The WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, announced last week and heralded for its progressivism, follows a season in which the league’s odes to empowerment and its labor practices felt almost comically incompatible. On social media, players documented all sorts of headaches—disruptive travel delays on commercial flights to road games, 6-footers stuck in middle seats—many of these upsetting because they were quotidian, the hassles that you and I, talentless nobodies, might tolerate, but which stratospherically good basketball players who depend on their bodies shouldn’t.
One incident set the tone for the season: In April, six months after WNBA players opted out of their last collective bargaining agreement and one month before tipoff, then–reigning Finals MVP and 2018 WNBA champion Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm tore her Achilles tendon while playing in a European league. (Given the WNBA’s unimpressive pay, most of its players supplement their incomes by playing in leagues abroad during the offseason.) Where and when Stewart was injured is ammunition enough for a labor fight, but how it occurred is infuriating, too: She leapt for a jumper and landed awkwardly on the foot of her defender, Brittney Griner—a veteran six-time WNBA All-Star who happens to spend most of the year playing for a Russian club called UMMC Ekaterinburg. The scene plays like some cruel twist in a fateful meeting: Two women, neither of whom is there in a just world, collide in the most unfortunate way.
The new CBA should make such offseason injuries and in-season indignities less common. In the contract, players will receive salary increases along with an array of overdue benefits, including “comfort plus” airplane seating and individual hotel rooms on the road, marketing opportunities, a larger percentage of league revenue, child care stipends, and fully paid maternity leave. For an organization that purports to stand for the “power of women,” those last two provisions don’t feel more radical a workplace expectation than, say, nets and basketballs. It flatters the WNBA to present these gains as bold, groundbreaking wins, rather than remedy for years of neglect. That’s probably also in the interests of the union, which can finally appear strong after years of falling for the NBA’s cries of poverty and blithely accepting cuts to roster sizes and salary caps.
This CBA objectively improves the lives of the world’s best women’s basketball players and is genuine cause for celebration. But the victory might taste sweeter had the WNBA not been dragged here by a crisis of optics: The league’s would-be ambassadors felt almost no attachment to it; big stars wondered, publicly and often, why they stayed in it at all. In Diana Taurasi’s assessment, one hears the sheepishness and resignation of somebody too lenient with a dirtbag ex. “We come back every single summer because we love the game,” she said in a delightfully scathing interview last season. “It’s pathetic.” Her Phoenix Mercury teammate Griner—who is said to earn around $1.5 million playing in Russia during the offseason—made clear in August that her only sense of duty in the U.S. was to the Mercury franchise. “Definitely not playing for the W. The W don’t do nothing.”
The agreement’s full language is yet to be released, but what is available hints at an imminent gulf between the WNBA’s vocal stars and its less visible middle-class journeywomen. League press materials, and therefore the instant headlines, focused only on the increase in maximum salaries from $117,000 to $215,000. (For what it’s worth, an NBA player will make no less than $898,000 this year.) Much smaller improvements to the rookie minimum (from $41,965 to $57,000) and veteran minimum (from $56,375 to $68,000) were independently reported several hours later by SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck and got a bit lost amid the fanfare.
On a media call, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert encouraged reporters to focus less on salary and more on potential “cash compensation,” a figure that includes performance bonuses (being named to All-Defensive First Team, for example) and income from marketing agreements with a team or with the league, which the WNBA hopes will allow some players to stay stateside year-round. It’s cynical but fair to imagine that those benefits will accrue to the handful of stars who had it best—if still not great, sure—in the first place.
In the new agreement, the potential privilege of a true offseason is extended to more women but, in sum, still only a few women. By their own admission, most players will not be making enough to forgo second jobs. This CBA doesn’t quite answer the difficult, existential question hanging over the league: How seriously does the WNBA expect its players to take it, and how seriously will it take them in return?
Mechelle Voepel’s 2016 20th anniversary oral history of the WNBA for ESPN the Magazine begins with one peculiar, fascinating anecdote: David Stern putters down a hallway at NBA HQ and pokes his head into Val Ackerman’s office to ask the future WNBA president whether their planned women’s league will be a part-time summer league. Just like that, some anodyne office interaction. I’m stepping out for coffee, need anything? Did you get my email? Hey, wanted to confirm this choice that will shape the women’s game for decades to come.
Much of the hagiography following Stern’s death earlier this month mentioned his importance to women’s basketball in America, and he is owed credit for starting—and sometimes brusquely defending—what is now the country’s longest-running women’s professional sports league. But I often wonder whether the WNBA was handicapped by that very design, by the NBA’s unwillingness to provide from the start what a professional organization is meant to: real professions, nonhazardous full-time work. Instead, the league has had a stalled, messy patchwork quality to it for the past 23 years. The result of decades of player advocacy feels, depressingly, like only a beginning.