WNBA players want better working conditions, and they’re not afraid to speak up about it
Calling out Mark Cuban is risky business.
But that didn’t stop hard-driving Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. Talking about the wage gap between the WNBA and NBA, she brought Cuban into the conversation. “I haven’t seen Mark Cuban at a game,” Diggins-Smith told Wealthsimple magazine. “And I’m sure I wouldn’t miss him.”
In some circles, the comment was called a cheap shot. Why single out the NBA’s most visible owner when he hasn’t wronged the WNBA in any way? Cuban saw it differently. He tweeted, “I’m ok with @SkyDigg4’s approach. Sometimes you have to get loud to go forward.”
Cuban is right. And WNBA players and coaches know it.
Better pay, better media coverage, better travel accommodations, better marketing efforts, better sponsorship deals — the WNBA players and coaches advocating for improvements have been getting loud. Very loud. They’re using whatever platforms they have — usually Twitter — and speaking out in ways that are brash, provocative, and unapologetically agenda-driven.
And WNBA president Lisa Borders is more than listening.
“I invite it, I implore it, I encourage folks to tell us what they’re thinking whether it’s criticism of the league or accolades for the league,” said Borders, a product of the civil rights era. “At the end of the day, we will be a better league for it, to encourage that type of dialogue. What I encourage, regardless of whether you’re talking about sports or something else, just make sure you have all the facts and you have them accurately developed in your own mind.”
Outspokenness is nothing new in women’s sports — it’s been essential in getting opportunities for female athletes. Still, its current incarnation in the WNBA and beyond feels more like a movement than a cyclical spike in activism, more like an evolution in how competitors in women’s sports want to present themselves, more like a reflection of the confidence WNBA players have in their value and the quality of their product.
With the sports world still buzzing about Serena Williams calling out sexism and double standards at the US Open and the Seattle Storm recently crowned WNBA champions (note to Cuban: Celtics legend Bill Russell enjoyed some semifinal action courtside in Seattle), here’s a look back at a few of the attention-getting stands taken by players and coaches this year:
■ In February, Minnesota Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve tweeted: “Things that make you go [hmmm] . . . why would a subscriber-based sports medium that claims ‘full access to all sports’ limit its earnings potential by not covering women’s sports?? The Athletic does just that . . . and it’s bad business. #tiredofthebias”
That was Reeve calling out The Athletic and making the case for more coverage of the Lynx and women’s sports in general. This season, The Athletic assigned two writers to almost every game and practice, something the outlet claimed it always planned to do. No doubt Reeve’s words sped up the process.
Reeve, on her social media strategy: “I see it as my responsibility as a citizen, as a woman, to stand up for myself and my players and our league. Because it’s a microcosm of what’s going on in society. Women have to stop taking it. We have to stop being held down and marginalized. We have to say, ‘This isn’t right because . . . ’ ”
■ In April, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, speaking on ESPN, said the WNBA had a “marketing problem” and needed to “do a better job connecting to young people and to get them to be interested.” The reaction from WNBA players was swift and critical.
All-Star Elena Delle Donne, the Washington Mystics’ leading scorer and rebounder, tweeted, “We absolutely do not get promoted as our counterparts do. Yes, I’m talking about the NBA. When you put millions of dollars into marketing athletes and allow fans to get to know the players on the court they develop a connection. When you have a connection with someone or something you are more engaged and continue to want to see/learn more. Fans feel like they know NBA players. How is anyone to get [to] know me or any of my colleagues if we aren’t marketed nearly as much?
“Yes this is a business. But like any business you have to invest to get a return. This goes for EVERY industry. Not just the WNBA. #seeher #investinwomen”
■ In July, after LeBron James agreed to a four-year, $153.3 million deal with the Lakers, WNBA players saw an opportunity to — again — highlight the pay gap between the two leagues.
The WNBA’s Rookie of the Year, A’ja Wilson, tweeted, “154M . . . must. be. nice. We over here looking for a M but Lord, let me get back in my lane.” The comment went viral, but Wilson didn’t stop there. She responded to critics who charged that it was about low ratings (“It’s deeper than just viewings but preciate it”) and talent (“Lolololol ohh it’s about skill set [hmmm] because I heard a bench player gets paid more than . . . nvm [never mind]”). And she tried to provide an education in pro basketball economics, pointing out that NBA players receive 50 percent of their league’s revenue while WNBA players get about half that. Near the end of the back-and-forth sparked by her original tweet, Wilson told followers, “glad I could stir the pot.”
Wisely, that’s exactly what Wilson and her WNBA colleagues are doing with increasing regularity, flair, and sense of purpose.
True, either the league or the players’ union can opt out of the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement by an Oct. 31 deadline, and that’s important. Why? Because the players are raising issues that will factor into negotiations. And some cynics out there might question the players’ motivations.
But it’s much bigger than CBA negotiations. It goes back to what Reeve said about women having to “stop taking it” and to “stop being held down and marginalized.”
“There’s a lot of bad information out there and we need the right information out there,” said Reeve, who’s coached in the WNBA for 18 years, earned 200-plus wins, and won six championship rings. “Whatever we say, I’m a big believer in backing it up with facts. Because the naysayers, they have a narrative that’s not based in fact. It’s based in opinion. When someone says, ‘Hey, no one’s watching women’s sports.’ No, you’re not watching women’s sports.”
If you’re not watching the WNBA, then you’ve missed all the excitement and noise surrounding this season’s playoffs. From Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird taking over in the fourth quarter of semifinal Game 5 to Phoenix Mercury forward Devereaux Peters calling out ESPN’s decision to air playoff games on ESPNews, it’s been pretty darn loud.
And it promises to get louder.
Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic achievements. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.