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Hoops Happening: What a second Liz Cambage departure from the WNBA would say about America

It’s not too late to do right by the 6-foot-8 Australian and all of the women of the WNBA. This is today in women’s basketball for Thursday, August 16, 2018!

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Liz Cambage
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This story has been updated with a quote from WNBA President Lisa Borders.

Think for a minute. At this time next year, WNBA fans won’t be discussing the Minnesota Lynx’s championship possibilities in the context of how much Lindsay Whalen has left in the tank after 15 seasons; Whalen announced her retirement this week and the 2018 WNBA season will be her last.

Because of injuries, it is very likely that other familiar faces will not suit up for the start of the 2019 WNBA season, either, like Angel McCoughtry, Sancho Lyttle, Jamierra Faulkner and Karima Christmas-Kelly. But a 27-year-old, relatively healthy basketball player, following a history-making — nay, Lizstory-making — season?

According to Dallas Wings center Liz Cambage, a lucrative European contract could determine whether she returns to play in the United States next summer. In an interview with Sean Hurd at ESPN, Cambage said: “I’ve said this many times. [The WNBA] doesn’t pay my bills ... playing here doesn’t pay my bills ... We make more money overseas. I’m ready to have next summer off and focus on getting a European contract where [it’s] 10 seasons here worth the pay.”

Cambage has been playing professionally and for her native Australia since she was a teenager. If met with only good fortunes, she’ll play for another 10 years, which means she’d have until age thirty-six or thirty-seven to earn as much money as possible to sustain her for the rest of her life — so another fifty years beyond her professional basketball retirement date.

Wouldn’t most people jump at the chance to work abroad for ten times their current salary to improve their quality of life and shore up retirement?

It’s a decision no one should feel forced to make, but it is one that clearly has been weighing on Cambage all season, as she has spoken out repeatedly about pay inequities and other shortcomings of playing basketball professionally as a woman in America.

“It sucks because I love to be here, I love to put the game out there, I love what comes with playing here,” she said. “But at the end of the day, for my longevity, I worry about my body, my mind and my soul. I really don’t get paid enough to be beaten up every game. I’m not a WWE wrestler and that’s how it feels sometimes out on the court.”

It is true — WNBA basketball is more physical than the international game and, with more undersized bodies going against the true centers every night, like Cambage and also Brittney Griner, the bigger girls take a beating as much as the oft-bigger Shaquille O’Neal took batterings night in and night out during his career — as if bigger people don’t have feelings and aren’t prone to pain and injuries, too.

‘Quit your whining and complaining’ -naysayers

WNBA antagonists are good at telling the players to be grateful they even have a league, that they should shut up and play, that they can’t win for complaining.

Well, how productive is anyone in a job that takes an unnecessarily harsh physical toll and doesn’t meet financial needs? Whether sleeping on hard airport chairs or playing back-to-back games across time zones as WNBA players do, assembling iPhones in a Chinese factory or writing articles for pay that amounts to cents per hour, everyone deserves dignity in their work and that comes down to fair wages and safe conditions.

No one deserves to work themselves into burnout or injury, whether mental, physical or emotional, only to have little financial reward to show for it at the end. And people have accepted this status quo as normal for so long that now they see it as right — “it” being executives at billion-dollar companies overworking and/or underpaying employees in service to their own greed and gluttony.

To be sure, WNBA players don’t have it as rough as a person working multiple low-paying jobs to make ends meet. But a common goal of any athlete is to earn enough during their competing days, through salaries and endorsements, to last them when their playing careers are over. Since endorsements for WNBA players also have been scant, players are squeezed into an unfair predicament: play for pride to keep the game in America or take their talents overseas.

Diana Taurasi dealt with this situation in 2015 by choosing to sit out a WNBA season in favor of playing in Russia, where cash flowed freely. According a press release from Body Armor this week, a sports beverage company endorsed by Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, Coca-Cola Company has acquired a minority stake in the company, signalling major expansion ahead. Surely Taurasi and Diggins-Smith hope the deal will lead to lucrative payouts for years to come — and those checks would be long overdue.

WNBA President Lisa Borders expressed during media availability at this year’s WNBA All-Star Weekend in July that while she feels it’s premature to put forth a time line for growth of player salaries, she says there is “no stronger advocate” for higher player salaries:

What I want our players to understand, not just our fans and you guys here in the room, is that they have no stronger advocate for higher salaries than myself. No stronger advocate. Our players are all college educated. They are world citizens. They are incredible athletes. They deserve more. In society, women deserve more, period, full stop. So sports is not the only place where things are not as equal as we would like for them to be or as comparable as we would like for them to be. So we want to take a leadership role here, and so we challenge ourselves, but we also challenge society to support this league and support these women because top-line revenue and top-line growth is part of the answer to the entire question.

Given the historical record of change often being slow, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which it will be fast enough to keep Cambage in the WNBA or keep her here without strain.

Cambage is averaging 22.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, for a near double-double on the season. This season, fans learned that Cambage had added a sweet three-point shot to her repertoire and she went on a history-making campaign — dropping 53 points for a Dallas win and another 35 points two nights later, for records broken and set, respectively.

Cambage was rewarded with a trip the WNBA All-Star Game and her name has surfaced in MVP discussions. But the post All-Star Break period has been rough for the Wings, with a nine-game losing streak and final hopes for a trip to the playoffs fading fast, and the firing of Fred Williams as head coach in Dallas, who Cambage credits for bringing her back into the league and to the the Wings organization.

With such a disappointing end to what had been an otherwise spectacular season, it makes sense that Cambage — or anyone — would be down on the league and questioning whether to continue.

Lessons to be learned

As much as the Aces’ travel nightmare was a low moment for the league just a few weeks ago, so too would be a second departure by Liz Cambage at the end of the 2018 WNBA season. If Cambage leaves again, it’d be hard to imagine she’d ever find reason to return, and her absence could slow down the growth of emerging fan bases, like the one in Dallas. More importantly, a second departure would reflect poorly on the NBA for still treating the WNBA players like second-class citizens.

But, even bigger, a second departure by Cambage would reflect negatively on the state of progress — or lack therefore — in the United States of America. It would spotlight how this society has failed to live up to its ideals, failed to achieve the achievable task of equality and failed to denounce societal structures that thwart people’s inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If Liz Cambage walks away from the WNBA, it would be a loss for the league, a loss for fans and a loss for a society that needs Cambage more than Cambage needs it.

Last night in the court

In Wednesday WNBA action, the Mystics and Aces picked up big wins. Here’s the recap by Albert Lee.

Next up on the court

Regular-season games resume on Friday with the Aces and Wings battling each other in primetime for the final playoff spot. As of now, the game is scheduled to stream via WNBA League Pass. But given that the game will determine which team makes it into the postseason, maybe NBA TV programmers will be persuaded to air this matchup instead of the Sparks-Mystics seeding battle? Or maybe Twitter or ESPN2 can add it to their lineups?

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