The WNBA is apparently trying to compete with the MLB for how much it can hate its own players.
According to a report from Sports Illustrated earlier today, the owners of the WNBA’s New York Liberty chartered a plane for its professional players rather than having them fly commercial during the second half of the season. WNBA players have spoken up in the past about the issues that accompany commercial flights as professional athletes, from discomfort in the seats to canceled flights to paying for upgrades out of pocket, as described by star Liz Cambage in a much-discussed tweet last month.
With COVID concerns adding onto all of this, Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, the owners of the Liberty, decided to foot the bill to charter a plane for their team travel in 2021. The league’s collective bargaining agreement, however, prohibits chartered flights because all owners may not be able to afford such a luxury.
The backlash from the league was, in a word, outrageous.
According to SI, the WNBA threatened to terminate the entire franchise or take away “every draft pick they’ve ever seen.” While the final punishment didn’t go that far, the team did end up getting fined half a million dollars — down from an original million — and the league removed a Liberty executive from its executive committee.
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This fine is over twice the salary of any player in the WNBA. With an individual salary cap that doesn’t quite reach $230,000, WNBA players have long traveled overseas to play in the offseason, where they can make well over a million suiting up for international pro teams.
The Liberty players, including star forward Sabrina Ionescu, seemed to have a great relationship with the Tsais and were very appreciative of the efforts they had made toward the team’s comfort and professionalism. The WNBA was, however, displeased with the idea that professional athletes would be treated like professional athletes.
Sports Illustrated also reported that the Tsais even presented a proposal that would have allowed every WNBA team to fly charter for the next three years, which was voted down because “owners worried that players would get too used to it, so there’d be no going back.”
Going back to inadequate treatment? Getting used to being treated fairly? Yeah, sounds terrible.
To provide a look into where some of the ownership is coming from, here’s another quote from the SI article:
“One WNBA owner proudly proclaims the value of the WNBA team to be zero, according to multiple league sources, and thus all he spends on his team is effectively a contribution toward the greater good of women’s sports.”
Oh, that’s great. Real charity work he’s doing there.
As the WNBA expands and draws in more and more viewers (viewership was up 49 percent from 2020 to 2021), the league has to be able to take itself seriously enough — and by extension, take its athletes seriously enough — to legitimize its place among American professional sports. The athletes have been outspoken about their opinions on league policies, including salary caps, and have never backed down from advocating for themselves — likely because they’re making most of their money through non-WNBA ventures.
The current CBA limits owners like the Tsais who have a real interest in investing and growing their teams as financial assets while treating the athletes like real professionals. This whole incident leaves a bad taste in the mouth for a league that purports to have done so much for women’s sports and has genuinely come a long way in the last decade. To brush off a health and safety issue like COVID, and to threaten to shut down an entire franchise in retaliation, is a bizarre power play that makes it seem like the league leaders don’t have much interest in the success of the WNBA or its athletes.
In an appearance on ESPN’S NBA Today last week, Cambage said, “It’s hard when you have the best league in the world, but we’re not treated like the best athletes in the world.”