Commentary

Pondexter tweets illustrate bigger issue

Tweets did the damage, but leadership void from Liberty, WNBA made fallout worse

Originally Published: March 15, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Japan is facing a potential nuclear catastrophe, on top of the killer earthquake and tsunami that already have destroyed so much. It's impossible to comprehend how anyone could look at what's happening there and express anything but empathetic solidarity with these suffering people.

Yet, as you've probably heard, the New York Liberty's Cappie Pondexter wrote a series of messages on Twitter over the weekend suggesting God might have intentionally afflicted Japan with these disasters. Then she speculated about what reasons the Almighty could have had for orchestrating such horrors.

Cappie Pondexter
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty ImagesCappie Pondexter's remarks were only part of the problem. The lack of, well, anything from the Liberty or WNBA was equally disconcerting.

Along with mindboggling insensitivity, Pondexter's tweets appeared to apply a negative stereotype to an entire nation. Thus, she opened a door to a Twitter backlash against her remarks that has turned extremely ugly.

Ah, yes, good old Twitter. Now that technology has provided a "voice" to everyone with Internet access, we've found out just how much we don't want to know what everyone is thinking.

Most of us represent an entity beyond just ourselves and must be cognizant of how our public words and actions might affect the company or team or school, etc., with which we're affiliated. This can be a problem for people no matter what line of work they're in.

Pondexter embarrassed herself, her Liberty team, the WNBA and Rutgers, her alma mater, with her tweets. She'll have to deal with what perception people now have of her.

Of course, it has brought up the Don Imus incident in 2007, when his remarks about Rutgers' women's basketball team prompted a national discussion about racism, misogyny and rap/hip-hop lyrics, among other topics.

Pondexter wasn't on that team, having finished her Rutgers career in 2006, but she did release a statement back then condemning Imus. Now, those words have been unearthed and thrown back at her.

Pondexter apologized via Twitter, although people might find her apology not entirely adequate. I don't know if Pondexter will learn a valuable lesson from this -- think, think, think before you tweet -- or whether she'll somehow erroneously convince herself she's being victimized for her beliefs.

There's never going to be a shortage of public figures saying things that get them in trouble. Again, especially with today's technology, that is a macro problem. But we also can look at this Pondexter fallout in a micro perspective.

Because it's another indicator of the leadership void that has been a long-term issue for the New York Liberty but more recently is the case with the WNBA itself.

The WNBA is a niche sports organization, and perception really matters. Every sponsorship matters. Every interview matters. If the players don't get that, if they don't understand the vital importance of protecting their image and their livelihood, they are living in an alternate reality. There's really just not much margin for error in a women's pro sports league.

The league did not comment on Pondexter's tweets. There is no president of the WNBA right now, as the NBA continues in its process to fill the job that Donna Orender left in December. Hey, what's the rush? The season doesn't start until June. Gee, it's not like the league really needs a strong spokesperson who would move swiftly and proactively to deal with issues like this, right?

Meanwhile, the Liberty told ESPNNewYork, "We have spoken to Cappie, and the content of that conversation will remain internal. She made a mistake and quickly apologized for that mistake. We will have no further comment."

Really? That's it? I don't know what to call this but pathetic.

Didn't the WNBA and the Liberty at the very least feel the need to strongly disassociate themselves as organizations from what Pondexter had tweeted? Didn't they think they needed to make a statement? How about along the lines of, "Our hearts are with the Japanese people in their anguish, and those remarks were insensitive and do not reflect the beliefs of the WNBA or the Liberty."

Wasn't there any consideraton that some suspension for Pondexter once the WNBA season begins might get the point across about how her words might have hurt people the same way many felt that Imus' words did?

The Liberty's history of poor management decisions and fan alienation could probably be compiled into an instruction book of everything not to do if you want to grow your business.

But even beyond that, it's as though no one in the Knicks/Liberty organization really seems to take public perception of the Liberty seriously.

Last year, there was some controversy and confusion about why Pondexter, a 2008 Olympian, ended up not playing with the U.S. national team at the world championship. She had missed national team practices to attend Fashion Week in New York, but there was no real explanation of what was going on from USA Basketball. They essentially said, "Ask Cappie."

I tried to arrange an interview with her, which never happened. She "explained" via Twitter, eventually, that she was tired and needed a break, so she chose not to play in the world championship.

The Liberty franchise was like a rudderless ship then (not that it looks much better now). Coach Anne Donovan left as soon as the Liberty were eliminated from the WNBA playoffs to start the job she'd accepted at Seton Hall. Longtime general manager Carol Blazejowski left the team/was fired shortly after the WNBA Finals concluded.

When I later asked someone with the Knicks/Liberty about Pondexter's decision and how it had been communicated publicly, he didn't even know what I was talking about. She didn't play in the world championship? Really?

John Whisenant was then hired as the Liberty's new coach/general manager. But we're left wondering if anyone with the Liberty now feels responsible for helping the franchise's star player with how she is being perceived.

The WNBA is a niche sports organization, and perception really matters. Every sponsorship matters. Every interview matters. If the players don't get that, if they don't understand the vital importance of protecting their image and their livelihood, they are living in an alternate reality. There's really just not much margin for error in a women's pro sports league. That's how it is.

For the most part, the WNBA players are terrific about all this. They are approachable to fans, and heavily involved in charities and community work. They are some of the best role models you could find.

Pondexter does charitable work and is not some awful person. She faced difficult circumstances growing up in Chicago and has achieved a lot. But she's also shown a propensity for not always weighing the consequences of her words or actions, and now that's really stung her.

When a player brings the league negative publicity, yes, it is that player's responsibility alone. But the WNBA's response shouldn't be, "Well, let's just let her dig her own way out of this Twitter mess by saying she's sorry on Twitter, too." Or, "If we don't say anything or do anything about it, it will just go away."

That's not leadership, which is something the WNBA and the Liberty sorely seem to need.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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