At 5-feet-11 and 203 pounds, Latasha Byears epitomized the power in power forward. She used her girth to set body-crunching picks that freed up Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie to score. On defense, she snatched rebounds and dogged the opponent's best shooter. If a player physically rubbed her or a teammate the wrong way, Byears exacted payback, committing hard fouls while helping the Sparks win back-to-back championships.
Then, in June 2003, a few weeks into the team's drive for its third WNBA title, Byears was dealt a blow of her own: She was accused of sexual assault following a party at her Marina del Rey condo.
Latasha "Tot-o" Byears (Mark Boster/L. A. Times)
Less than a month later, a similar allegation would be leveled against Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant by a Colorado hotel worker. The athletes shared more in common than the specter of a criminal trial. They also worked for the same corporate family, an L.A. institution that would treat the two ballplayers — one famous and the other relatively obscure — very differently.
The Los Angeles Lakers stood by Bryant. The team's general manager, coach and fellow players publicly supported him throughout his arrest, teary declaration of innocence at a televised Staples Center news conference and court appearances. NBA Commissioner David Stern said that Bryant should "absolutely" continue to play until proven guilty.
In contrast, as a police investigation was opened, the Sparks wasted no time in releasing Byears. She hoped to be picked up by a different team, but the woman who had worn the number 00 on her uniform found zero interest among the other WNBA franchises. She took a series of odd jobs, including a stint slinging JC Penney merchandise in a Buena Park distribution center that lasted seven hot, boring days. "It's not that the work was bad," Byears says. "I just couldn't take it. Playing basketball is what I've been doing since high school, and it's all I really know how to do."
In some ways, the uneven treatment of Bryant and Byears speaks to the obvious: Bryant is a marquee player — so famous beyond the arena that, like Arnold or Oprah, he is widely known by only his first name. He sells millions of dollars' worth of tickets and merchandise for a big-time sports franchise. Byears generated no discernible income for an unprofitable enterprise, and she had already made some other missteps on and off the court. What's more, in its effort to project a wholesome, family-friendly image, the WNBA is more sensitive to bad press than is the NBA, which could field a pretty decent All-Star team of players who have rap sheets.
And yet the 32-year-old Byears believes her particular predicament stems from something other than her largely unheralded status as a player or her reputation for unladylike behavior. She's convinced she has been ostracized for another reason: She is gay.
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The WNBA keeps a strong lesbian fan base, as well as its lesbian players, in what the University of Minnesota's Mary Jo Kane calls "a glass closet." Everyone knows they're there, says Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, but no one wants to open the door.
Michael Messner, a sociology and gender studies professor at USC, agrees: The collective understanding in the WNBA is that if you're a lesbian, you'd better hush up about it. "It's OK to be who you are, but it's not OK to talk about it, and bring a male to the team party," Messner says.
Posted by ronn at August 21, 2005 08:48 AM