Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the WNBA isn’t doing particularly great.
Prior to COVID-19 ruining everyone’s lives, attendance was abysmal—the WNBA had it’s lowest attendance in league history in 2018 and drew even smaller crowds in 2019—and the league has long been criticized for its meager wages (that require even its superstars to play overseas during the offseason), embarrassing accommodations and a host of other issues not befitting of some of the most talented and influential athletes in the entire world.
These issues are magnified by the fact that professional sports leagues are built on the backs of superstars, and with Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi in the twilight of their careers while Maya Moore is off doing the Lord’s work, the average sports fan has no idea who most of these WNBA players even are—except for Elena Delle Donne.
Since arriving in the league in 2013, Delle Donne has collected two league MVP trophies, has been named a six-time WNBA All-Star, has made First Team All-NBA four times and won her first WNBA championship last season. Suffice to say, she’s been holding down the league, and to the average sports fan, she is the league.
She’s the one selling tickets. She’s the one fans come to see.
So why in the hell is the WNBA so intent on dogging this poor woman out?
For those out the loop, Donne and the WNBA have been embroiled in a bitter standoff regarding her availability for this upcoming season. Last time I checked, the coronavirus is kind of a big fucking deal, so her apprehension about playing is completely warranted—especially considering the fact that she’s been battling Lyme disease since 2008.
As a result, she was understandably flagged as high risk for both contracting and experiencing complications from COVID-19 and her doctor formally requested that she sit out this season. But instead of being understanding and compassionate, considering the havoc that this virus has unleashed on the planet already, the WNBA pulled the dick move of the century and denied her request to opt-out from playing.
“The independent panel of doctors the league appointed to review high-risk cases have advised that I’m not high risk, and should be permitted to play in the bubble,” Delle Donne said in a statement. “I love my team, and we had an unbelievable season last year, and I want to play! But the question is whether or not the WNBA bubble is safe for me.”
SPOILER WARNING: It’s not, Elena.
And the fact that the WNBA is literally putting her life on the line by forcing her to choose between playing and potentially catching COVID-19 or staying home, not being compensated and jeopardizing her livelihood, despite her medical status, is beyond foul.
As a reminder, we’re not talking about some fringe player here. We’re talking about the face of the league.
Now is this a ploy to boost TV ratings when the WNBA resumes play next week? I have no idea. But I do know that Della Donne is so upset by the league’s decision that she penned an open letter addressing the issue.
“I take 64 pills a day, and I feel like it’s slowly killing me,” she wrote. “Longterm, taking that much medicine on that regular of a regimen is just straight-up bad for you. [...] Taking 64 pills a day is the only way to keep my condition under any sort of control. It’s the only way to keep myself healthy enough to play the game that I love—healthy enough to do my job and earn the paycheck that supports my family.”
She then goes on to explain her feelings about the WNBA’s decision and being told that “it would be impossible to keep COVID-19 out of the bubble entirely.”
“I’m now left with two choices: I can either risk my life….. or forfeit my paycheck. Honestly? That hurts,” she wrote. “It hurts a lot. And maybe being hurt just makes me naive. And I know that, as athletes, we’re not really supposed to talk about our feelings. But feelings are pretty much all I have left right now. I don’t have NBA player money. I don’t have the desire to go to war with the league on this. And I can’t appeal.”
Again, we’re talking about the face of the league! Could you imagine the NBA treating LeBron this way? Or the NFL pulling this shit with Patrick Mahomes?
It’s hard not to feel like misogyny didn’t factor into the WNBA’s decision. It’s also difficult not to be filled with rage knowing that these WNBA players make such tremendous sacrifices for a league that clearly could give less than a shit about them—despite these women continuously revolutionizing the sport.
The same women that will be wearing the names of Black women killed at the hands of police on their jerseys this season—while NBA players will draw far more fanfare for wearing nebulous phrases like “Listen” and “Peace”—shovel their towering bodies into coach class flights while players like James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo fly in charter jets with twice the legroom.
It’s ridiculous. And if the WNBA wants fans to treat its league with the respect and admiration that it deserves, it can start by extending the same to its own players.