Former basketball star Candice Wiggins is citing the “toxic” environment at the Women’s National Basketball Association for her decision to leave the league.
In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, the 30-year-old athlete claimed she was bullied for being heterosexual and called the culture at the WNBA “very, very harmful.” Wiggins, a four-time All-American guard at Stanford University, left the WNBA last year after eight years with four league teams.
She told the Union-Tribune that she wanted to stay in the WNBA for two more seasons, “but the experience didn’t lend itself to my mental state.”
“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.”
The ex-player recalled other teammates “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,” she said. “I’d never been thrown to the ground so much. The message was: ‘We want you to know we don’t like you.'”
According to the Union-Tribune, at least 12 current and former WNBA players have come out as gay, though there is no robust research data on the issue. It is worth noting, however, that in 2014, the WNBA became the first American pro sports league to specifically target the LGBT community in a marketing campaign.
In 2000, former WNBA player Sue Wicks, who is gay, said it was “annoying” that the league mostly promoted players who are mothers.
“I like it when they give insight into athletes, and I think it’s great when they say, ‘Here’s a player and her husband and baby,'” Wicks told The Village Voice. “But I’d love to see a couple of women profiled, too, especially if they had a great, solid relationship, just to show that in a positive light.”
But Wiggins has a different take. She said this week that there was a lot of “jealousy” within the WNBA and she said her lifestyle and the way she looked “contributed to the tension” she had with other players.
In addition, Wiggins, who is now training to become a professional beach volleyball player, said she is disheartened by a culture in the WNBA that encourages women to look and behave like men.
“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.”
But she’s walking away from the entire ordeal with no hard feelings. “There are no enemies in my life. Everyone is forgiven. At the end of the day, it made me stronger,” she said, adding, “If I had not had this experience, I wouldn’t be as tough as I am.”
Some players immediately pushed back against Wiggins’ comments. Los Angeles Sparks forward and WNBA players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike told Vice Sports that the union “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,” she said. “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.”
So far, WNBA president Lisa Borders has declined to comment on Wiggins’ statements.