Basketball has always been a central part of Kristi Toliver’s life, having grown up as the daughter of an NBA referee. She became an NCAA champion at Maryland in 2006 and a WNBA champion with the Los Angeles Sparks a decade later.
After nine years in the WNBA, the past two with the Washington Mystics, the NBA’s Washington Wizards offered Toliver the chance to take the first step toward her longtime desire to coach after her playing days are over. The Wizards made Toliver an assistant coach this season — the first active WNBA player to serve as an NBA assistant.
There was only one problem. Toliver, according to the New York Times, is making just $10,000 for a season of work with the Wizards — well below what NBA assistants normally make, which can stretch from around $100,000 to more than $1 million, depending on the experience of the coach.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Toliver told the Times. “For me, I looked at the pros and the cons, the pros obviously being I get to rest my body, it being my first time in 10 years of not playing year-round, not going overseas. Obviously there are financial burdens that come with that, but this is also a very exciting opportunity that I want to take advantage of, being home, still being around the game, around the best players in the world, around the best coaches in the world.”
Toliver’s low pay is the result of the Wizards and Mystics’ ownership structure. Because Ted Leonsis owns both teams, the WNBA determined that Toliver’s pay as an NBA assistant had to come out of the $50,000 total each WNBA team allocates to pay their players for offseason work.
Mike Bass, who oversees public relations for both leagues, cited competitive fairness for the WNBA’s decision. The Mystics are one of five teams in the WNBA that share an owner with an NBA team in the same market.
“While it’s necessary for competitive fairness to ensure the integrity of the W.N.B.A. salary cap, the league is committed to providing robust career development opportunities to both current and former players,” Bass told the Times.
For his part, Leonsis took to Twitter on Tuesday to express his support for Toliver.
“The league rules and collective bargaining agreements never contemplated having a WNBA player also working as an NBA coach,” Leonsis wrote. “We’re glad to be the first and the rules need to change. Kristi is a critical member of our family at Monumental Sports.”
The news of Toliver’s low salary comes after a WNBA season in which players spoke loudly about the desire for a larger slice of revenue, what many around the league perceive as a lack of resources directed at marketing the women’s game, and unfair treatment of WNBA players.
Elena Delle Donne, Toliver’s Mystics teammate and one of the biggest stars in the WNBA, spoke out last spring after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN about what he believes to be the WNBA’s deficiencies from a business standpoint. Delle Donne issued a statement on social media at the time and continued to speak on the issue throughout the season.
When the Las Vegas Aces canceled a game against the Mystics in Washington after 25 hours of flight delays, players spoke about the difficulties of flying commercial, especially when traveling two time zones in a short period of time. NBA teams fly charter.
The WNBA players’ union also announced in November that it is opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement after the 2019 season.
Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBPA, told the Times that the union is concerned about the pay gap between Toliver and other NBA assistants and plans to examine the issue in negotiations.