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Hoops Happening: Will the NBA finally put its cards on the table during WNBA CBA talks?

In a free-flowing essay in The Players’ Tribune, WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike packaged some pointed messages for the NBA in layers of hope and inspiration. This is today in women’s basketball for Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.

WNBA: Finals-Minnesota Lynx at Los Angeles Sparks
You’d be wise to bet on Nneka Ogwumike and the other players in the WNBA as being tough, fierce and prepared for battle.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In a breezy, free-flowing essay in The Players’ Tribune, WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike announced the players’ associations’ decision to opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and identified key issues the players’ association finds problematic with the NBA’s handling of the WNBA — namely, a persistent lack of transparency. But Ogwumike did so in a diplomatic manner many of the country’s elected officials would do well to model — layering the difficult messages in hope and optimism and a sincere desire to work together for the change she feels compelled to spur.

Ogwumike implores readers to “bet on women,” — to move any belief in women from the realm of slogans and hash tags and things people say, to wagers and actions and things people do. Betting on women, therefore, means putting money on the table. But before discussions of money can happen, it means the NBA will have to place all of its cards on the baize.

‘We just want to see the receipts’

“In opting out of this CBA, our primary objective is full transparency,” Ogwumike writes. “We just want information about where the league is as a business, so that we can come together and make sound decisions for the future of the game.

You probably don’t know this, but as players, we never get to see the numbers. We don’t know how the league is doing. As the kids say nowadays, we just want to see the receipts.”

No sane person, in any business, would sit down at the bargaining table without possessing equal information and being given adequate time to consider the findings before approaching negotiations. The NBA certainly would not engage in negotiations at such a disadvantage, so it would be unethical to require the WNBPA to enter talks totally blind.

In response to the players’ association’s decision to opt out of the CBA, NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tatum, who is serving as interim president of the WNBA following Lisa Border’s resignation, issued the following statement:

We were informed today that the Women’s National Basketball Players Association has opted out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement following the 2019 season. The league and its teams are committed to an open and good-faith negotiation that is rooted in the financial realities of our business. We are getting to work immediately and are confident such a process can lead to a fair deal for all involved.

Showing the receipts, as Ogwumike wrote, is the “primary objective” of any talks. Therefore, the only path towards the “open and good-faith negotiation” that Tatum expressed a desire to have would be for the NBA to provide a full accounting of the WNBA’s finances. Furthermore, Tatum mentioning “the financial realities of our business” requires that the NBA show the WNBPA — according to the laws of common sense — just what those “realities” happen to be.

But the league has a record of unwillingness when it comes to transparency, and that should make anyone skeptical about how these negotiations will go. As it is, the players have been told that, due to the financial realities, they cannot have a greater percentage of revenue sharing, they cannot have better air travel, they should accept competing for championships outside of their home arenas. This status quo the NBA and WNBA have grasped so tightly is one the players now reject. Thus, if the league wishes to maintain this status quo, it must justify doing so — numerically.

Fans and media want transparency, too

In an equally important realm, the NBA and WNBA would be well-served to be more transparent with fans and the media who love and support the league. In the comments’ sections of some of my articles, some of the most die-hard fans of the W have expressed repeated frustration about the league issuing “talking points” without providing concrete information or addressing specific concerns. One commenter referred to Lisa Borders as “a mouthpiece” for the NBA, while another expressed being afraid to write a FanPost critiquing the league’s handling of an issue, stating that he didn’t want to “end up like Jimmy Hoffa.”

Now, if the NBA’s business model intends to strike fear in fans, the league is succeeding. If the plan also is to intimidate or derail the careers of members of the media who report on these issues, then the league is succeeding there, too. Forbes, for example, terminated David Berri’s contract after he published a story on WNBA salaries in relation to the recently-created G League select contracts that will pay male players straight out of high school more than championship-winning WNBA players can earn under their max WNBA contracts of $125,000. Berri, an economics professor, showed through analysis that the NBA “made this gesture toward the G League to pay them more money and that’s an investment, but the WNBA wants more money and [they] call that a cost. That, to me, is the story.”

Unfortunately, Forbes removed Berri’s piece from its site and also missed an opportunity to foster change in how the NBA engages with media members who dare write about inequities between the NBA and WNBA. Because what Berri recounted in his interview with The Washington Post’s Jacob Bogage is true: Criticism of the league is met with requests that writers add information to provide “appropriate context to correct the factual inaccuracies.” Oftentimes, however, the additional information the league requests an author include is irrelevant to the premise of the original article, as was the case with some of the content provided to me following this story from June.

In another article, following Lisa Borders’ resignation, a league source asked me to include that the WNBA lost $12 million in the 2018 season, which I did willingly. However, the dollar figure was provided without the benefit of important information, such as the areas of the business from which the WNBA is experiencing the biggest losses. With greater transparency from the league, however — such as through regular financial disclosures — those who write about the league could do their jobs more completely without later being discredited and derided post-publication for failing to include information that even WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike does not possess.

Thus, Ogwumike’s call for transparency is also championed by journalists who, in covering the league, are intent to cover all of the league, which means writing about the joy of sport and records and championships and milestones, yes, but also writing about severe inequities unique not only to the WNBA, but to any spaces women occupy for salary-earning endeavors.

Unique does not mean inherent

The current state of the WNBA is a result of a collection of decisions made by (mostly male) humans. Some of those decisions recently include: a) paying high school boys million-dollar contracts while capping salaries for championship-winning WNBA players at $125,000 per year and b) entering into a deal with ESPN+ to bring more than 200 G League games to viewers, while WNBA games — including regular season and postseason — do not get anywhere near that kind of widespread national network coverage.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently discussed the issues surrounding the WNBA, including that many players and fans took exception to the G League’s select contracts. “Each league is run independently,” Silver said. “And the investment that we have made over the last 22 years in the WNBA is many times greater than the investment we’ve made in the G League. And the G League right now is roughly a break-even proposition for the NBA and its teams.”

Most would expect that the investment in the WNBA would surpass whatever has gone into the G League. But this is not the argument people are making. The issue with which people take exception is the drastic difference in what the NBA invests into the NBA’s success versus what it invests in the WNBA — a comparison of two related, professional leagues, neither with developmental components, as is the case with the G League.

Opting out means opting in

WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike urges society to bet on women, and the results of the Midterm Election on Tuesday, Nov. 6, show people are starting to catch on — with the number of women in the House of Representatives rising to 98 from 84. These gains are to be championed, for sure, but the numbers are far from anything close to representational government. With 435 members in the House, the 98 women make up 22.5% of all representatives, despite women making up a little more than half of the nation’s population.

Thus, progress towards gender parity remains fragile across society, with the WNBA serving as one high-profile example. In discussing what it means to opt out of the CBA, Ogwumike wrote:

To me, opting out means not just believing in ourselves, but going one step further: betting on ourselves. It means being a group of empowered women, in the year 2018, not just feeling fed up with the status quo, but going one step further: rejecting the status quo. And it means taking a stand, not just for the greatest women’s basketball players of today, but going one step further: taking a stand for the greatest women’s basketball players of tomorrow.

And for those of us who work behind computers instead of under baskets, it means progress towards parity for all women in all professions. A rejection of the status quo by those who are most visible in our society can rain down improvements in the working lives of the most invisible women among us.

The WNBPA’s choice to opt out of the CBA is big for the WNBA and its players, but it is also huge for women everywhere.

Drink up, link lush!

The Chicago Sky on Wednesday unveiled a new, “more modern” logo — the first revamping of the team’s branding in its 12-year existence.

Sky President and CEO Adam Fox said, “We believe this new look is strong, modern, and refined; all traits that represent the next generation of Chicago Sky basketball ... This new logo symbolizes the excitement we have for the future success of this franchise.” Shall we assume the unveiling of the new logo is leading up to a big reveal of the new head coach?

  • Lindsay Whalen may have retired from playing in the WNBA, but she certainly is going anywhere. Whalen is featured in the new book, Minnesota Made Me by Patrick C. Borzi and, with the college season kicking off this week, the basketball world will be watching to see how she does as head coach of the Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball team.
  • Back-to-back WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard is going back to her roots — Shreveport, Louisiana, to be exact — to host a swim safety event during Thanksgiving week, in conjunction with the YMCA of Northwest Louisiana, Common Ground Shreveport and the USA Swimming Foundation.
  • Former WNBA player Chasity Melvin is on the right track. Coaching track, that is.
  • Elena Delle Donne was inducted into the University of Delaware Hall of Fame.

Shine brighter.