The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WNBA players are still treated like second-class citizens. It’s on the NBA to fix that.

A game between the Washington Mystics and the Las Vegas Aces last week was canceled, but the Aces’ reasoning was valid.
A game between the Washington Mystics and the Las Vegas Aces last week was canceled, but the Aces’ reasoning was valid. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this column said the Las Vegas Aces lost their practice facility to the NBA Summer League. The Aces actually lost their regularly scheduled time in the facility to accommodate the Summer League.

This is what second-class citizenship in pro sports looks like:

Last summer, the Minnesota Lynx lost home-court advantage for the entirety of the WNBA playoffs despite having finished the regular season with a league-best 27-7 record. They were forced off their regular season floor in St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center — where they were playing while their usual home court, Target Center in Minneapolis, was being renovated — to make way for the local NHL franchise, the Wild.

The Wild wasn’t in the playoffs. It wasn’t even playing critical regular season contests. It was just playing games that didn’t count, in its preseason. Or as Allen Iverson would say, “Not a game, we talkin’ about practice.”

No matter, the Lynx — as successful a WNBA team as the league has witnessed, having now captured four of the league’s past seven championships, which makes it easily Minnesota’s best pro team — were shooed, along with their fans, to a college gym: Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota.

Imagine that happening to the Lynx’s counterparts in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors.

But that’s how women’s professional basketball players in the U.S. are treated, which is why a few days ago one collection decided enough was enough.

The Las Vegas Aces on Friday went to bed in D.C. rather than sleepwalk into Capital One Arena to play the Washington Mystics after a 25-hour ordeal flying commercially from their home base to here. Worse, the league on Tuesday added injury to the insult by ruling the game the Aces refused to play, even though the players pointed out that travel-induced fatigue could make them more susceptible to getting hurt, a forfeit. That wouldn’t happen in the NBA, where the collective bargaining agreement prohibits the league from forcing its laborers to play a game if they must travel two time zones on the same day their tip-off is scheduled.

WNBA rules Aces’ travel-related no-show a forfeit; union pushes back on travel policy

And the forfeit, coupled with a loss Tuesday night, not only dropped the Aces two games out of the last playoff spot in the league with just five to go, it left them that much further back in the race to postseason bonuses in a league that Forbes writer Dave Berri estimated rewards players with no more than 25 percent of revenue. By contrast, guys in the NBA, which owns the WNBA, share half of their game’s revenue — revenue that dwarfs what the women’s league brings in.

But this isn’t so much about making up differences in wealth as it is about leveling disparities in welfare. After all, the NBA is a multibillion-dollar business rooted in a massive television contract and sold-out arenas. The WNBA is a multimillion-dollar concern played in half-filled stadiums at best, for just four months and with a relatively minuscule broadcast deal.

A 2016 salary cap spike helped the Warriors and hurt the NBA. Worse, nobody saw that coming.

And while the WNBA is part of the NBA, it isn’t governed by the federal Title IX education law that mandated the same accoutrements in college for female athletes as for men. Instead, its success is largely based on the good graces of those who run the men’s league.

So, the Aces’ No. 1 draft pick this year, A’ja Wilson, the national player of the year from South Carolina, is not treated to the same charter flights, single hotel room occupancy, per diem, etc., as Sindarius Thornwell, who was a star for the Gamecocks men’s team during Wilson’s time in Columbia, S.C., and just finished his rookie NBA season with the Los Angeles Clippers. She can’t get Thornwell’s money, either. He got a three-year, $3.8 million NBA contract as a second-round pick. She signed a three-year WNBA deal worth at least $165,000.

For men, going from college basketball to the NBA is a step up; for women, it is often a step down. It shouldn’t have to be.

After all, many observers have championed the NBA and its boss as being in the vanguard of the social justice movement in sports. Commissioner Adam Silver was praised just last week for celebrating his league’s super-est of stars, LeBron James, after President Trump flexed his apparent fetish for attacking black men in a tweet suggesting James’s mental acuity was dull.

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But this is also a league that a few seasons ago fined women on three teams — the Indiana Fever, the New York Liberty and the Phoenix Mercury — for wearing black warmup T-shirts, not unlike James and other NBA stars such as Derrick Rose had done, to join the #BlackLivesMatter protest of unchecked police lethality in this country against unarmed black men. It was only after public protest supporting the women’s stance that the WNBA, headed by a black commissioner, Lisa Borders, rescinded the fines.

That moment reminded that WNBA players don’t deserve to be treated separately, but equally. The reason the Aces were so worried about getting hurt from having to play weary from travel is that, unlike NBA players, they play overseas after the WNBA season concludes to boost their income as professional basketball players to something closer to the lowest salary on the end of an NBA bench. It’s that they have to pay for gym memberships to get some offseason practice runs. It’s that, if they need physical therapists and trainers out of season, they have to pay for them out of their own pockets rather than just meet them at their club’s headquarters.

WNBA players should borrow some of the grit from the national women’s hockey team players, who threatened a boycott that forced their federation to treat them more like the men.

Silver recently lamented that the WNBA has a marketing problem, to which Mystics star Elena Delle Donne so brilliantly took exception. Truth is, that rests with the NBA, particularly now that it has broken its original commitment to not have its calendar compete with the women and has cannibalized the women’s season. To be sure, the Aces lost their scheduled practice time at a facility adjacent to Thomas & Mack Center to accommodate the NBA Summer League. Again, as A.I. said, “We’re not even talking about the game, the actual game, when it matters. We’re talking about practice.”

What the Aces dared to do wasn’t narcissistic. It was necessary. Their players’ union should opt out of the collective bargaining agreement at season’s end while this iron is hot, and get the NBA to the table to correct these basic concerns.

The NBA may not have to pay female ballers like their brethren, but it can at least treat them more equitably.

Kevin B. Blackistone

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