In the week since the Los Angeles Sparks announced Derek Fisher as their new head coach, much has been debated about his qualifications to coach the team. Erica Ayala examined Sparks general manager Penny Toler’s decision to hire Fisher without considering other candidates (and what that means for the pervasive dearth of women in head coaching positions), while Swish Appeal questioned Fisher’s ability to lead the Sparks to another championship before the team’s aging players start to retire. Given Fisher’s 17-65 coaching record during his short-lived tenure as head coach of the New York Knicks, scrutiny of Fisher’s appointment and the organization’s handling of his appointment is warranted.
Yet, does Fisher’s role as head coach of the Sparks boast an important potential upside for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA)’s negotiations of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)?
Fishing for a player-friendly CBA
The day the Sparks announced Fisher as the team’s new head coach, Nneka Ogwumike — president of the WNBPA — issued the following statement:
Speaking as a student of the game and even a fan, welcoming Derek Fisher to the Sparks is monumental in so many ways for us as a team and for the respect and love of the game. This is especially exciting in a time when women’s sports are on the rise and we continue our work to elevate the platform.
Fisher drew crowds to Staples Center in Downtown LA during the years he helped the Lakers win five NBA Championships, so it stands to reason that his star power will draw more fans to the arena and boost media presence surrounding the Sparks. Beyond that, though, “to elevate the platform” requires improvement in player conditions, investment in widespread marketing and broader television coverage because people cannot become fans of the WNBA, its teams and the dynamic players without seeing games, interviews, advertisements and so forth.
Thus, if one of the (so far unspoken) reasons for bringing Fisher back to the Los Angeles organization is to partner him in close proximity to WNBPA president Ogwumike, it could turn out to be a genius move.
Running point — at the bargaining table
No matter how things go with Fisher and the Sparks next season, one thing is undeniable: There is probably no one better to coach Ogwumike on the ins and outs of negotiating a CBA with the league than Fisher. In 2011, Fisher became the very public face of the NBA players’ CBA fight, stating, at the time: “I have chosen not to be just a figurehead since being elected. “I put in hours and hours a day. I have become an expert on the situation.”
For some, however, namely Billy Hunter, Fisher may have grown too big for his britches and edged too close to the inner workings of the union.
During his tenure as NBPA president, Fisher upheld a relentless call for transparency, both from the league and from the union. When he began to probe into the union’s finances — specifically, Hunter’s appropriation of funds — accusations began to fly that Fisher had held clandestine meetings with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern and then-NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, to cut a deal. It is an accusation Fisher called “defamatory,” and he continued his call for a financial audit of the union, even though Hunter had wrangled an 8-0 vote to have Fisher removed as president.
Of the whole mess, Fisher said:
The allegations that are now being directed at me are defamatory. But I urge our members to order an independent review beginning immediately and that will be proven along with finding out definitively if there are any issues with the NBPA’s business practices and finances.
Fisher’s statement amounted to a call for transparency of the NBPA, but during CBA negotiations he also called out the NBA for making claims of financial losses without substantiation. In 2011, The New York Times reported, “The league says its teams lost an aggregate $300 million last season.” Fisher took issue with the league’s claim, calling it a report of “purported losses” which had “never been proven.”
A bargaining bounce pass
Fast-forward to 2018, Ogwumike, as president of the WNBPA, has started the bargaining process by calling for greater transparency from the NBA. In an essay in The Players’ Tribune, Ogwumike wrote, “In opting out of this CBA, our primary objective is full transparency. 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.”
Following publication of Ogwumike’s essay, NBA spokesman Mike Bass stated, “We have shared the WNBA’s financials with the players union — the union has full access to the league’s and all 12 teams’ revenues and expenses covering the entire term of this CBA.” However, when I reached out to the WNBPA for comment, a representative indicated that the union has not gained full access to the WNBA’s financials yet.
“We are awaiting complete information from the League,” the WNBPA said. “Out of respect for the process we will withhold further comment at this time.” So, there is an apparent disagreement over what constitutes “full transparency” as well as continued reluctance by the NBA to “show the receipts,” which is the only way negotiations can be fair and the only method by which an agreement resulting from these negotiations could be equitable.
But one thing is clear: Whatever happens on the court for the Sparks during the 2019 WNBA season, having Derek Fisher in the same city as WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike is an arrangement that could pay dividends for the WNBA for many years to come.
Other news from the world of women’s hoops
Scorching the status quo
A surefire way to shatter myths, false beliefs and outright lies concerning pay for NBA and WNBA players is to crack open the history books. David Berri may be a professor of economics, but he gets all the points right in this historical perspective on player pay.
Rebecca Lobo’s place in UConn history will hang from the rafters
The Connecticut Huskies announced that the team will retire Rebecca Lobo’s No. 50 jersey and Ray Allen’s No. 34. They are the first players in UConn history to receive this honor, which the school stated is “reserved for Hall of Famers.”
The ceremony will take place in March. (And this UConn-reared GOAT should expect the same treatment one day.)
She. Breaks. Barriers.
Other things worth reading
- Breanna Stewart was named USA Basketball’s Female Athlete of the Year.
- ESPN compiled a ranking of the 20 most dominant athletes of 2018, and Breanna Stewart —who won the WNBA Championship and three MVP awards — came it at No. 9. (Gymnast Simone Biles came in at No. 1).
- Brian Agler’s resignation remains weird, for two reasons: 1) Agler has not really provided a reason for stepping down; and 2) Penny Toler did not ask him the reason for his decision to leave when he tendered his resignation.
- The Oregon women’s basketball program is among those recently penalized by the NCAA for various violations. (Gonzaga coach Mark Few expressed disappointment over the NCAA’s “lack of urgency” to get to the bottom of corruption scandals hovering over college sports.)
- Speaking of breaking boundaries, Doris Burke put in serious work to carve a space for herself as a woman covering men’s sports. This Time profile is excellent.