WNBA Week 9: Brittney Griner Takes a Mental Health Break, League Injuries Linger

Feature image photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In between all the World Cup soccer excitement, the WNBA is still going strong in its push toward the playoffs, and we’re here to talk it all out!


Natalie: Well, first I’ll start this conversation by tipping my hat to you for beating me in Fantasy Basketball last week. A pretty sound drubbing so congratulations. My roster’s been decimated by injuries and it’s just been difficult to compete.

Heather: Half your roster was out with injuries or mandatory rest! I actually asked Stacy if I should take off a few of my starters to make it fair, and she was like, “Your friendship with Natalie makes you so soft!” And I was like “SO WHAT!!” But then I left all my best players in so I guess I’m not that soft. How are you making time to watch all these games and all the World Cup games too??

Natalie: I would’ve been mad if you had done that so I’m glad you didn’t!

Heather: I knew in my heart!

Natalie: Trying to manage all the WNBA games and the World Cup has been hard…thank goodness for the DVR because otherwise I’m not sure I’d be up and offering coherent sentences right now.

Heather: Hahaha, I bet! I have been endlessly impressed with your ability to keep up with both. I’m checking your Twitter as soon as I wake up every morning for my updates. You’re like my SportsCenter. It’s been really cool to see so many W players supporting the USWNT, wearing their jerseys pregame and stuff. It feels like there’s a real bond there because they do share some of the same struggles. Who had the most exciting game last week: the W or the Footballers?

Natalie: I mean, the footballers have the clear edge because the World Cup happens only once every four years…so the stakes feel so high.

Heather: That makes sense! The thing that stresses me out about soccer is how one goal feels like fifty points!

Natalie: Ha!

Heather: Where should we start with the W today? We are still dealing with a lot of injuries, and also this week we found out BG is taking some time out for mental health. We’re obviously sending her all our love and support. Are you surprised the league is so banged up right now as we head into the last third of the season.

Natalie: I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised — this is the professional game and injuries happen — but it does feel like there have been a lot of them and that the recovery time has been longer than expected. I think about someone like Shakira Austin who we were told would be out three weeks…and who I expected to be back following the All-Star break…and there’s no indication that she’ll be returning anytime soon.

Heather: Definitely. I keep thinking about the rookies who have not been able to give their bodies a break in over a year. They went into their senior year at their schools and started conditioning in the summer, preseason, practice, games, practice, March Madness, immediately to the draft and then leveling up to the W. Their bodies must all be hanging on by a thread! Which I know is also true for overseas players. I also think maybe this is the most physical season I can remember. This game just gets tougher and tougher!

Natalie: I think you’re right about the level of physicality in the W this season…and I guess that begs the question: is the league doing enough to protect the players? And by league, I mean the referees who have the responsibility of stepping in and defusing the level of physicality that results in these injuries. Last week, the Mystics dropped a game to the Minnesota Lynx and Natasha Cloud risked a fine from the league by calling out the refs for not doing their jobs. In that game, the Mystics got to the line only 4 times (on 8 fouls), while the Lynx went to the line 23 times (on 18 fouls). What’s been your assessment of refereeing in the WNBA this year?

Heather: I think the ref-ing has been terrible, and I’m not usually a person who really gets into what the refs are doing. To your point, I don’t think they’re doing enough to protect the players. They’re not being consistent with their foul calls, especially in the paint. They’re quick as anything to throw out a T, especially when players are mouthing off, which is PART OF THE GAME in my opinion, but often times, even on review, they’re missing a lot of flagrant aggression. And they’re letting players get away with — oh, for example: Diana Taurasi smacked Marina Mabrey in the face yesterday. But in the game where a ref gave the Wings EIGHT TECHNICALS and KICKED OUT ARIKE FROM THE BENCH, they still let the players beat the hell out of each other. I love the physicality of women’s basketball. I think it’s so subversive. But the league HAS TO do a better job keeping the players safe. What’s your read on the refs this season?

Natalie: Like you, I’m not usually one to think a lot about what the refs are doing. As a player, I was told to control what you can control and not not let the refs get into your head and I’ve kinda kept that perspective as a fan. That said, at some point, it’s important to acknowledge when the refs are, essentially, becoming the third team out there on the court…and you’re having to best them and your opponent. And so now, games are being decided by these foul calls and the refusal to call fouls is leading to a lot of player injuries.

The league has to get a handle on this. I can’t imagine going into the first round of the playoffs and having to deal with these awful refs.

Heather: I agree! I know I keep talking about what a revelation it is to finally have a Stewie on my team, but I remain absolutely shocked by how many calls she gets, I kind of always assumed I was just being a baby when my teams were playing against her, but now I can safely say — from the other side — that the way these refs protect Breanna Stewart needs to be the way they protect everyone. It is WILD, the difference between Stewie and anyone else diving into the lane. She’s coming up with a call. You can see it all over the other teams’ faces too, just even their body language with each other.

Natalie: To go back to that incident with Mabrey and Taurasi, I think that’s a sign of refs getting too comfortable with certain players. Like, I imagine if you asked the refs — who were literally right there and couldn’t have not seen her do it — they would’ve been like, “oh, it was just a playful tap” or “that’s just Diana being silly.” Similarly with Stewie, I think because she is so efficient in the paint, the refs approach her misses as “well, she must’ve gotten fouled” and then, as you said, try and reverse engineer a call. To me, those situations demonstrate how unprofessional WNBA refereeing has gotten…and something needs to be done.

Heather: That’s it. I absolutely agree! Also it’s not lost on me that it’s almost always white players getting this deference.

Natalie: It absolutely is.

Heather: Are you surprised BG’s taking some time?

Natalie: I’m surprised it took this long, TBH.

I’ve said from the very beginning of the season that I didn’t need BG to ever pick up a basketball again…that she didn’t need to play in the WNBA or on Team USA ever again to have made our advocacy for her worthwhile or to have made the prisoner swap worth doing. But even as we see her playing with such joy at the All-Star game, I wonder: how much of this is she doing because she genuinely wants to be doing this or is she doing this because this is how she knows to repay everyone for their help and support?

But yeah, I was surprised she didn’t take a break after that airport incident…

Heather: Yeah I think you’re spot-on. It’s a miracle she made it to the All-Star game, especially with all the bullshit she’s had to deal with in terms of travel and security. So much of her return is — as you just said — about everyone else and what they needed from her. I’m just holding her in my heart and sending her FULL support for whatever SHE needs.

Natalie: Same. Again, I just want her to know if she doesn’t want to come back, she doesn’t have to. If all she ever is, from this point on, is a loving wife to Cherelle then that is absolutely fine. Sit home, play video games, write a book…let Cherelle be her sugar mama with some high profile lawyer job. She does not have to pick up a basketball ever again for me to be proud to have advocated for her and to be happy that the Biden administration made the swap.

Heather: That’s me too, 100%!

Natalie: They do have to keep posting cute videos on Instagram, though. That’s not up for negotiation.

Heather: I don’t know if they could help it, even if they tried, all that cuteness has to go somewhere. It can’t stay contained. That’s just physics.

So we’re at the point in the season, where we’re getting a clearer picture of who’s gonna be in the playoffs and who’s gonna be praying for good draftees. What’s jumping out to you right now? Any surprises in the top or bottom? Anyone you’re still not sure about? Anyone you’re super-sure about? Anyone who could flip in either direction and either ride out the season on a major high or just absolutely tank?

Natalie: We talked a bit about injuries already but I think my surprises are mostly around that: Los Angeles and Washington are definitely teams I expected to do better this season than they have. I’ve been surprised that Connecticut’s remained in top form after losing Brianna Jones for the season. But I think, particularly over the last few weeks, I’ve been shocked at how the Minnesota Lynx have looked. Last week, they beat the Liberty and the Sun without their star player, Napheesa Collier!

Heather: Whatever is going on with the Lynx right now is dark magic. Napheesa Collier has absolutely carried that team the way Jewell Loyd’s been carrying the Storm — but still, they haven’t been winning a lot of games, right, because it’s the most competitive sports league on earth. And yet, somehow, they have looked like the damn Lynx of Legend out there lately. They didn’t just beat the Liberty; they made them look completely discombobulated. They looked like it was their first game of the season out there. And the Sun, too, despite a monster performance from DeWanna Bonner. Like, what? You said back at the beginning of the season that Cheryl Reeve simply did not have it in her to tank, and boy were you correct. And yeah, these poor Sparks and Mystics. I hate to say it, but it’s time for Washington to make a real plan beyond Elena Della Donne.

Natalie: Oh no, I think Cheryl Reeve has it in her to tank…I don’t think Napheesa Collier does…I don’t think Diamond Miller does…and at some point, Cheryl was like, “okay, I guess this is what we’re doing then” and then coaches their way through this current 3 game win streak. I’m still curious about what the issue is between Reeve and Aerial Powers…but AP came off the bench yesterday and played really, really well. I don’t know what the prospects for the Lynx are for this season but I think, when we talk about rebuilding this franchise to its former glory…they are far closer to that than I thought they were at the beginning of the season.

Heather: That does feel more true, yes! 😂

Natalie: The Aces remain the benchmark, though, right? And while we’ve seen them drop a game to the Sun and the Wings, I don’t know that we’ve seen the kind of consistent effort you’d need to dethrone the reigning champions by any team in the league. The Aces had their rematch with Dallas yesterday and they got back into top form and the Wings regressed, especially on the defensive end. I remain unconvinced that anyone can beat the Aces in a series.

Heather: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. That Aces/Wings game yesterday was such a flex. First of all, the Wings came out really thinking they could take two in a row from the Aces. Sabally coming off the first triple-double in Wings history. McCowan playing like an absolutely unflappable powerhouse. Arike turned it on major in the second half. But there wasn’t a single second when the Aces seemed to think the game wasn’t theirs. Even when the Wings staged a huge comeback and got within three, the Aces just kept playing their game. Sometimes watching them is honestly like watching a cat with a lizard. Just playing with it, playing with it, pulling off its tail, batting it around — before ultimately BITING OFF ITS HEAD. And it’s a testament to how damn fun they are that I’m never yelling at them to stop playing with their food. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a team like this. Maybe I’ve never seen a team like this?

Natalie: Biting off its head?! I was unprepared for that imagery.

Heather: LOL sorry. But there’s a part of you that thinks Becky Hammon is ferocious enough for that, right?

“ABC: ANYONE BUT COPPER!!!!”

Natalie: That was pretty funny.

Heather: I know Kah watched that on repeat.

Natalie: You know she did! It’s her ringtone now, I bet.

Heather: Hahaha! I really hope it is!

Natalie: The Aces had an off-the-court distraction last week with the domestic violence arrest of Las Vegas Aces reserve Riquna Williams. According to reports, she’s being charged with three felony counts of strangulation, one felony count of assault with a deadly weapon, one felony count of coercion, and four misdemeanor counts of domestic battery. This isn’t the first time that Williams has been involved in a domestic violence incident: while with the Sparks, she had to complete a diversion program to get the criminal charges dropped and, after an investigation, was suspended by the league for 10 games.

The Aces have said that Williams “will be precluded from participating in team activities” and, beyond that, are withholding comment. The WNBAPA isn’t saying much either.

What’s your take on this situation and, in particular, about the responses from the league and the Aces?

Heather: I was so so sad when this news broke. Like you said, this isn’t the first time, but I was so hoping that she was getting the help that she needed. It’s always really tough to hear about any domestic violence, but especially when strangulation is involved, because, statistically, that’s the thing that ends up being a sign abusers won’t reform, and that things will keep escalating. We don’t like to think about domestic violence in queer relationships, but it’s a very real thing, and we can’t shy away from talking about it or it will never get any better. I had assumed the Aces would cut her immediately, especially because this isn’t the first time and we’re talking multiple felonies here. I’m not super surprised by the WNBAPA staying quiet for now, but I guess I am surprised that the Aces are retaining her? I guess someone somewhere is investigating? But if that’s the case, I think they need to say that! We can’t talk about how the W is so important and this bastion of hope for little girls if we’re not also holding players accountable. Did you think the Aces would cut her?

Natalie: I am shocked they haven’t already. According to reporting from Cheryl Coward of Hoopfeed, Williams had been asked explicitly by the Aces if she had her guns with her in Las Vegas and she told them she didn’t…so, even if you’re giving a presumption of innocence to the strangulation and domestic battery charges, you know at the very least that there was a gun involved and that she lied to the management of the Aces. That’s cause for dismissal right there.

Heather: Oh wow, I hadn’t read that. I mean, damn, even the NBA doesn’t tolerate that. How many games did Ja get suspended for after his second gun violation? I think 25? That’s like a full WNBA season almost.

Natalie: I understand the NBA comparison with Ja but, he’s just being stupid, he’s not threatening anyone…and also? The WNBA is different. We’re a league that actively partners with Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety. The bar for the league’s response to situations like these is higher than the NBA’s and once again, they’ve failed to respond in any measurable way.

Heather: You’re right, of course.

Natalie: There’s absolutely no reason to keep Williams on the roster and after the Dearica Hamby/Becky Hammon situation earlier this season, you’d think the Aces would be more proactive in dealing with these off the court issues. I love A’ja and Chelsea and KP….but you can’t keep charming your way out of these bullshit antics.

Heather: I was thinking about Hamby too, when this news broke. They came out of that mostly unscathed, but this stuff cannot keep piling up.

I feel disappointed with my whole heart. I hope the Aces do the right thing, and I hope they do it soon.

Natalie: I really hope that too.

One more thing I wanted to touch on before we wrap up this week: the Indiana Fever. The implosion for the Fever continues, including the underutilization of their #1 draft pick, and this week we started to see more chatter about trades before the WNBA’s August 7th trade deadline. What do you think is the likelihood of a big trade occurring in Indiana? Do you think talk of a Skylar Diggins-Smith for Kelsey Mitchell trade is legit?

Heather: I am so frustrated on behalf of Aliyah Boston! I know it’s hard to lose a lot of games. I know it’s even harder to lose a lot of close games, over and over, to keep your head up and keep working and believing — but the Fever, and Boston specifically, have exceeded expectations this season. They have so much to be proud of and hopeful about. And to see them now imploding because of behind-the-scenes drama and infighting? It’s so maddening! I do think the talk of that trade is legit, although I’m not sure. Hmm. How do I say this? If the problem is that Boston’s teammates think she’s getting too much attention, I’m not sure Skylar Diggins-Smith is the one to apply a balm to that situation? But I also know things can’t keep on like they have been going in Indiana and Boston is too good, too generational, to lose her stardom in a bunch of messy mess mess mess. You said in Slack last week that you’d be fine with them dismantling the whole squad, including the coaching staff, and rebuilding the team around Boston. And, frankly, I also would not mind that one bit.

Natalie: I’m not sure I believe that SDS is on her way to Indiana…if only because it’d be stupid for the Fever to sign her when she’s in the last year of her deal in Phoenix and will become a free agent at the end of the season. You’re not going to salvage this season so wait until the off-season and see if SDS is interested in coming to Indiana during free agency.

I think Skylar’s actually not a bad fit…I think her issue in Phoenix was being overlooked when she was carrying the team….and that she could lead this team. But Skylar went to Phoenix in the first place looking for a championship and I’m not sure there’s a team further from championship contention than the Fever.

I stand by what I said in our WNBA slack channel: this team needs to be blown up and rebuilt. I think the coach needs to go too; she’s lost the locker room and I don’t believe that she’ll get it back.

Heather: I think that’s right! I think there’s a lot to be hopeful about in a lot of these places that have struggled this year: the Sparks, the Storm, and absolutely the Fever. But of all those teams, the Fever are the ones that seem to need the biggest reworking. Not just adds, but reconfiguration.

Okay let’s shift to something a little less heavy: Carmen’s FITS OF THE WEEK!

Carmen: It’s deep in summer and time to return to my first love — the reason I first started paying attention to the W — and that is the absolute fineness of Courtney Williams, who understood the assignment with a simple black button down and matching pants, with the orange colorways on those Nikes and matching orange chain on the bag + orange sunglasses that invoke a heavy late July/early August sun (though that velvet shirt seems like it would be hot? And not in that “Courtney Williams is hot” way).

I’m also going to shout out Kahleah Copper, because this lose knit top is giving ideal summer leisure, but make it gay, and I am here for it.

Carmen: But the real winner here is not a player at all, but WNBA noted personality Ari Chambers, who left multiple people in our chat ummm…. speechless… for her Beyoncé concert fits, which speak on their own, no introduction needed:

Natalie: Beyonce + WNBA = Two of Carmen’s favorite things.

Carmen: On God.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!
Related:

Natalie

A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 396 articles for us.

Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.

Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 700 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. love this column every week! i think i agree with all y’all’s points, especially being on team “take all the time you need BG.” i don’t think i’ve seen a single shitty comment about her break either, which is pretty remarkable for a league that attracts the worst of the the internet so often.

    this is my first year keeping up with the W so i have no baseline, but the physicality of the games is just! at least once per game, no matter who’s playing, there’s a clear foul that doesn’t get called and there’s some kind of hit to the face or head. we’ve got players with black eyes and split lips and players getting shouldered into equipment and it’s going to be bad. it’s like seeing the storm clouds brewing but not clearing the tornado shelter

    the lynx are truly rewriting their season! they had that terrible six game loss streak to start and were like, ‘that’s enough of that. and also phee is great but put respect on the rest of us too.’ it makes for some excellent basketball to watch.

    interesting perspectives on the fever- i definitely feel for aliyah boston. the pressure of being number one draft pick and having all this hype but then having the drama that team has created…oof. poor kid.

    and yeah, also surprised the aces didn’t immediately drop williams. like. come on y’all this is not a tough call

  2. love to BG. i’ve been amazed that she’s been going so much, but a little worried too. hope she takes all the time.

    the officiating does seem one sided, like they pick a team, consciously or not, and that one gets better calls. also, i seem to notice when Stewie takes contact a lot more this year – whether it’s her size that amplifies arms flailing, etc…, or what have you. also also, wow, that Taurasi play is embarrassing all the way around, except Mabrey who was awfully composed after such a dick move.

  3. I agree that SDS won’t solve the Fever’s issues, if the issue is with egos and plays being bitter towards other players’ attention level (I’ve taken a twitter break so I’m not really sure the the exact details y’all are referring to), but also, I wonder what the solution would be otherwise? If they continue like this and don’t make the playoffs, they’ll get the #1 pick next year, which feels like it’ll bring more of those same issues? Or should they do some other non-SDS trades?

    I’d be Interested to hear what you guys might think about that, what the rebuilding/reworking should look like because I for one cannot figure it out!

    • Also as someone whose team is sucking in the traditional sense (winning games and playing good basketball), I’ve taken to really focusing on the rookies and their development this season, so I loved the shoutout to Diamond Miller! I loved watching her in college and had a feeling she’d translate easily to the pro game and I love being right!

  4. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is that players who did great in Athletes Unlimited (specifically NaLyssa Smith), haven’t had the same success back in the W. I know a lot of us watched AU and were like, “Oh shit! All these Fever players are killing it!”

    And to be honest, the team really is doing well, but they can’t seem to be cohesive enough to close out a game. I wonder if the individualization of AU is a different motivator for some of these players (again, see NaLyssa Smith).

    Anyways, I just hope Aaliyah is getting the love and care she deserves if she’s not getting it from teammates. Learning more about the mental health toll KP took transitioning into the league has caused me to give all the rookies even more grace and support.

    • NaLyssa is out with an injury right now so I’m not sure it’s fair to blame the Fever’s current playing issues on her?

      If there’s any issue I’m seeing, it’s Aliyah not being fed the ball from guards, not her fellow post player

    • I was so happy for Kahleah when I heard that!! Felt the same way when they mic’d up Becky during a Sun game and she said they could not under any circumstances sag off AT – must be like walking on air to hear that from someone like her.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!