Because WNBA players are paid pennies on the dollars of their NBA brethren, many spend the offseason competing overseas. While doing so may provide the financial security currently unavailable to them in the WNBA, playing basketball year-round is not a risk-free undertaking. Breanna Stewart’s Achilles tear in the last game of her Dynamo Kursk season exemplifies why the current collective bargaining agreement is both bad for player health and the on-court product of the WNBA.
Anatomy of an Achilles tear
Breanna Stewart has had one hell of a basketball year. In just her third season in the WNBA as star forward with the Seattle Storm, Stewart won her first championship in 2018 along with some of the biggest awards the league has to offer: league MVP and Finals MVP.
Right after the Sept. 12 championship game against the Mystics in Washington, D.C., Stewie and the Storm headed back to Seattle, where they were treated to a parade and rally in their honor. Stewart and teammate Sue Bird then hurried home after dinner that night to pack for their trip to Tenerife, Spain — the site of the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup.
The USA Basketball Women’s National Team won the World Cup gold medal and Stewart was crowned MVP — her third such award over the span of a month or so.
But on Sunday (April 13), while competing overseas for Dynamo Kursk, Stewart had the chance to put up a big performance against the Brittney Griner-led UMMC Ekaterinburg and the potential to earn another MVP award. Instead, she tripped on Griner’s foot and collapsed to the court, screaming in pain, with the worst fears confirmed a few days later: a torn Achilles.
Now, instead of preparing for the 2019 WNBA season with a chance to repeat for the title, Stewart joins the Indiana Fever’s Victoria Vivians — who suffered a torn ACL on March 25 while playing for a team in Israel — in watching the games on WNBA League Pass or via Twitter stream.
Both are out for the season.
Despite a losing season for the Fever, Vivians was a key part of Indiana’s rebuilding efforts in 2018, showing veteran toughness and grit on both ends of the floor although she was only a rookie. Her contributions offered the Fever a lot of promise for 2019, especially with the Fever getting Teaira McCowan in the draft. Indiana will surely miss Vivians this season — a Mississippi State alum, like McCowan, who stepped into big moments instead of shying away from them.
But Stewart’s absence from the WNBA will be felt more broadly, well beyond the Storm’s chances of contending for another championship (but more on that in a moment).
A’ja of the Aces finds a way to stay stateside
In just one season, A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces has surged to become one of the new faces of the WNBA. After her rookie season, she played for a while in China before returning stateside to rehabilitate the knee on which she usually wears a protective sleeve. But, then, Wilson did not return to China. She had successfully spun her 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year award, fun-loving personality and mutual Blake Griffin fan club into media appearances and endorsements.
But companies are not quick to snatch up WNBA players for their television commercials and magazine advertising.
Wilson is an exception, which means most other players in the league must compete overseas if they are not fortunate enough to find off-the-court gigs stateside, like Candace Parker, who is an analyst with Turner Sports, Sue Bird and Kristi Toliver, who are assistant coaches with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and Washington Mystics, respectively, or Angel McCoughtry and others, who own small businesses or restaurant franchises.
It’s not the number of games, but the absence of a break between them
But Wilson is not a champion or MVP (yet) — Stewart is. And the 2019 WNBA season tipping off in just a few weeks without Stewie is a travesty for the league, especially because her absence is a disaster of the NBA’s own making.
If Stewart and her fellow players received salaries comparable to their achievements — money at least somewhere in the orbit of the type of money thrown at NBA players who have accomplished much less — they would be able to use the offseason to rest, rehabilitate and train. Instead, they move from one playing scenario to the next until their bodies break down.
Lindsey Harding, a former No. 1 draft pick who is now the player development coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, stated in 2007 to ESPN that the lack of a break between the various seasons is the issue:
You look at the NBA; they play 82 games. We may play that amount of games [too], but we don’t get time off. If you’re lucky, you get a week off after playing overseas to start in the WNBA and maybe a week off to go back overseas.
And with 2018 being a compressed season to accommodate the activities of Team USA, some players go no time off at all, with the likes of Maya Moore and Brittney Griner returning to their WNBA teams well after training camp and, in some cases, after the start of the WNBA preseason.
As the 2018 season progressed, it became apparent very quickly that Maya Moore didn’t look like herself, opting to limit her duties during last year’s All-Star Weekend in Minneapolis, sit out competing with Team USA due to fatigue and, ultimately, making the choice to sit out the entire 2019 season.
In other words, Stewart, Vivians and other WNBA players should not have to shore up their livelihoods overseas. They should be able to enjoy an offseason of rest, rehabilitation and training, just like their NBA counterparts. Instead, the 2019 season will have a much different look without the reigning MVP on the court, which diminishes the on-court WNBA product and should be considered a black eye for the league.
Save the obfuscating arguments about why WNBA players don’t deserve equitable pay
The year-round basketball grind is a sordid mess that would never be thrust upon NBA players, as evidenced by the fact that such practices do not exist in the NBA. Instead, NBA players are treated to the best circumstances. A bench player averaging 13 minutes and six points per game for the last-place New York Knicks — a team that won just 17 of its 82 games for the 2018-19 NBA season — is paid three times what a WNBA champion, All-Star and MVP can make in the WNBA.
Time out, naysayers, haters, trolls, et al.
Let’s silence your buts and what ifs right now:
But the WNBA hasn’t generated enough revenue to warrant paying players more.
Neither has any player on a G-League “select contract.” Players in that camp haven’t played a single professional game.
What if … [any obfuscating argument]?
The NBA is on record stating that basketball in Africa “has not seen” substantial “growth — yet” and, thus, the league is providing “financial support and resources toward continued growing of the game on the continent, as well as providing training for players, coaches and referees and some infrastructure for the new league.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who designed the WNBA’s structure to be housed under the NBA, said of NBA Africa: “Africa has a huge economic engine.”
The WNBA could be that same “economic engine” if the NBA were to infuse it with investments similar to what it is making in NBA Africa and its other entities. The fact that the league already has invested in the WNBA is irrelevant if those investments are not comparable to what the NBA is investing in male-dominated entities.
Silver and interim WNBA president Mark Tatum maintain the public relations talking point that the league is not making money, that improvements in player treatment have not been earned, that the struggling revenue is the fault of young women and girls not attending games.
A) Anyone with a basic marketing background understands that continually highlighting a business’s shortcomings is not the way to grow that business. So, why do NBA and WNBA leadership (the latter of which some fans consider to be a puppet of the NBA) keep doing this? Some believe it is to hammer home the narrative of the WNBA being a failing league to justify its refusal to make the type of investment in the women of the WNBA that it is willing to make in unproven male talent in the NBA and, now, NBA Africa. Neither fans nor the WNBPA and its leadership are accepting this argument anymore, however— not without having seen the receipts. But even with receipts, such an argument can only be considered in the context of financial investment.
B) The collective All-Star nods, championships, MVP and Rookie of the Year awards and milestones of Sue Bird, Liz Cambage, Brittney Griner, Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, A’ja Wilson and many others is justification enough for paying players more. These players have accomplished more in their careers than any “select contract” player in the NBA G-League or any player in the upstart NBA Africa.
C) Girls and young women would have an interest in the game if they knew who the hell the players were. Most girls and young women cannot name one WNBA player but, surely, they’ve heard of Stephen Curry and LeBron James, because they’ve seen James and Curry everywhere — in games while channel surfing, in commercials, on the news and so forth. This argument is disingenuous at best or based on faulty logic at worst.
Should the WNBA follow the U.S. women’s soccer team’s lead?
The U.S. Soccer Federation reportedly was “surprised” by the U.S. Women’s National Team’s lawsuit alleging that U.S. Soccer “‘has a policy and practice of discriminating’ against members of the women’s national team on the basis of gender, by paying them less than similarly situated members of the men’s team.”
Is this because the sexism and discrimination in society, but especially in sports, have become so normalized that the federation expects women to believe they deserve less for doing more, and to take this lying down?
The women’s soccer team has been dramatically more successful than the men’s team, winning three World Cup championships and four Olympic gold medals. Yet, the federation’s women athletes have been paid less than the men’s team, despite the women having more medals and championships. Currently ranked No. 1 in the world, the USWNT women’s players are paid drastically less than the men’s team, which is ranked an embarrassing 24th in the world.
It’s like a mediocre NBA bench player out-earning a WNBA superstar champion.
The U.S. Soccer Federation is standing by the teams’ separate collective bargaining agreements — the processes of which would hopefully be scrutinized in court. So, it’s a good thing the WNBA is in the middle of collective bargaining talks right now.
But interim WNBA president Mark Tatum repeated during a WNBA Draft night interview that the league seeks an agreement that is “fair for both sides” — similar language that was used in his press release response to the WNBPA’s decision to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
If “fair” means anything less than making the same kinds of investments in the WNBA that the NBA freely makes in its players — whether they are just out of high school and lack professional game experience and/or just warm a team’s bench and/or are on a team in NBA Africa and/or just twiddle their thumbs in the NBA’s esports league — all bets should be off for the WNBPA. Maintaining this absurd status quo is not in the same universe of what it would mean for the NBA to truly bet on women.
And, if the NBA is unwilling to back its talk of equality with the same financial commitment it gives freely to men’s players and leagues, the WNBPA — or, individual players — have legal remedies they can seek, just like their female soccer-playing counterparts who filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for systemic policies and practices that “discriminat[e] against members of the women’s national team on the basis of gender, by paying them less than similarly situated members of the men’s team.”
Everything in WNBA player movement
All news about the recently-completed WNBA Draft, including team-by-team draft analysis (with more to come), can be found here:
All stories related to free agency signings and trades can be found here:
You can quickly access the tracker itself, here.
Elsewhere in the world of women’s basketball
- Howard Megdal at High Post Hoops reported that the Dallas Wings front office has attempted to close deals with center Liz Cambage, only to have them fall apart “at the eleventh hour.”
- Tickets for the AT&T 2019 WNBA All-Star Game went on sale this week. It’s in Las Vegas.
- Two-time WNBA champion, 11-year veteran Cappie Pondexter announced her retirement yesterday. From the message she posted to Instagram, it appears she may not have been ready to hang up her kicks.
- It also appears Pondexter may not have been a fan of how ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel covered her over the years. In response to Pondexter’s tweet expressing as much, Voepel said she didn’t know what Pondexter was referring to. But maybe the now-retired player meant this and this and this (although Voepel, and most journalists, would claim they were just doing their jobs).
- Tyus Jones developed his basketball skills by competing against WNBA players in Minnesota Lynx practices. For men looking to hone their games and help the Phoenix Mercury train for another championship run, get thee to the April 20 tryouts.
- Prior to resigning her post as WNBA president, Lisa Borders once called on corporate stakeholders to up their sponsorship game. Thankfully, that appears to be happening in 2019, with AT&T becoming a marquee sponsor and teams getting bigger sponsorship deals, too, including the Phoenix Mercury, who will be wearing PayPal badges this season.
- The Los Angeles Sparks are being recognized in the 2019 season for “leading the charge” on issues of gender equality. One groundbreaking effort the team is involved with is joining forces with the state of California and county agencies in support of mental health initiatives for military women and veterans.
- New Chicago Sky rookie Katie Lou Samuelson answered nine questions. Here’s what she had so to say about things.
- Sabrina Ionescu couldn’t triple-double the Oregon Ducks out of this year’s NCAAW Final Four. But she went on to win the Wooden Award anyway.
- Rising junior Evina Westbrook, a co-scoring leader for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, has decided to transfer her talents elsewhere rather than overcome a unsuccessful season under now-fired coach Holly Warlick by breaking in a new one.
- South Carolina leading scorer Te’a Cooper is the fourth player to transfer from Dawn Staley’s program following a disappointing season for the Gamecocks. If the perception on campus is that the players didn’t get it done, they know their playing time would be limited next season given that Staley has the top class of incoming freshmen in the country.
- Baylor’s Kim Mulkey would welcome a White House invitation to celebrate her Baylor Lady Bears. But would Donald Trump, who has shunned women’s teams throughout his presidency, extend one — even for a Southern belle, like Mulkey?
There will be haters, there will be doubters, there will be non-believers, and then there will be you proving them wrong. -Jennifer Van Allen