The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forbes cuts ties with sports business columnist, deletes piece about WNBA player salaries

Washington Mystics guard Elena Delle Donne (11) shoots while guarded by Chicago Sky forward Gabby Williams (15) during a game at Capital One Arena in July. (Terrance Williams/For The Washington Post)

Forbes magazine cut ties with a contributing columnist and sports economics professor last week after a dispute over his piece about WNBA player salaries.

David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University who studies gender and sports business and has written three books on the subject, argued in an opinion piece that WNBA players should earn higher salaries to boost their star power. The NBA voiced concerns with the piece to Forbes editors, who took the league’s concerns to Berri. As the conflict between writer and outlet unfolded, Forbes took down the piece and dismissed Berri as a contributor.

In emails Berri provided to The Washington Post, a Forbes editor said the article was “misleading,” “sloppy,” “polemic” and “just bad reporting.”

“The article was removed because it failed to meet Forbes’ strict editorial standards for accuracy and fairness,” a company spokesman said in a statement. “Specifically, the contributor intentionally omitted facts and context from an authoritative source that would have undermined his thesis. As a result, David Berri was removed as a Forbes contributor.”

Berri, who has also contributed to the New York Times, The Atlantic, Time magazine and VICE, had agreed to add additional information requested by the NBA, but said in an interview that he stood by the piece’s premise.

“There was no evidence in the NBA’s material that contradicted any thesis I had,” he said.

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The piece compared the earnings of WNBA stars to the NBA G League’s new one-year “select contracts,” worth $125,000 for elite post-high school prospects. Berri included the earnings of Diana Taurasi and league MVP Breanna Stewart, who made $115,233 and $56,793 excluding benefits and incentives, respectively, in WNBA wages in 2018.

The G League “select contracts” will go to a handful of surefire NBA prospects who choose to forego a year of college basketball and instead play in the NBA’s developmental system before entering the league’s draft, beginning in 2020.

“Yes, an 18-year old with a select contract will be paid more than twice what the WNBA league MVP was paid last year,” Berri wrote.

The NBA then brought its concerns to Forbes, asking the publication to amend the story and include additional facts about the WNBA and the G League’s pay scales and business models, according to an NBA spokesman. Berri agreed to make the changes, but Forbes instead removed the story from its website hours after it was published and dismissed Berri, who had been a paid contributor. The magazine paid him a base $500 per month, but he could earn more depending on online engagement; he typically wrote about seven stories a month.

“No one at the NBA or WNBA ever asked Forbes to remove the article,” said Mike Bass, the league’s executive vice president of communications. “We provided information to Mr. Berri and Forbes in the hopes that they’d consider providing appropriate context to correct the factual inaccuracies in the story. We fully cooperated with Mr. Berri as he contacted us as he was writing his story.”

Berri said he believed the additional information the NBA provided was largely irrelevant to the argument made in the column, which he said primarily discussed the signal NBA officials sent by announcing “select contracts” when WNBA players have for years called for pay increases and more marketing muscle.

“The story I’m telling is really simple,” Berri said. “You’ve made this gesture toward the G League to pay them more money and that’s an investment, but the WNBA wants more money and you call that a cost. That, to me, is the story.”

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Berri has argued, both in scholarly works and in previous Forbes columns, that the WNBA’s path to long-term growth involves paying players more money and promoting them as superstars alongside their NBA counterparts.

That would also improve the quality of the game, he said, because players would not have to compete overseas in the offseason to supplement their income.

The NBA, which reported $9 billion in revenue last year and owns 70 percent of the women’s league, has countered that the WNBA has operated at a loss each of its 22 seasons and can’t afford a larger investment in salaries

The WNBA’s salaries are also constrained by a collective bargaining agreement; the players' union announced Thursday it would opt out of that agreement after the 2019 season.

Berri wrote 93 pieces for Forbes, starting in Aug., 2017. He carved out a niche writing about gender in American sports, and frequently the WNBA.

Berri said he routinely wrote analysis pieces without attempting to contact the figures involved. He said Forbes issued a set of basic editorial guidelines when he started and initially did not ask or require him to seek comment from subjects.

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The Minnesota Lynx, the 2017 WNBA champions, did not visit the White House to celebrate their win. Instead, they visited a D.C. elementary school on June 6. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

When WNBA President Lisa Borders resigned in October, Berri wrote an opinion piece two days later about the challenges facing her replacement. The NBA objected to elements of that piece, Berri said, and Forbes editors then told him he was required to contact story subjects and seek comment before publication.

Forbes editor Brett Knight reminded Berri in an email of the importance of those contacts while critiquing his final column.

“You must be willing not just to reach out to subjects for comment but to seriously consider what they are telling you,” Knight wrote. “We can’t just decide what we want to write and then write it, facts and other perspectives be damned.”

Knight suggested Berri include information about the WNBA’s payroll and average salary, both of which far exceed those of the G League, and disputed elements of the author’s argument about the investment necessary for young professional sports leagues to grow.

“We probably need to discuss what sort of writer you wish me to be,” Berri responded. “I am a professor of economics. I am not a reporter. Nor am I mouthpiece for the NBA. What I am offering Forbes is economics analysis from an expert on sports and economics. And I am very much an expert on this topic.”

Berri agreed to add language about the payroll disparities and average salaries, but by that time Forbes had already removed the article from its website without posting a correction or a retraction notice. Forbes said in a statement that it decides on a case-by-case basis when to disclose when a piece has been removed, and that it chose not to announce the striking of Berri’s column because it saw issues with the article’s basic premise.

The magazine had once previously removed one of Berri’s opinion pieces, in which Berri argued black NFL coaches were more likely than white coaches to be fired with a winning record, but later republished the story after edits.

After a phone conversation last week between Berri and Knight, the editor wrote in an email, “I feel it’s best if we end your run as a Forbes contributor.”

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