The WNBA and Complications That Arise in Domestic Abuse Cases

Allegations of domestic violence against athletes are often difficult matters for professional sports leagues to address. This is in part due to the frequently disturbing aspects of those allegations, the difficulty in assessing the truthfulness of the underlying claims and the deliberate pace of a criminal justice system that seldom comports to a 24-hour news cycle or sports season.

The WNBA is no exception.

Two WNBA players, Los Angeles Sparks guard Riquna Williams and Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard, find themselves accused of domestic violence acts. Both are still playing games for their respective teams. Neither the WNBA nor the players’ teams have imposed discipline. At least not yet.

Factual accusations against Riquna Williams

The Williams situation is much further along than that of Howard.

Williams, 29, faces two felony charges in Florida stemming from an incident last December with her ex-girlfriend, Alkeria Davis. The incident took place on Thursday, Dec. 6, at approximately 5:50 p.m. It was at that time when an officer from the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to a residence in Pahokee—Williams’s hometown—to investigate a report of a domestic violence act. Sports Illustrated has obtained a copy of the probable cause affidavit in connection with this incident.

According to the officer’s account, there were three victims: Davis, Antonio Wilson and Wilson’s 10-year-old son. Davis and Wilson claim they were in the residence when Williams arrived at about 5 p.m. After she entered the property, Williams allegedly bashed a car belonging to Davis with a skateboard. She then “attempted to make entry via hitting the outside door with the skateboard.”

While allegedly trying to force herself inside, Williams was heard yelling at Davis to “come outside and face her.” Davis, who says she dated Williams on-and-off for five years and had broken up with Williams only a month earlier, then opened the door. Williams quickly “snatched” the slightly open door wide open. She is then accused of forcing her way inside with the goal of attacking Davis.

Once inside the residence, Williams, according to the police report, struck Davis several times in the head with a closed fist. She then pulled out her hair.

Wilson, meanwhile, tried to break up the altercation, as did his 10-year-old son. After several minutes of trying to separate Williams from Davis, those efforts prevailed. By that point, though, Davis had suffered injuries to her head and scalp.

Williams then left the residence and went to her car, a Chevrolet Camaro. From the car Williams pulled out an unspecified “black firearm” and placed it on the trunk so that it was pointed at Wilson. She then put her hand on the gun and told him that “you’ll get all 18”, an ominous reference to the number of bullets in the gun’s magazine. Williams then drove off.

- Leon Bennett/Getty Images
Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Williams pleads not guilty felony charges

On January 22, 2019, Palm Beach County State Attorney David Aronberg filed an information and indictment sheet for Williams. She faces one count of burglary with assault or battery, and one count of aggravated assault with a firearm.

These are serious felony charges.                          

Burglary with assault or battery is considered a first-degree felony under Florida law and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. It refers to entering another person’s residence with the intent to commit a crime and then committing assault or battery. Here, Williams is accused of unlawfully entering a residence that was not her own—according to the police, the residence is a “property of Wilson and/or Davis”—with the intent to commit an offense. After entering the property, Williams is believed to have brutally attacked Davis.                                               

The second charge, aggravated assault with a firearm, is not as grave but it is still a felony. It generally refers to the fear caused when brandishing a weapon and pointing it at someone. Here, Williams is accused of threatening violence by pulling out a gun and threatening to fire all 18 bullets (which she implied were in the gun’s magazine) at Wilson and others on the property. Prosecutors contend that Williams “created a well-founded fear” in Wilson and his son that “such violence was imminent.” Aggravated assault with a firearm is a third-degree felony under Florida law and carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

On April 30, Williams was arrested and booked in Palm Beach County. She posted bond and was released. On May 6, Williams entered a not guilty plea to both charges. The next hearing date is scheduled for August 16. According to court records, the presiding judge is Judge Daliah Weiss, who previously served as chief of the family violence unit at the state attorney’s office. Williams is represented attorneys Daniel Riccardo Paige and Cyrus Toufanian, a former prosecutor.

Williams continues to play for the Sparks

In the midst of felony domestic violence charges and a chilling police report, Williams continues to play for the Sparks. On Sunday, Williams played 40 minutes and scored a team-high 23 points in the Sparks' 76-71 win over the Atlanta Dream. Williams, a 2015 WNBA All-Star, is tied for eighth in three-point shooting this WNBA season. She is a key contributor to the Sparks, who with a 9-7 record currently qualify for the league’s playoffs.

The Sparks also reaffirmed their confidence in Williams when they re-signed her as a free agent on May 15. According to Capology.com, Williams is paid $113,000 per season.

Both the WNBA and Sparks have the legal right to suspend Williams, though neither is obligated to do so. This right is contained in Article XIV of the collective bargaining agreement signed by the WNBA and the Women’s Nationals Basketball Players’ Association (WNBPA). Although last November the WNBPA voted to opt out of the current CBA, the opt-out does not take effect until after the 2019 season concludes. Further, under labor law, the terms of an expired CBA continue so long as the parties are engaged in good faith bargaining and there is no impasse. In other words, Article XIV continues to govern player conduct matters.

Under Article XIV, players are required to “conform their conduct to standards of good citizenship, good moral character, and good sportsmanship and shall not do anything detrimental or prejudicial to the best interests of the WNBA, their teams, or the sport of basketball.” This standard includes compliance with federal, state and local laws. If a player fails to adhere to this standard, the WNBA or the player’s team may (but not must) impose “reasonable discipline.” The CBA describes reasonable discipline as a reasonable fine or a reasonable suspension.

Article XIV also contains a prohibition against double-punishment. This means that the WNBA and Sparks cannot both punish Williams for the same misconduct.

If Williams is suspended for any amount of time, or if she is fined at least $301 by the Sparks or at least $551 by the WNBA, she (and the WNBPA) would have a right to appeal the punishment within 30 days of its imposition. Any appeal would be heard by a neutral arbitrator.

The WNBA has punished players for domestic violence in the past. In 2015, the league suspended Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson for seven games each after they were arrested in Arizona on suspicion of assault and disorderly conduct. The two players were engaged to one another at the time and had several arguments, one of which led to the police being called to their home in a suburb of Phoenix. A seven-game suspension remains the longest in the WNBA’s 23-year history. The charges were later dropped against Johnson while Griner’s charges were dropped by virtue of Griner participating in a pretrial diversion program.

Given that the WNBA season is 34 games, a seven-game suspension is akin to a 17-game suspension in the NBA’s 82-game regular season. The NBA’s longest suspension for domestic violence occurred in 2014 when the league suspended Charlotte Hornets forward Jeffrey Taylor for 24 games after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault and misdemeanor malicious destruction of property.

- Matteo Marchi/Getty Images
Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Making sense of the WNBA's inaction with Williams

The seriousness of the allegations against Williams, coupled with the fact that law enforcement has found probable cause—meaning sufficient facts and circumstances to conclude that Williams committed two felony-level crimes—clearly gives the WNBA and Sparks the right to suspend Williams. Further, the league and team have obvious reasons to invoke that right. They include the potentially adverse reactions of fans and sponsors to a player who is charged with violent felonies being able to play without interruption or sanction.

It’s also worth speculating how the NBA or an NBA team would address a player charged with felonies for breaking into an ex-partner’s residence and repeatedly punching that partner in the head and pulling out their hair. While no two domestic violence incidents are the same, it’s worth noting that the NBA—which founded the WNBA and, though WNBA teams are individually owned and though the WNBA has its own leadership team, still has influence over the WNBA—and teams have punished players for domestic violence allegations or admissions.

In September 2017, the Hornets placed Jeffrey Taylor on paid leave—and thus separated him from all team activities—in the aftermath of Taylor being charged with one count of domestic assault, one count of assault and one count of malicious destruction of property. Taylor was accused of shoving a woman from his hotel room in East Lansing, Michigan, with such force that she crashed into the door of a room on the other side of the hallway. As alluded to above, Taylor’s leave from the Hornets became an NBA suspension after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault and misdemeanor malicious destruction of property.

In February 2018, the NBA suspended center Willie Reed for six games under the league’s joint policy on domestic violence (discussed more fully below). Reed had resolved a misdemeanor charge for battery by entering a pretrial intervention program. He was accused of grabbing his wife, who told him she wanted a divorce, by the hair and then throwing her to the ground.

Why hasn’t the WNBA or the Sparks taken any action against Williams?

There are several possible reasons.

First, Williams has pleaded not guilty to both charges and insists that she is innocent. In the court of law, she is innocent until proven guilty. Although the WNBA and Sparks do not “have to” wait for the legal process to play out, they might prefer to do so.

Along those lines, Williams’s account of the situation might prove far different from what law enforcement contends. Hypothetically, perhaps she had a connection to the residence in question and a legal right to enter it. If that were the case, she would have a powerful defense against the burglary charge: it’s not burglary to enter one’s own home. Her attorneys might also contend that Davis was the aggressor. Until a defense is developed, it’s difficult to anticipate what will be argued and what type of evidence may be relevant.

Second, neither the WNBA nor the Sparks has a greater capacity than the criminal justice system to determine what took place on Dec. 6 in Pahokee. With that in mind, the league and team might not want to risk prejudicing Williams’s criminal case by disciplining her for an unproven charge. Likewise, do they want to punish her if, later on, the charges are dismissed.

Third, Williams does not seem to pose an on-going safety risk to other WNBA players or fans. She has played seven seasons with a suspension for an on-court incident. Both the WNBA and Sparks can credibly argue that punishment should not occur unless and until Williams is found guilty or (more likely) negotiates a plea deal where she accepts responsibility and minimizes the risk of lengthy incarceration.

How the WNBA could learn from the NBA’s process

Part of the challenge for the WNBA with domestic violence controversies is that the current CBA for WNBA players lacks the kind of advanced approach to domestic violence accusations found in the NBA’s CBA. As I explained more fully in a recent Sports Illustrated article on former Boston Celtics guard Jabari Bird, the NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA) have negotiated a joint policy on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

The policy is contained in Exhibit F of their CBA. It clearly distinguishes domestic violence from other personal conduct offenses. To that end, the policy defines domestic violence as including “any actual or attempted violent act that is committed by one party in an intimate or family relationship against another party in that relationship.” It further clarifies that domestic violence includes “physical assault or battery, sexual assault, stalking, harassment, or other forms of physical or psychological abuse” as well as “behavior that intimidates, manipulates, humiliates, isolates, frightens, terrorizes, coerces, threatens, injures, or places another person in fear of bodily harm.”

The policy also authorizes NBA commissioner Adam Silver to separate a player from his team without suspending the player. This separation is through “administrative leave,” where a player is excluded from team activities but continues to be paid. While on leave the league can investigate the claim—including making attempts to speak with accusers—and monitor pertinent legal developments. At the same time, by placing the player on leave, the league does not reach any conclusions about the player’s guilt or innocence. If the player is ultimately cleared, he would not have lost salary. This type of system might be helpful for the WNBA, particularly as a topic for when it negotiates a new CBA with the WNBPA.

- Ned Dishman/Getty Images
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Another WNBA test: accusations against Natasha Howard

Unlike the Williams domestic violence matter, which has been going on eight months, the controversy concerning Howard is brand new.

Howard, 27, is one of the WNBA’s best players. The No. 5 overall pick of the 2014 WNBA draft is fourth in the league in points per game (17.4), third in rebounds per game (8.2) and tied for fourth in steals per game (2.0). Williams has led the Storm to a 10-8 record, which would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today.

On Saturday, Howard’s wife, Jacqueline Howard, posted a one-minute cell phone video on Twitter with the accompanying message “But I’m lying? Okay.”

As of this writing, the tweet containing the video remains online. In the video, Jacqueline appears to be holding her phone down, perhaps to disguise the fact that she was recording her wife. Regardless, Jacqueline demands to know how many times Natasha had “threatened her” since Jacqueline had “been there.” Natasha responded, “I f------ don’t know, but I wouldn’t threaten you that I’m going to kill you or nothing.” Jaqueline then replied, “You didn’t threaten to cause me physical harm?” Natasha responded to the question with a question of her own, “But did I cause physical harm? No.”

Jaqueline clearly disagreed. She then warned Natasha that she was “going to get a restraining order” because, in Jacqueline’s view, Natasha is “losing [her] f------ mind.” Jacqueline also insisted that Natasha had broken a door in their residence and slammed it on her. The camera is then positioned to record video of a door with broken glass, with Jacqueline adding that she doesn’t “feel safe” around Natasha. Jaqueline also alleged that Natasha had turned off the wi-fi box in their residence to eavesdrop on a private conversation, and that Natasha has “stalker intentions” and is “f------ obsessed” with her.

Both the WNBA and Storm have released statements expressing that they are looking into the situation.

It’s worth noting that at no time on the video did Natasha Howard admit to illegal acts. Her statements could be interpreted to mean that she admits to making some sort of threats against her wife, but she does not actually explicitly admit to that. Also, while Jaqueline Howard warned her wife that she would obtain a restraining order, there is no record of that happening (yet).

This is a difficult situation for the WNBA and Storm, particularly at this early juncture. Natasha Howard is accused by a loved one of very troubling acts. At the same time, she seems to deny those acts and, in the absence of a police report—where Jacqueline Howard would be legally required to tell the truth, unlike in a video posted on Twitter—or other corroborating evidence, it’s difficult to assess the veracity and accuracy of the claims.

This situation serves as a reminder to not only the WNBA but to all pro leagues that as personal technology has made it very easy to record videos and upload them online, players can find themselves accused of wrongdoing or implicated in domestic disputes that in the past might not become public.

As detailed above, the NBA and NBPA have negotiated a series of procedures for accusations of domestic violence. With the WNBA and WNBPA set to bargain a new CBA, it would behoove both sides to contemplate policies for the types of situations presented by Williams and Howard. Meanwhile, the WNBA’s new commissioner, Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert, takes office on Wednesday. Expect domestic violence and players to be one of the first topics she addresses.

Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.

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