In June 2003, a few weeks into the Sparks’ drive for its third WNBA title, Byears was accused of sexual assault following a party at her Marina del Rey condo.
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.
Sparks President Johnny Buss’ moves include the trade that brought Byears from the Sacramento Monarchs to L.A., as well as her release. He says he cut her from the team mostly because of dissension among her teammates. She was, he suggests, just too much trouble to keep.
“We had just won a championship, we were waiting to exhale, and with it came difficult attitudes and problems beyond anything that happened with the alleged sexual assault,” he says without elaborating. “We knew it was going to be difficult to trade her under the cloud. We make changes whether they are popular or not. It was a tough situation; I wish it didn’t happen. I wish the publicity or the accusations never happened. People do things and get kicked off the team. Was the timing the worst for Byears? Yes.”