Whenever a transcendent player enters a sports league, typically their organization and the league caters to them. In men's sports, at least, this has definitely been the case. Look no further than Michael Jordan and LeBron James being thrust into the spotlight by the NBA, MLB trying to market Mike Trout, and so on.
The same cannot be said for the WNBA and Elena Delle Donne.
Since being drafted by the Chicago Sky in 2013, Delle Donne has been one of the best players in the WNBA. A six-time All-Star in seven years, she's also a two-time MVP: with the Sky in 2015 and the Washington Mystics in 2019. Delle Donne is also a five-time All-WNBA team selection (four times on the 1st team and once on the 2nd), and she is the first WNBA player to join the "50/40/90" club.
Delle Donne is also one of the faces of Nike basketball. The Nike Zoom UNVRS sneaker was made with her input to help athletes with disabilities have an easier time with the shoes. On top of that, she recently topped the WNBA's jersey sales.
Perhaps most notably, she helped lead the Mystics to their first-ever WNBA championship with three herniated discs in her back. She's clearly one of the best players in league history and has done wonders for the game and for the Mystics.
Yet Delle Donne, the WNBA, and the Mystics can't seem to agree on whether she is fit to play this season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Delle Donne has Lyme disease. Common symptoms of Lyme disease include joint or muscle pains, fatigue, joint stiffness as well as swelling. Some people can experience fevers and headaches as well. Delle Donne spoke with her personal physician about the potential dangers of playing basketball during the pandemic. They determined that it would be unsafe for her to play.
However, a panel of WNBA physicians initially denied her request to opt out of the season because of a medical condition. Lyme disease is not included on the list of underlying conditions that could make COVID-19 severe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a result, she recently wrote on The Player’s Tribune that she has to take 64 pills a day to keep the effects of the disease at bay. In writing the letter, Delle Donne wanted it known what she has to go through every day to play the game she loved.
In the letter, Delle Donne also said that choosing between her health and getting a paycheck "hurt." She also claimed that the denial of her medical exemption might be because she is the current MVP.
For a player to be considered for medical exemption, the WNBA’s panel stated that a player had to meet a medical threshold. The panel considers CDC guidelines to determine whether a player should be considered "high-risk." Additionally, decisions made by the panel are final, with no ability to appeal.
That said, Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage, Phoenix Mercury forward Jessica Breland, New York Liberty guard Asia Durr, and Delle Donne's teammate Tina Charles received medical exemptions. Cambage was exempted after potentially contracting COVID-19 while playing in China. Breland had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Durr tested positive for coronavirus and Charles has extrinsic asthma. They will be paid their full salary for missing the 22-game season.
Around the same time Delle Donne’s letter was published, Mystics general manager Mike Thibault said that she was on the team's roster. She will be paid throughout the season even if she's just rehabbing her back. But it's unknown if Delle Donne will be going to the Mystics' training facility for rehab and if she will join the team in Florida when deemed clear. Both situations would put Delle Donne in danger of contracting the virus.
Ethically speaking, the WNBA’s policy regarding who can get a medical exemption in order to be paid in full does not make a lot of sense considering the wide variety of factors that might put someone at risk for contracting coronavirus and the United States' wildly ineffective response. It especially does not make sense when compared to the opt-out policy adopted by the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL).
Prior to the Challenge Cup, all NWSL players were given the option of playing or sitting out the 23-game tournament. Those who sat out would receive their full salaries and wouldn't have to worry about losing insurance as well.
This makes sense considering the effects of COVID-19 aren't fully known yet. Contrary to popular belief, athletes can be more susceptible to contracting illnesses. Their immune systems are compromised due to the strain training for their sport has on their body.
Add on the fact that some athletes, like Delle Donne, are already playing with pre-existing conditions and the idea of questioning an athletes' need for a medical exemption to receive their full salary amid a pandemic is almost asinine.
Sports leagues and teams are facing an unprecedented scenario; seemingly each day there are more questions than answers. However, one question that should have a clear answer is whether to pay the players if they opt out of a season amid a pandemic.
The players are the ones who ultimately make the money for the organization, regardless of how team or league executives might feel. Not having Elena Delle Donne playing this season is certainly a loss for the WNBA and the Mystics, but if they want to have her in the future, it makes sense to respect her concerns for her health and allow her to opt out with full pay without qualifications. It's a question that a league shouldn't have to ask itself about any player or employee -- including a reigning MVP like Delle Donne.
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