WNBA and players union seek safety in return to play

WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson, Layshia Clarendon, Nneka Ogwumike, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Chiney Ogwumike after the league and the union announced the new CBA Jan. 14. WNBA photo.
WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson, Layshia Clarendon, Nneka Ogwumike, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Chiney Ogwumike after the league and the union announced the new CBA on Jan. 14. WNBA photo.

More than a week past when the season was to begin, the WNBA is weighing options for a late start, as the status of the coronavirus pandemic changes daily.

But whatever date, and whatever venue scenario might be chosen for a possible partial or even full season, one thing is for sure: the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and its athletes are putting safety first.

Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBPA, said the six-member executive board of players wants to ensure athletes are protected before play resumes.

“Let’s make sure we’ve got the supports in place – not just physical health, but mental health, social health,” Jackson said. “The executive committee and board of player reps are listening to each other and raising all these questions and suggestions.”

Jackson said the board, which includes president Nneka Ogwumike, first vice president Layshia Clarendon, vice presidents Chiney Ogwumike, Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne, and secretary Elizabeth Williams, is in touch with those that they represent.

“They’ve got a wealth of information,” Jackson said. “They understand that players want to play, but players want to be safe. They want to see how they can do this, by positioning the league and the teams well.”

Though all professional sports leagues are grappling with season resumption or start questions, WNBA players might be uniquely more attuned to virus containment issues, according to Jackson.

“These conversations are really helpful, because these players have lived similar (isolation) scenarios when they go overseas and are away from their families,” she said. “Those situations are very similar to what everyone is going through now, and that can help inform the league.”

Athletes playing in China and South Korea over the winter had an early indication of the respiratory illness that eventually proliferated the world. Just weeks after the WNBA and WNBA reached a groundbreaking new Collective Bargaining Agreement in mid-January, COVID-19 took hold in both Asian countries.

“Coming out of negotiations, we felt pretty good as a union, and we were all really looking forward to the 2020 season,” Jackson said. “But we started hearing from folks overseas that they were playing games without spectators.”

Both the Chinese and South Korean leagues shut down shortly thereafter.

Jackson and first-year WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert had developed a good rapport during CBA negotiations, and they continued to communicate as coronavirus spread to Europe, North America and other continents. The league announced April 3 that training camp and the season would be postponed.

Jackson told players to read their contracts thoroughly to fully understand their obligations off the court, and she advised them to use their down time wisely.

“I brought to their attention that the contract says you are to show up (for training camp or the first practice) prepared and arrive in good playing shape, and that you must be prepared to participate in practices and games,” she said.

“Additional duties include being a spokesperson for you and for your league, and to respond to media requests.”

Athletes took the edict to heart, and have been finding places to work out and get in some basketball practice under nationwide stay-at-home orders. They have also conducted dozens of interviews and participated in workouts on Instagram, they have been interviewed via Zoom conference calls, and they have made videos sharing encouragement and messages to remain safe. Nneka Ogwumike led a movement in publicly thanking health care workers.

Jackson is pleased.

“Not one game has been played, but nevertheless, you are working,” she said. “You are working from home with all the IG lives and appearances, the interviews. This is the most active, engaged and visible that WNBA players have been in an offseason in a long time. And it’s at a time when we really, really needed it.”

Engelbert, in the meantime, is considering whether to have all games in one locale or in 12, among other options. MGM Resorts in Las Vegas offered the WNBA and NBA a quarantined block where games could be played. Walt Disney World in Florida is rumored to at the top of the NBA’s list for a single league game location, and the amusement park said the WNBA is also welcome.

Player agent Mike Cound favors having all games in one place because it is the safest solution.

“It doesn’t make sense to send 12 teams to 12 different locations to have training camps, and everything that entails,” said Cound, president of the Cound Group. “But I’m not saying it won’t happen. If testing was super-efficient, things would be different. But for every possible solution you’ll have 50 questions about what could go wrong. I guarantee you there won’t be anything perfect.”

SIG Sports founder Boris Lelchitski said it’s difficult to make plans when so much is uncertain, and as each area of the United States re-opens businesses at a different pace.

“It’s going to depend on the many states that are re-opening to some degree, and then what happens after that,” he said. “We don’t know what that is yet.”

If the WNBA does opt for a partial season, Lelchitski has many safety concerns that stem from the league’s salary caps, which allow for a maximum of 12 players on a roster.

“Say you have a couple people roll ankles and – God forbid – another one or two test positive (for coronavirus), then what do you do?” Lelchitski said. “How do you bring in someone else? How quickly can you bring a sub into that bubble situation, with a quarantine? How is that going to work? How many positive tests do they need to pass to be able to join a squad?”

“There are so many questions.”

Lelchitski said he is not alone in his uneasiness.

“I know some of my clients are really not comfortable even now talking about playing,” he said. “They’re very concerned.”

“Imagine during a game that someone on the other team is coughing or sneezing, or whatever. It’s a contact sport and you’re defending someone who doesn’t feel good. It may be the coronavirus, or it may be a simple cold. But what happens in a game when a player says, ‘I’m not comfortable defending that player.’ You cannot play this sport in a mask – there’s no way.”

Jackson said that she and Engelbert continue to talk daily.

“What we envisioned four months ago is different than four weeks ago, which is different than four days ago, which is different from today,” Jackson said. “We are ‘watching the data and not the dates,’ is what Cathy says.”

“What’s impressed me is that the league wants to make this a really good experience for players. They want to hear about how they want to live.”

The pace of the coronavirus pandemic will also shape overseas play, where most WNBA athletes go in the winter time for more earnings. South Korea and Australia have already closed their leagues to foreign players for 2020-2021. American players are signing contracts with leagues in other countries, but Lelchitski said nothing is guaranteed.

“Any contract that is signed right now is really hypothetical, because we’re six months at most from overseas season, and no one knows what’s going to happen,” he said. “National leagues may happen, especially in small countries, because you can travel by bus.”

“But if a league is crossing borders into other countries, as some leagues do frequently, and that country has their own set of rules and regulations…it might not work.”

The CBA guarantees salaries to free agents, which would mean many younger players would likely have to get other jobs next winter if overseas play is stopped or limited, according to Lelchitski.

“It’s really complicated,” he said. “We can all have different ideas, but no one knows. This virus will dictate what happens.”

For now, the WNBA and WNBPA will monitor the pandemic and whether or not it is safe to begin the season.

“The league continues to state that playing some games this year is the goal, so press on is where we are,” Jackson said.

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