‘We Are Betting on Ourselves’: The WNBA Players Union Opts Out of Its CBA

WNBA players are taking their shot. The members of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association have opted out of their collective-bargaining agreement for the 2019 season. Their goals are to renegotiate pay and working conditions, to open up the WNBA’s financial books for union inspection, and to be treated like the professionals that they are.

In an article for The Player’s Tribune, WNBPA president and Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike explained the political and economic rationale for the opt-out: “This is not purely about salaries. This is about small changes the league can make that will impact the players. This is about a six-foot-nine superstar taking a red-eye cross-country and having to sit in an economy seat instead of an exit row.”

It is a daring move for a union in a league that is often dismissed by sports journalists who don’t actually watch and haven’t seen the way a new generation of stars have reshaped women’s basketball. WNBA players are putting the question of respect for their talent and work front and center. Many players currently have to play every off season thousands of miles from home in Russia or Eastern Europe in order to pay their bills. This means that—unlike their male counterparts—they can’t use their down time to stay home, work on their craft, develop organically with their teammates and build interest in the league.

Speaking to Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader, Washington Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne said, “Maybe if we saw things changing and we saw more investment in the WNBA and more belief from the higher-ups, then maybe we would be patient. But we haven’t seen that. The players in the league aren’t going to allow things like this to just occur and us to sit back and be happy for what we’re given so far. We truly believe we deserve more.… It’s a fight and a battle every single day, just trying to get toward equality somehow.”

In her Players Tribune article, Ogwumike went on to say of this choice:

It means not just believing in ourselves, but going one step further: betting on ourselves. It means being a group of empowered women, in the year 2018, not just feeling fed up with the status quo, but going one step further: rejecting the status quo. And it means taking a stand, not just for the greatest women’s basketball players of today, but going one step further: taking a stand for the greatest women’s basketball players of tomorrow….

I don’t want the best and the brightest female athletes in the world dreaming about playing in the NBA… I don’t want the best and the brightest young girls growing up thinking that men are the pinnacle. I want those girls dreaming about growing up into the best women they can be. And I want them to dream about the league that I know ours can become. A league that has a fair and consistent work environment. A league that treats its players as the world-class athletes they are. A league that invests in its future. A league that believes in us as much as we believe in it.

As for the NBA higher ups, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said in a statement:

We were informed today that the Women’s National Basketball Players Association has opted out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement following the 2019 season. The league and its teams are committed to an open and good-faith negotiation that is rooted in the financial realities of our business. We are getting to work immediately and are confident such a process can lead to a fair deal for all involved.

Adam Silver in an interview with the AP struck a more oppositional tone, saying, “On average [we’ve lost] over $10 million every year we’ve operated,” meaning that wage raises aren’t on the table. Yet this is a number that hasn’t been verified. Part of this process is the players’ truly becoming partners in growing the league, daring Silver to open up the books for the first time to allow the union to actually see exactly how much revenue is generated and what the fair share for the players could be.

“In opting out of this CBA, our primary objective is full transparency,” Ogwumike writes. “We just want information about where the league is as a business, so that we can come together and make sound decisions for the future of the game. You probably don’t know this, but as players, we never get to see the numbers. We don’t know how the league is doing. As the kids say nowadays, we just want to see the receipts.”

UPDATE: After this article was published, I received an email from an NBA official with the following statement from Mark Tatum disputing the contention that they haven’t opened up their books to the WNBA:
“The league has sustained incredible losses over the inception from the inception 22 years ago, including a $12 million loss just last season, but those are investments that the NBA is making, and what I would say is that the Players’ Association has all of those financials. They have access to that. We’ve shared it with them, and what we are looking forward to doing is having a fully open, transparent and engaging discussion around the business realities that exist in the league. But the Players’ Association has all those financials. We’ve made everything available to them and will continue to operate in a very transparent manner. …We’ve shared all of that information with the Players’ Association and look forward to having that conversation with the executive committee and with the players directly around the realities of the business.” (Outside the Lines, ESPN, 11/1/18)

The WNBPA has contacted The Nation to respond to the assertion that the NBA has opened the books. They say, “We are awaiting complete information from the League. Out of respect for the process we will withhold further comment at this time.”

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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