Kings say case closed, but will sexual assault accusation shadow new Coach Luke Walton?
When the Sacramento Kings open season No. 35 this weekend with preseason contests in India—the first NBA games there ever—diehard fans will be wondering whether the team wins on the court.
But many fans will also be watching whether the team’s new coach wins in court—and in the court of public opinion.
Luke Walton was hired to replace Dave Joerger after the Kings collapsed down the stretch and missed the playoffs for the 13th season in a row. But mere days after Walton’s hiring in April, a bombshell dropped: Former Los Angeles TV personality Kelli Tennant accused him of sexual assault.
Walton denied the accusations through his lawyers and in court filings. And following a joint investigation by the Kings and the NBA, they announced on Aug. 23 that “there was not a sufficient basis to support the allegations” and that Walton would not face any punishment.
“The investigation’s done,” Kings General Manager Vlade Divac told SN&R at the team’s annual media day on Sept. 27. “We’re moving forward. Done.”
But even if the Kings don’t want to talk about the case and their investigation is over, the accusations still shadow Walton.
As Sue Ann Van Dermyden, founder of the Sacramento law firm that did the investigation, stated last year: “These days, sexual harassment complaints are not playing out in legal courtrooms, but in the court of public opinion, where there are no statutes of limitations.”
Change the culture
The #MeToo movement started two years ago this month with blockbuster reports detailing decades of sexual harassment allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
The movement has brought longtime abusers to justice, raised public awareness and produced significant changes in law and policy. Yet advocates are quick to point out how much further the movement needs to go.
“One thing to recognize is change is slow,” said Linda Tenerowicz, vice president of Fem Dems of Sacramento. “We continue to push forward, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think this issue will be solved overnight.”
Some advocates have bigger goals than just spotlighting sexual harassment and supporting survivors. “We need more than policy,” said Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. “We really need to be thinking about changing the culture so that men and women do not tolerate the kind of sexual harassment we have seen over many, many decades.”
To that end, the foundation in July launched a $10 million “culture change fund” to build public support for “gender justice,” which also includes reproductive rights and economic equality. Khan said $5 million has been raised so far for the first-of-its-kind fund, also supported by the California Endowment, Ford Foundation and others.
At the same time, advocates say cases like Walton’s show how much more must be done to highlight—and fix—inequities and discrimination in the legal system so that accusers are not silenced or shamed.
Tenerowicz and Denise Tugade, president of Fem Dems of Sacramento, said they’re not that surprised by what has happened in the Walton case—not because they don’t believe Tennant—but because it follows a pattern that discourages women from speaking out: The accuser’s motives (fame, money, revenge?) and timing are questioned. And the way these cases are investigated, it’s very difficult to prove the allegations.
“The refrain is: it’s ‘he said, she said,’” Tugade said. “Overwhelmingly, he’s going to win in these cases.”
Still, in this #MeToo era, similar allegations brought down famous men. So does the Walton case suggest that the pendulum has swung to a higher burden of proof when there are no criminal charges? Or are the rules different in professional sports than in the corporate world? And what’s fair if the accusations are completely false?
Son of a legend
It seemed like a coup when the Kings signed Walton on April 13 to a four-year deal to be the 18th head coach in Sacramento. The 39-year-old son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton, he was an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors when they won the 2015 championship. When a back injury forced head coach Steve Kerr to the sidelines the following season, Walton stepped in as interim coach and the Warriors went 39-4 on his watch. Then Walton increased the win total each year in three seasons as the head coach of the Lakers, one of the NBA’s most storied franchises.
But the mood soured on April 23 when Tennant held a press conference, the day after she filed a civil lawsuit accusing Walton of a sexual assault in a Santa Monica hotel room in 2014, while he was coaching with the Warriors.
She claimed that he pinned her down on the bed and forcibly kissed her. “I thought he was going to rape me,” said Tennant, who was 25 at the time and a year into her new job as a regional sports network host. She also alleged physical and verbal harassment over a three-year period after the initial incident.
Tennant did not report the alleged assault to police or to her bosses. In her press conference, she said that fame, money and power were all on Walton’s side and that she “was scared for my job, my safety and what my livelihood would be like.”
In a statement, her lawyers said that by filing the suit, Tennant, who runs a women’s self-help motivational business, is “saying #timesup to the culture of abusing women in the NBA.”
In Walton’s initial legal response, his lawyers called the allegations “factually baseless” and claimed she had sued “because she needs money.” While acknowledging the two met at the hotel, the court filing said that “their encounter was very short, entirely pleasant and consensual.”
And in their Aug. 23 statement, the Kings and NBA said while investigators interviewed more than 20 people and reviewed numerous documents, their repeated attempts to talk to Tennant were turned away by her lawyers. “The investigation is considered closed unless new evidence becomes available,” the statement said.
Walton didn’t directly address the accusations during his preseason press conference at the Sept. 27 media day.
But he expressed confidence that the case will not be a distraction for him and the team. “What we have to focus on is what we have in front of us and what we can control,” he said. “So this is my job, it’s my job to be the best for my players, to be there for my players. And that’s what I plan to do.”
At media day, point guard De’Aaron Fox told reporters that Walton hasn’t talked to the team about the case, and that their bond is already strong and will continue to grow.
Forward Caleb Swanigan said that it’s up to Walton whether to address the allegations with the team, but said the coach is a man of “great character.” “It’s not going to be a distraction,” Swanigan told SN&R.
The next hearing in Tennant’s civil case against Walton could be as soon as this month, but the case could continue for years unless there’s a financial settlement. It could expand to include the Lakers, Warriors and the NBA—all with deeper pockets than Walton.
Depending how long this case lasts, this might not be the only season the Kings have an accused sexual harasser as coach.
While it’s high-profile cases like this one that grab headlines, the vast majority of sexual harassment is happening quietly at factories, offices and stores.
So last year, advocates helped push through a series of laws in response to the #MeToo movement. Lawmakers introduced more than two dozens bills and strengthened protections for women in the workplace, including by outlawing required secret settlements or nondisclosure agreements in cases involving allegations of sexual assault, harassment or discrimination.
Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed several other bills, but the Legislature passed many of them again this year in hopes that new Gov. Gavin Newsom will sign them into law. The measures include two opposed by business interests: Assembly Bill 9 would give workers three years instead of just one year to file harassment claims, while AB 51 would prevent companies from requiring employees to go through private arbitration instead of the courts.
Also, in the final days of this year’s session, legislators approved AB 547 to require janitorial contractors to provide on-the-job training against sexual assault and harassment. Supporters of the Janitor Survivor Empowerment Act called it “the most progressive, worker-led #MeToo law in the country” and “a historic win for immigrant women of color.”
Newsom signed all three bills on Oct. 10, along with other bills he said will protect workers from harassment and discrimination.
Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who became the state Senate’s first female leader in the wake of #MeToo, declined to comment about what the Legislature has tried to do.
Last year, Atkins helped draft broader legislation to empower women—a first-in-the-nation law that requires publicly owned corporations to have at least one woman on their boards of directors by the end of this year. However, Judicial Watch, a conservative interest group, sued in August to stop Senate Bill 826 from taking effect, calling it an unconstitutional gender-based quota.
At the same time as they change rules in workplaces across California, lawmakers have had to face harassment accusations in their own house. Three legislators resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct. The Legislature created a new unit to investigate claims of sexual harassment or discrimination.
Van Dermyden Maddux, the law firm that did the Walton investigation, was hired in December 2017 by the state Senate to do a two-year investigation into sexual harassment allegations.
In October 2018, Sue Ann Van Dermyden delivered to the American Employment Law Council a report about what had happened in the year since the Weinstein case. The report noted that since April 2017, more than 400 high-profile executives and employees had been accused of sexual harassment, and 190 of them were fired or forced to resign, plus 122 placed on leave, suspended, or were the subject of an internal investigation.
The report also detailed the public pressure that companies face: “How do we balance taking swift action with giving the respondent a fair process? This million dollar question has never been so prevalent.”
What about the fans?
But how much do fans really care about the allegations against Walton?
The Kings say they have not received any protests or seen any impact on ticket sales because of his hiring or the lawsuit.
Danny Beckham, who calls himself one of the team’s biggest fans, said the accusations don’t matter. “People dig up dirt” and allegations are made against prominent people all the time, he said. What matters to him is that the team stayed in Sacramento and has a new arena, and that a new season is about to start.
But another fan, Maya S., disagreed. “He’s representing the team and the city and our community. We don’t want a negative outlook,” she said outside Golden 1 Center.
“Carmichael Dave” Weiglein, who hosts the morning drive time show on Sports 1140 KHTK, said the Kings fan base is “very progressive” and “cares very much about things bigger than basketball.”
The team is also progressive, he said, noting its response to the Stephon Clark killing by police. After protests disrupted two games in March 2018, the team wore T-shirts honoring Clark and the Kings worked with community groups.
The team has also supported the Sacramento region’s primary provider of crisis services for survivors of sexual abuse, which might help explain why Beth Hassett, CEO of WEAVE, didn’t respond to repeated requests over a month to comment for this story.
From what fans have said on his radio show and online, Weiglein said that their attitude appears to be: “If it turns out that Luke is exonerated, great, let’s move on.” But if more evidence emerges, other people come forward or it turns out that Walton lied, “that would be a big problem” and the Kings would have to fire him.
Rafe Wong, editor at A Royal Pain, a Kings fans news and opinion website, said many fans are skeptical about Walton—not so much because of the allegations, but because they wanted the Kings to keep Joerger, who had started rebuilding the team into a playoff contender.
Wong agreed that unless there’s new blockbuster evidence against Walton, he expects the Kings to keep him as coach.
So maybe the 2019-20 season will focus on the young Kings. And there is cause for optimism, despite the late swoon last season. Fox and versatile forward Marvin Bagley III are budding stars, and sharpshooter Buddy Hield is back. Wong said that despite a new coach, many fans are even more hopeful because the Kings kept their young core and filled some holes on the roster with veteran free agents.
On the other hand, the Western Conference is loaded and other teams added established stars—Anthony Davis joining LeBron James on the Lakers, and Kawhi Leonard teaming up with Paul George on the L.A. Clippers.
The margin for error to finish in the top eight and make the playoffs could be even smaller. A hot start to the season is essential. So is a fully engaged head coach, not one distracted by legal troubles or TMZ tabloid headlines.
“I’m here to do my job and focus on our Kings and get us to where we need to get,” Walton said. “The rest of it will take care of itself.”