To say that the 2020 WNBA season is starting up in a time of great adversity and uncertainty would be a colossal understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic, which over 140,000 people in the United States have died from to date, has not been contained. Partisan politics over simple preventative measures like mask usage and social distancing, as well as general overeagerness to reopen America and return to a sense of normalcy, have torpedoed hopes of slowing the virus’ spread. Florida, where the WNBA’s playing bubble (referred to colloquially as the “wubble”) is located, has reported over 10,000 new COVID-19 cases statewide each day for five days straight as of this writing.
At the same time, nationwide protests against police brutality and white supremacist violence in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and several other unarmed Black people are still ongoing. These protests have been marked by largely unchecked violence by police against protestors and journalists across the country. Unease permeates the U.S., whose executive leadership has been actively hostile to both these protests and efforts to promote public health and safety amid the current pandemic.
The WNBA Returns, Many Players Opt-Out
Still, in this time that is decidedly not normal, professional sports are returning. More than two months after the 2020 WNBA season was originally set to begin, a compacted 22-game season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, will tip-off this Saturday.
There are a lot of concerns that WNBA players have had to consider in returning to basketball. On one hand, basketball is the livelihood of WNBA players. Opting-out of this year for most means losing their WNBA salary with no clear answer of when their next professional season will take place. On the other hand, risking potential infection could be hazardous or even deadly for players or their loved ones.
Over a dozen of the starters and twenty-eight players overall from 2019 WNBA final rosters will miss this season. Some, like Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum and Chicago Sky forward Jantel Lavender, will miss the season due to injury. Most of the other absent players have opted out due to health concerns or travel restrictions posed by COVID-19. Still others, such as Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery, have opted out of the season to take on a more involved role in activism furthering the cause of racial justice in the United States.
While some fans and media have (justifiably) questioned whether a season should happen at all during this pandemic and if it is worth the risk to the players and staff involved, for those who are playing, there is value to playing the season. Several Minnesota Lynx players spoke before the season about why it was important to them to play in 2020.
For starters, some of the Lynx players are about to make their big break in professional basketball. Bridget Carleton played just eight total games for the Connecticut Sun and the Lynx last season. For Megan Huff, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, and Crystal Dangerfield, this will be their first opportunity to play in the league. Herbert Harrigan and Dangerfield have already lost the opportunity to play in their senior year of college postseasons. Giving up the chance at a WNBA roster spot early in a player’s career as they are trying to establish themselves may not seem like an acceptable option to a young player.
When asked if she had at any point considered not playing this season, Dangerfield replied, “Not really. I’m young, fairly healthy, and I just wanted to play. So, nah not really.”
Desire to Play and Confidence in the WNBA amid COVID Concerns
While COVID-19 remains a concern for the Lynx players, many of them spoke about their confidence in the WNBA creating relatively safe conditions for them and their desire to play and continue to grow the league.
“I mean, I’m human so I’m pretty sure you probably heard the same answer from everybody,” said Lynx forward Kayla Alexander when asked about her concerns about the season. “We’re a bit apprehensive because when there’s a virus out there still — COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared, [it’s] still out there. We don’t know the long term effects of it [or]what happens if you catch it. It’s been different for everybody so there’s that concern.
“We’re athletes. We want to play basketball, we want to compete and play at a high level, we want to play with our teammates again. So there’s a mixture of all these different emotions. But I think the league — it’s done a great job trying to put together a season that allows us to address the social issues. They’re trying to do their best to keep us safe in this bubble, and I appreciate them trying to do that and allowing us to still have some of the season. So I appreciate the league for what they’re trying to create and [we’ll] just take it one day at a time.”
Lynx guard Lexie Brown said of playing in the bubble, “I feel like this is probably one of the safest places in the country right now to play sports. All of us were playing at our own respective gyms [and]you see the spikes all over the country.”
Newly minted Lynx Captain and 2019 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier spoke about how important it was to represent the WNBA and its players despite the challenges of the season.
“I think it’s really important [to play]even though it is very risky and if anyone doesn’t want to play it’s very understandable,” said Collier. “There’s a lot going on right now [but]I think it’s really important for the league. We’re not new, but we’re still growing and we still want to get the league out there and we want to play basketball — that’s our profession, that’s what we all love to do. So if there’s any way to do that in a safe way I think everyone was really excited to do that.”
Brazil, where Lynx forward Damiris Dantas hails from, has also been hit hard by COVID-19. Dantas spoke briefly about the situation in her home country.
“Yeah, the situation in Brazil now is very hard,” said Dantas. “But my family, it’s okay. But now… it’s not funny, our problems. So yeah, it’s very hard.”
When asked if she wanted to play this year, Dantas laughed and said, “Yeah. I want to play this year. Every game I want to play.”
Using the WNBA Season for Racial Justice Advocacy
Several Lynx players specifically spoke on their belief that playing this season would give them a greater platform for speaking out on issues of racial justice.
“[I have] two reasons why I thought playing this season was very important,” said All-Star Lynx center Sylvia Fowles. “One was the commitment that I made to the Minnesota Lynx. And so I’m fulfilling that. So that was priority number one. Priority number two was I think my platform is more meaningful if you have on a uniform. Not saying that basketball is everything, but I think people will pay more attention.”
“For me [it’s important] just to have this stage, [to]have the opportunity to be able to represent all these other women,” said Lynx guard Rachel Banham. “We all have one mission, one goal when it comes to [causes]outside of basketball and what [messages]we want to spread, and it’s equality and racial justice. So we’re just trying to do our best and have that [public]stage and use that. I respect anyone who didn’t want to play and opted out — and they did want to play but they had other things that they want[ed]to do with that time. So the women that are here, we’re going to do our best to continue to spread that message, even though we are in quarantine.”
Not Letting Hard Work Go to Waste
When asked why playing this season was important to her, Lynx captain Karima Christmas-Kelly talked about her goals of both returning to playing basketball after a few years of being sidelined by knee issues and focusing on racial justice.
“I think for me, it’s just I actually was in Minnesota and actually got to go out and do a little bit of protesting, different things like that but I think I wanted to use this season to really honor those people,” said Christmas-Kelly. “A lot of things kind of hit home for me as far as George Floyd being from Houston, and then recently Vanessa [Guillen] down in Houston as well. So this kind of is just like dedicating my season to them. Also me trying to come back and just prove to myself that I can be back out there and I can work through whatever I’ve been working through for the last couple years and just being a motivation to other people and not really giving up on what I believe in or the game that I love.”
Lynx guard Shenise Johnson, who like Christmas-Kelly has been sidelined due to injury, also talked about the dual goals of getting back to playing and amplifying a platform of racial justice.
“For me, I missed the game,” said Johnson. “I haven’t played in the WNBA season, a full season in a very, very long time. So I just had an itch for it. So I don’t care if we were playing in the middle of the Sahara in this season. But I also think that it’s an opportunity for us to continue to use our platform. We’re basketball players, but that’s not the only thing that we are. At this time it’s hard to push something when people don’t recognize you on your platform. I think it’s important for us to continue to use it.”
Lexie Brown talked about her desire to capitalize on the work she had done to improve her game as well as the unique opportunity for players to collaborate on advocacy work while quarantined together.
“I think it’s important for me personally to play because I just put in a lot of work in the offseason so I feel like I just needed to be able to put all this work that I put in to use. Whether we have a season or not I was still gonna work extremely hard in the offseason. But also, we all have something to say, and I feel like in our league specifically because it is so small, our voices are better together than separate. So I feel like coming here with a bunch of women who have platforms, who have opinions, who are brilliant, who are creative and talented. I felt like [there]is not a better place to speak about what’s going on.”
Ready Or Not…
Returning to professional basketball in the middle of a pandemic does carry risks for those involved, and it is appropriate to be concerned for the wellbeing of those taking those risks in the name of an entertainment product. Still, a lot of work from the league and the players’ association has gone into at least attempting this season while working to ensure player safety.
The Lynx and the rest of the 2020 WNBA season participants are making the best of the situation they’ve been presented with, and for now, those who are playing have decided it is worth the risk to play. There can be positives that come out of this non-ideal situation. There could be a greater ability for collaborative advocacy work between WNBA players this year. These athletes will get to play a sport they have devoted their lives to and will have the opportunity to promote themselves and their league. The WNBA season is moving forward. There will be basketball.
Let’s just hope it’s worth the risk.