, said she was baffled by Wiggins' remarks. "I know Candice as a sweet, intelligent young lady," said Milton-Jones, who now is an assistant coach at Pepperdine. "I don't want to take anything from her experiences while in the league, so I can only speak for what I experienced firsthand. And it's in complete contradiction of what's been stated by Candice.
"The WNBA has allowed many of us to live a dream. I pray that Candice does find peace with her life and is able to move forward without devaluing or diminishing what's been priceless to so many others in the league."
"What I experienced firsthand [is] in complete contradiction ... The WNBA has allowed many of us to live a dream. I pray that Candice does find peace with her life and is able to move forward without devaluing or diminishing what's been priceless to so many others."DeLisha Milton-Jones, who played in more WNBA games than anyone, on Candice Wiggins' allegations
Monique Currie, an 11-year WNBA veteran now with San Antonio, wrote a blog in which she expressed concern for Wiggins but also called on her for accountability in making public, broad-based accusations without much context or explanation of whether she tried to change or impact the treatment of players in the league.
"I've never witnessed the kind of bullying Wiggins describes in her interview," Currie wrote. "This does not mean it did not happen, but I'm proud to be a part 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."
And Chicago center Imani Boyette, a WNBA rookie last season who grew up admiring Wiggins, wrote in a blog addressed to Wiggins, "There is literally a woman from every walk of life in the league, which is why I love it so much. I have never experienced the bullying you spoke about, and I hope no one else ever does."
Allegations of bullying and abuse should be taken seriously. But having covered the WNBA since its inception in 1997, I had never heard of players being physically or emotionally bullied -- let alone on a routine basis as Wiggins suggested.
So when I contacted her, I wanted to ask: Did she report this alleged abuse to team management, human resources or the WNBA's front office? She played for four franchises in her eight-year career, and the coaching staffs for those teams were diverse, a mix of men and women, gay and straight people, and those of different races. Did they all turn a blind eye to the abuse that Wiggins alleges? Did they encourage it? Did she talk to other players about it?
But Wiggins told me she "was not comfortable" talking about her personal life, and that she hoped to publish a memoir that would detail these experiences and other issues. She also said she spoke to the Union-Tribune "as though they are an old friend."
Wiggins is the daughter of former major league baseball player Alan Wiggins, who died in 1991 when Candice was 3 years old. Candice went to La Jolla Country Day School in the San Diego area and has spoken to the Union-Tribune many times in her athletic career. But surely she realized comments to any newspaper would be disseminated globally online.
In response to Wiggins' allegations, the WNBA players' association released a statement from executive committee president Nneka Ogwumike. She was the league's MVP last season for the WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks. Ogwumike, in her first year as the union's highest-ranking player spokeswoman, is also a Stanford alum, but began her college career for the Cardinal the season after Wiggins graduated.
"Our union is only as strong as our loyalty to and support for one another," Ogwumike said in the statement. "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."
That statement doesn't plainly or directly address whether there is a bullying culture in the league. Perhaps Ogwumike's message was aimed more toward her fellow players, advising them not to be harsh toward Wiggins on social media platforms, even if they disagree with Wiggins' remarks.
"It's important that we establish what it means to have the right to speak out, but also what it means to be accountable for what you say. Because what Candice is saying includes stereotypes and damaging words to an entire group."Layshia Clarendon on Candice Wiggins' controversial statements
But I don't understand the WNBA's decision as an organization to not make even the simplest official statement to defend itself. (Although the WNBA's often tardy responses to "negative" stories is a separate topic, and one that has been a consistent flaw of the league.)
Again, though, the league's players and former players are leading the way in trying to address Wiggins' remarks fairly but firmly.
"I played in the league for 15 years -- for three different franchises -- and never experienced it personally, or witnessed any other player being bullied," said Ticha Penicheiro, a past WNBA champion who is now an agent. "I don't want to discredit her experience, if indeed she felt that. But 'nobody cares about the WNBA' and '98 percent of the league is gay' are completely false statements. So it's harder for me to give her personal experience credibility when those things are completely false."
Indeed, those remarks that Penicheiro referenced reflect tiresome stereotypes about women's sports in general. No one will deny that the WNBA -- which averaged 7,655 fans per game last season -- continues to try to grow in attendance and in relevance after 20 years in existence. But Wiggins' "nobody cares" remarks sounded almost as if they had been copied and pasted from some snark-filled "The WNBA Is a Joke" message-board thread.
As for the assertion that virtually all of the WNBA's players are gay, try to "look and play like men" and are actively hostile to straight players? The "beware of scary, predatory lesbians who'll rob you of your femininity" accusations have been used to considerable harm against women's sports for decades. Is this something Wiggins truly believes and wants to reinforce?
"It's important that we establish what it means to have the right to speak out, but also what it means to be accountable for what you say," said Atlanta guard Layshia Clarendon, who's played four seasons in the WNBA. "Because what Candice is saying includes stereotypes and damaging words to an entire group."
Having to address these topics can be very wearying for female athletes and also for those in the media who cover women's sports. But they are things that a lot of WNBA players are passionate about and willing to discuss.
"We have a whole spectrum of gender expression in the WNBA, and to suggest that players are forced to act like a man to be in our league? Frankly, that's a disgusting allegation," Clarendon said. "How you look or dress doesn't influence if you're 'accepted' or if you're going to play."