WNBA brawl: Bad, but good?

Tsk tsk and all that, but at least people are talking about the league.

Topics: Basketball, Title IX,

If I were in charge of marketing for the WNBA, I would have planned for this week to go almost exactly the way it’s gone.

A brawl Tuesday at the Palace of Auburn Hills resulted in suspensions for 10 players from the Los Angeles Sparks and Detroit Shock, as well as Detroit assistant coach Rick Mahorn. In the wake of the brawl, the Shock signed 50-year-old playing legend Nancy Lieberman to a 10-day contract to leave the ESPN broadcast booth long enough to play one game, Thursday night in Houston against the Comets.

So that’s three headlines — brawl, suspensions, Lieberman — in one week, which is about four more than the WNBA gets in a typical week, even during one of the lulls in the sports year, which we’re in now.

The baseball All-Star Game and attendant second-half soothsaying have passed, and the days are starting to take on a patina of canine. NFL camps haven’t opened yet. The Olympics are coming, but the excitement hasn’t really started to build. We’re just getting some preliminary positive drug tests. Sort of like warm-up tosses.

And we can’t forget the Tour de France, which has held Americans in its thrall since Lance Armstrong turned us all into bicycle racing fans, as predicted. But what more can be said about the Tour de France that hasn’t already been said except this:

Is it still going on?

Now’s the time to get some column inches and TV time. When the sports media is obsessing over who owns a cellphone Brett Favre has been talking on, it’s safe to say there’s room for a story that might not be there at other times of the year.

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Those suspended include some of the biggest names in the sport, including Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker. And a bonus for the league, there’s controversy surrounding the suspension of Mahorn for shoving Leslie to the floor — which means people will keep talking about it — because it looked to many, including to this column, like he was trying to be a peacemaker and Leslie stumbled and fell.

The only thing that wouldn’t have been part of my plan would have been Cheryl Ford of the Shock tearing her ACL in the brawl. She’ll miss the rest of the season. That’s not good at all, though Lieberman’s comeback, which Shock coach Bill Laimbeer insists is not a stunt, was supposedly made possible by Ford’s absence.

But the old truism says there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and people who don’t normally talk about the WNBA are talking a lot about it this week. It might look bad that what they’re talking about is a brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, a subject that doesn’t exactly conjure up positive memories.

Then again, it’s worth noting that a big part of why Malice at the Palace II is getting so much attention is because it was so rare. As a brawl, it wasn’t much. Ron Artest can get in a worse fight than that when he’s alone in a room. But it stood out because that sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in the WNBA, land of role models.

“In 18 years of covering women’s basketball,” ESPN analyst Doris Burke said solemnly Wednesday, “including all 12 of the years of the WNBA, I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire career.”

That might be part of the WNBA’s problem.

Four years ago I got and published a thoughtful letter from a reader who scolded me about failing to cover women’s sports in my annual Year in Sports piece. The reader, Kellie Carter, wrote, “Bad behavior makes headlines. Perhaps if female players weren’t such exemplars on and off the field, then maybe they could get more reporting in a mediascape dominated by the latest stupid touchdown celebration or how much LeBron James’ Hummer cost.”

Part of my reply was, “A Dennis Rodman-type figure would probably do wonders for the WNBA’s popularity. After all, that sort of thing did wonders for the manly sport of baseball, which benefited greatly from the shenanigans of Babe Ruth. Where would women’s figure skating be if Tonya Harding had never come along?”

Women’s sports, and particularly the WNBA, are so often portrayed as such havens of sportsmanship and good values that they can come off as a little bloodless. Role models are great, and the endless, pointless, boring brawling of the NHL at its worst is, well, pointless and boring. But these are elite athletes in a major league. It shouldn’t be so rare to see them get their blood up, even throw a few fists around.

That’s not a sentiment that’s going to win me any Nobel Prizes or Parent of the Year awards. It might be one that would sell some tickets and boost the TV ratings a little, though. It’d be nice to hear for a change from the WNBA’s boosters that we should be watching the league more because, damn, those girls get after it, rather than because we just ought to, for the greater good of humankind.

Doris Burke’s never seen anything like this in the WNBA, and the WNBA has been struggling to get a foothold on the American sports scene for a dozen years. Those might be unrelated statements. Might not be.

Talking about the brawl the next day, Leslie said, “This is not the way we want to represent ourselves and the WNBA.”

If I were in charge of marketing for the WNBA, I’d have been happy she’d said that. I’d have been happier if she didn’t really mean it.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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