Los Angeles Sparks Accused of Sexual Discrimination in Lawsuit

Penny Toler, the former general manager of the Los Angeles Sparks, is suing the W.N.B.A. team, saying she was fired for raising complaints about inappropriate sexual relationships involving the team president and a managing partner, not for using a racial slur.

The Sparks fired Toler on Oct. 4, about two weeks after a profane postgame tirade that included a racial slur. In the suit filed on Tuesday for gender discrimination, Toler said if she were a man, she would still be employed by the team.

Toler said her termination had more to do with retaliation “after raising complaints about the workplace conduct” of Christine Simmons, the former team president, and Eric Holoman, the team managing partner and governor, “who were engaged in an extramarital affair” during Simmons’ tenure as team president — a relationship Toler said made doing her job difficult.

Toler also stated in the suit that there was a double-standard for male employees, including the team’s former coach from 2015-18 — who was Brian Agler, though the suit doesn’t mention Agler by name.

When contacted on Tuesday, Holoman said he was not aware of a lawsuit being filed. Neither Simmons nor Agler could immediately be reached on Tuesday for comment.

Toler, who had been with the franchise as a player or general manager since it was founded in 1997, described a soap-opera like atmosphere in the lawsuit that included sexual relationships between Simmons and a ball boy and the coach and a player.

“It looks like she was singled out and treated differently because she was a woman,” Dawn Collins, Toler’s attorney, told The Associated Press, referring to Toler’s postgame comments. “Coaches speak to their players to get them fired up, many coaches use harsher language and far more controversial language. If the term is not O.K., it’s not O.K. for everyone.”

It is unclear who within the Sparks organization Toler registered her complaints with about what she said was a relationship between Simmons and Holoman. However, Toler said in the suit that even after Simmons left the organization in 2018 she had influence on decisions the team would make because of her personal relationship with Holoman. Toler said she was looking into trading Candace Parker, the franchise star, but because Simmons and Parker were close Holoman wouldn’t let her make a deal.

“I wasn’t part of the clique,” Toler told The Associated Press. “Every day people would have no idea what I went through here working for the Sparks after they were acquired by this ownership.”

Toler said she was treated differently than Sparks’ male employees, including Agler. Toler said the former coach not only verbally abused players and was not disciplined for it, but also had a sexually inappropriate relationship with an unidentified player.

Toler said she asked Sparks management to investigate Agler’s relationship with the player and was told by Holoman that he would handle it. — but that no action was taken. She said she didn’t hear anything about the allegations again until the league reached out to her in 2019.

Toler said the former coach’s “sexually predatory conduct caused certain Sparks players to complain that he made them uncomfortable, and compelled other Sparks players to leave the team altogether.” Agler eventually resigned and is currently coaching Dallas.

Toler’s contract was set to expire on March 31. She’s had discussions for the last few months with the team about getting the pay she feels she’s owed and to clear her name, but they didn’t go anywhere. She didn’t want to damage the reputation of the Sparks but said she was left with no other choice, leading to the legal action.

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