This post was originally posted on April 19, 2019 on NYTimes.com
When Breanna Stewart, the reigning W.N.B.A. most valuable player, was carried off the floor of the Euroleague championship game in Hungary last weekend with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, her pain was not just her own.
“I love Stewie and was heartbroken to hear about her injury, especially coming off an unbelievable W.N.B.A. season and World Cup,” Elena Delle Donne, the Washington Mystics star and a former league most valuable player, said. “She’s just a great player, competitor and friend. She will be missed this year, but I know she will come back stronger than ever.”
Stewart is not only a beloved player for the Seattle Storm; she is also a prominent symbol of an enduring issue in professional women’s basketball in the United States: Its players’ seasons never end.
A rookie selected in this month’s W.N.B.A. draft will make $41,265 to $53,537 in base salary, and nobody in the league will earn a base salary of as much as $120,000 this coming season.
There is a price to pay, however: endless seasons bleeding into one another; a physical, psychological and emotional toll; and, the players say, a heightened risk of injury.
These were only the biggest, latest injuries. Consider one by Amanda Zahui B., the Liberty center, who plays for Sopron Basket in Hungary.
“I just twisted my ankle really bad,” she said in a phone interview in the past week. “It’s a swollen potato. But I got to practice through it. We don’t really have the time to take off. Everyone twists their ankles. Everyone gets bone bruises in their knees and such.”
All of which elevates the question of how much W.N.B.A. players are paid, and whether a framework can be established to keep more of them in the United States during the league’s off-season.
“I’ve always said, everybody that plays overseas in the W.N.B.A. needs therapy,” Mystics guard Kristi Toliver, who spent a decade on the hamster wheel of women’s professional basketball before being hired this off-season as an assistant coach for the N.B.A.’s Washington Wizards, said ahead of her 11th W.N.B.A. campaign. “It’s just a real thing — just so much that you go through with the travel and, being away from loved ones, family or significant others, and trying to manage and deal with all these different things that are coming at you.
“But you have a high-level job and you have to perform well in order to keep it.”
Ending the financial need for nonstop play is a prime focus of Terri Jackson, president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. It appears the league is supportive as well, which is not surprising, given that the quality of play would most likely rise and players who remained in their home market could promote their teams year-round.
“I think it’s a dream, a goal, of the union to grow the league to the point where players can work in it year-round and not have to endure the risks and the rigors of overseas play, of that 12-month calendar,” Jackson said. “It’s a matter that concerns me. It’s a matter that is top of mind for the executive committee and our larger C.B.A. committee.”
That focus is particularly important right now, after the players’ association opted out of its collective bargaining agreement with the league late last year. So the injury to Stewart, while reflecting a longstanding reality, has also shed new light on the way these players earn a living.
“First and foremost, our thoughts are with Breanna and we wish her a speedy recovery,” Mark Tatum, the acting W.N.B.A. president and N.B.A. deputy commissioner, said in an email. “The W.N.B.A. and its teams and players share a commitment to growing the league’s business and building on our ongoing work to provide greater professional opportunities for players in the off-season.”
The league has good reason to want a pathway to limiting, if not ending, overseas play from players: The teams are consistently affected by the toll it takes on its players.
“The year-round play for W.N.B.A. players is a detriment to the W.N.B.A. product,” Minnesota Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said. “The physical and mental toll it takes on the league’s elite players is reflected in some of the league’s best sitting out the W.N.B.A. season to ‘rest,’ as well as these players sustaining injuries.”
Jackson spoke optimistically about how that process was going, though even the work to keep her own side informed requires time-zone gymnastics with her leadership scattered all over the world.
“We could have a meeting at 10 a.m. or at 10 p.m., Eastern time, just because we have folks in, or we’ve had folks in, Russia and Poland and China, Turkey,” Jackson said. “And so my executive committee just says get it done, so that’s what we do.” She recalled an executive committee member, Nneka Ogwumike, jumping on a call from China at midnight.
The two sides have until the conclusion of the 2019 season to come to an agreement.
“The league has also signaled its willingness, its desire, to have a really collaborative relationship with the players, and to hear and to understand the concerns, and how to make this better,” Jackson said. “This is good forward movement. I think that’s where we are.”
That comes as welcome news to players like A’ja Wilson, who has followed Stewart’s path in many ways. Stewart was the top overall pick in 2016; Wilson in 2018. Like Stewart, Wilson won an N.C.A.A. championship, then was the W.N.B.A. rookie of the year. And like Stewart, Wilson went straight from college ball to the W.N.B.A. to a stint overseas last year, in China, before an injury ended her season.
“It’s definitely not an easy route at all,” Wilson said. “I think that’s what makes us just that elite as professional athletes. Because our bodies take on so much, but yet we still perform every single game. I mean, when Stewie got hurt she was in the championship game. She was playing at the highest level that she could overseas. It broke my heart.”
Wilson, too, expressed hope that Stewart’s injury would “shine a light” on this scheduling issue. Zahui B. agreed, though she doesn’t have much time to worry about it: Her team is in the Hungarian league semifinals. If her team sweeps, she said, she will finish her season on May 2, then fly home to Sweden to see her family on May 3, before reporting to New York for training camp with the Liberty by May 8. On May 9, she will be at Barclays Center for New York’s first preseason game, against the Chinese national team.
She said she was looking forward to playing in the best women’s professional league in the world. But as she attends to her aching ankle, she also echoed her fellow players on just how much better the league, and the professional experience, could be with some rest.
And Toliver, who has now lived it, knows firsthand how right they are.
“I feel that now, entering the summer, I’m going to be so much more prepared to do so much more,” Toliver said. “With what I was able to do with the off-season, I feel that the summer is going to be a breeze.”