Former Sparks general manager Penny Toler is suing the WNBA 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.
Toler was fired Oct. 4 after a profanity-laced postgame tirade that included using a racial slur a few days earlier following a playoff game. In the suit filed Tuesday accusing the team of gender discrimination, Toler said if she were a man, she would still be employed by the team.
Toler said in the lawsuit her termination had more to do with retaliation “after raising complaints about the workplace conduct” of former team president Christine Simmons and team managing partner and governor Eric Holoman. The lawsuit said they “were engaged in an extra-marital affair” during Simmons’ tenure as team president — a relationship Toler said made doing her job difficult.
Toler also states in the suit 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 Tuesday, Holoman said he was not aware of a lawsuit being filed. Neither Simmons nor Agler could immediately be reached Tuesday for comment.
“It looks like she was singled out and treated differently because she was a woman,” Toler’s lawyer Dawn Cox 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 OK, it’s not OK for everyone.”
But Toler said initially Holoman publicly dismissed accounts that he or Sparks players were offended by her language and that only later when the decision came under scrutiny that she was let go because of the outburst.
It is unclear who within the Sparks organization Toler registered her complaints with about the alleged Simmons-Holoman relationship. 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, 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 AP. “Every day people would have no idea what I went through here working for the Sparks after they were acquired by this ownership.”
She said it was like walking a tightrope, trying to balance getting “the team to win a championship while stepping on a minefield when I try to speak up when things weren’t right.”
Toler’s executive assistant Angela Bryant, who worked for the general manager from 2009 to 2016, said that Simmons’ relationship with Holoman “was an open secret.”
Toler said she was treated differently from 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’s contract was set to expire March 31. She’s had discussions 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.