A few years ago, I was chatting with my editor at ESPN.com about the drinking issue in the WNBA, and how long it might be before someone really prominent got in trouble because of it.
I guess I’m surprised it hadn’t happened until this week, when Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi was cited for DUI after the Mercury’s game Wednesday against Seattle.
Yes, there have been other players who have committed alcohol-related driving offenses, including Detroit’s Kara Braxton and Sacramento’s Rebekkah Brunson. Braxton, in fact, was suspended for six games this season after her second offense.
Braxton, though, has other incidents of problematic behavior dating back to her tumultuous college career at Georgia. Embarrassing as it was for the league to have any player in any kind of legal trouble, nobody was exactly stunned about Braxton making a bad decision. And even though she’s been part of two WNBA title teams, she’s not a known name outside of women’s basketball circles. Neither is Brunson.
Taurasi, on the other hand, is one of a small group of women’s hoops players who is well known, and negative publicity involving her is particularly painful for the WNBA.
There was no accident and no injuries, so obviously things could have been much, much worse. But that’s finding a silver lining in something that deserves only the cloud. There is no excuse for drinking and driving, if indeed that is an offense Taurasi has committed.
Everybody is aware of how many tragedies this has caused for society. The toll taken is staggering. And even when no one’s been hurt, to treat the decision to drive while impaired – to any degree _ by alcohol as anything less than a terrible lapse in judgement is to disrespect a Jupiter-sized accumulation of grief and destroyed lives.
But as with any job that involves travel and frequent work at night, being a professional athlete presents a lot of opportunities to “relax” with alcohol. That’s what I meant by the “alcohol issue” in the WNBA (which exists in all pro sports). I’m not saying that there is any occupation in which nobody ever drinks. It’s just that the social settings, the hours kept and the culture of athletics makes it a more high-risk profession for the potential of alcohol-related issues. (You could say the same thing for sports writing, actually.)
Taurasi has always had a reputation for enjoying the nightlife, and that – in and of itself – is a personal decision that doesn’t inherently merit any criticism as long as it doesn’t affect her performance or she doesn’t break the law. But if it crosses the line in either case – which may have happened in the latter respect – then she will have to face the damage done to her reputation.
Taurasi is keenly aware of her importance to the Mercury, to the WNBA, to the University of Connecticut (still), and to the sport of women’s basketball and women’s athletics in general.
I have always liked her a great deal, and this incident – though very disappointing – doesn’t change that. Taurasi is a fabulous player; a force of energy and competitiveness on the court that ranks with the best ever in the sport; a funny, insightful athlete to interview; a star who interacts well with fans. And I’ve never heard negative things about her as a teammate; she’s known as a player who helps everybody reach whatever potential they have on court.
There are fans who dislike Taurasi, of course, and that goes back to her perceived arrogance and that of UConn coach Geno Auriemma during their run of three consecutive NCAA titles. I have to say, though, that to deal with them in person, it isn’t “arrogance” that comes across. They have supreme confidence, yes. But arrogance, to me, is people who act and speak as if they are inherently “better” than others around them, and I’ve never gotten that vibe from Taurasi or Auriemma.
I’m not saying that you’re wrong if you dislike both of them; heck, if you’re a Tennessee fan, it’s almost required of you. But I will say that based on what I know, as a journalist, about Taurasi, she is someone who would be genuinely remorseful and ashamed about this incident (whatever its actual legal ramifications turn out to be).
Hopefully, it will be a lesson that she won’t ever forget and a mistake she’ll never make again.