All Work and No Play

Jim Skuldt

On April 29, two weeks before training camp was scheduled to begin for the WNBA's third season of women's professional basketball, the league and the players' union signed their first collective bargaining agreement. The next day, the league office rejected City Pages' request to interview WNBA president Val Ackerman about the agreement. "That issue is over with," media relations director Mark Pray declared: "It's old news." A week before, as the two sides' struggle over minimum salaries and benefits extended into its third month, Star Tribune columnist Dan Barreiro had ranted about the union "sabotaging the very thing it is fighting for--a chance to survive and prosper." While the negotiations delayed the WNBA's college draft by a week and threatened to hold up the season, the eventual agreement allowed training camp to start as planned on May 14. Still, before playtime hype sweeps the sometimes fractious discussion out of sight, it's worth asking why labor concerns seem to make sports people so nervous.

Especially labor concerns in the WNBA. Judging from in-house publications and press releases from Minnesota's new expansion team, the Lynx (which launches its debut season June 12), the league has been selling the women's game as a return to an idealized sports past, where athletes played for the love of the game and owners were benevolent patriarchs. WNBA players, we hear, are thrilled just to be able to participate in an American pro basketball league; the underlying promise is that they won't be demanding lottery jackpots as their yearly due. Both of those descriptions are valid, of course. WNBA players seem psyched to be playing, and they don't get paid much. But to claim that the women's game is more innocent than the men's, or that women are playing solely out of passion, is to stretch the truth--and to pretend that questions of fair pay and treatment don't matter.

"When I think of 'innocent,' I think of a connotation like 'unknowing' or 'naive' or 'not serious' even," says former Stanford forward Kristin Folkl, allocated to the Lynx by the league a year ago. "None of those words should apply. People are maybe looking at our game and calling it innocent because it relies on fundamentals: There's a lot more screens than in the NBA, and the defense is a little more intense. You think of that as youthful--like when you're teaching a child how to play. But it's not innocent, because people are playing hard. And not every player is like,"--Folkl pulls on a ditzy accent--"'Oh, I just play for the love of the game.' It's a job, bottom line. I mean, we're all adults."

The WNBA's first two seasons have been more successful than the organizers dreamed: Average leaguewide attendance in 1997 was 9,800, more than double preseason projections; 1998 saw a 12 percent increase in that average. TV exposure has familiarized Americans with names like Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper, and Sheryl Swoopes. Lost in the hype was the fact that players lacked year-round health coverage, a retirement package, and any kind of control over where they play. Until the 1999 agreement, the minimum WNBA salary was $15,000. You'd have to look back more than 30 years to find an equivalent situation in men's sports. Accounting for inflation, we're really talking about the late 1940s, when baseball owners grudgingly granted players a pension plan and a $5,000 minimum annual salary. (The current minimum for major-league baseball players is $170,000; for NBA players, it's $225,000.)

But Pam Wheeler, executive director of the WNBA Players Association, won't compare the current labor situation in women's basketball to any era in men's sports. "I don't think any professional league and professional union have ever sat across the table from each other and talked about maternity benefits before," she quips. Wheeler argues that this spring's negotiations were about the players obtaining "some of the basic employment needs that average people seek. I don't think most American people would consider $15,000 a fair wage. It's not as if the women were demanding salaries beyond the means of the WNBA--salaries which would perhaps collapse the WNBA." The union initially asked for a $45,000 minimum; it eventually settled for $25,000 for rookies and $30,000 for veterans, with incremental increases built in during the four-year period of the agreement.

"People have to understand where we're coming from," stresses forward Brandy Reed, the Lynx's top expansion draft pick from the Phoenix Mercury. "We're not asking for much." Indeed, when you think of what the players' union could be demanding, what they agreed to in April seems entirely reasonable, if not a bit slim. They've gained that year-round health insurance ("It seems like it would be in the league's best interest to make sure that you're in shape and healthy," offers Folkl), a 401K and pension plan, and maternity leave. Midway through the WNBA's 32-game summer season, all player contracts become guaranteed, providing a measure of security. "We felt we had to make that push to just establish ourselves as professionals," says Reed.  

The union's attempt to limit the number of players entering the league from the American Basketball League--the other, less well-known pro women's organization that went belly-up in December--was a trickier pursuit. Seeking to protect its members' jobs, the WNBA union first asked that only 24 of the 90 eligible ABL players be allowed to join the league in '99; they finally agreed to 40, with no limitation in 2000. But, says former ABL All-Star and new Lynx guard Tonya Edwards, "I don't have any harsh feelings toward [the union]. It's natural to want to protect yourself. If I were in the position they were in, I'd probably do the same thing." You can bet any pro men's league would have acted similarly.

Again, though, women players aren't supposed to display as much self-interest as male athletes regularly do. According to Barreiro at least, both the league and the players should have taken a lesson from this year's acrimonious NBA strike and sacrificed for the common good. "There should be an earnest effort to give the WNBA, a noble idea, its best chance to succeed," he wrote. "Instead, players and management bicker in a fashion familiar to NBA fans."

But where does sacrifice stop and exploitation begin? Few fans realize that WNBA teams are collectively owned by the NBA; that a player signs with the league, not an individual team; and that her salary is set by the league, not negotiated within a competitive marketplace of free agency. Players cannot be offered more money in a trade, though the league may switch players between teams.

Those guidelines may sound fabulous to Timberwolves fans still smarting from the Stephon Marbury move and Twins fans disgusted by the increasing dominance of big-market/big-money baseball teams: For now, you won't see a WNBA team buying a winning season. The stable core of players who earned Lynx coach Brian Agler two ABL championships in Columbus, Ohio (Edwards and four more former Columbus players entered training camp on Friday), has become a rare sight in men's professional sports.

On the other hand, is loyalty still meaningful when it is not chosen? Would any computer programmer put up with a salary and career regulated by one monolithic company--the only other employment option requiring a move to Italy? (For years, European professional leagues have offered pro basketball opportunities for American women, including Reed and Edwards.) "You're only innocent if you're completely controlled," Wheeler observes bluntly. "Ideally, we want to be in a free-market situation. That includes free agency."

No doubt the WNBA, its players, fans, and critics all hope women's professional basketball will construct an alternative to the often cynical and self-aggrandizing NBA. But doesn't each party deserve a chance to offer its own blueprint? It would probably help the process if the labor-owner relationship were openly discussed more often than once every four years in a negotiating room. And if sports fans could wean themselves from the fantasy of the selfless player. And if everyone could stop expecting a fledgling women's pro sports league to immediately resolve the business-versus-passion conflict that has engulfed the men's leagues for more than a century. (Note to anti-union devotees of the good old days: The first professional baseball league, born in 1871, was owned and run by players--who stipulated that they could sell their labor to the highest-bidding team.)

Coming from the ABL--where players enjoyed full health benefits, decent salaries, and ten-percent ownership of the league--Edwards is glad the WNBA union stepped up: "I look at it as women moving on and getting some equality--because before that, there wasn't any type of equality." Adds Wheeler: "Given the fact that we were negotiating the initial collective-bargaining agreement on which all future agreements will be based, I don't think two months or however long we negotiated is a very long time." What about the argument that the talks jeopardized the new teams' relationships with their communities? Wheeler snorts, slightly. "I don't think that asking for a decent economic compensation package destroys that. If anything, it helps. Because if the women are not compensated, they will continue to have to play overseas or take second jobs to supplement their income. And the game might suffer." Not to mention the players' loyalty to the WNBA.

"I'd like to have slightly more control, sure," summarizes Folkl, a gregarious six-foot-two-incher who has spent her year as the lone Lynx recovering from a torn ligament in her left knee. "I'd like to be paid more. But right now that's kind of secondary to just having the league around." She pauses, considering. "I guess it could get into a vicious cycle, though. If you create something with a flawed foundation, even if it does succeed, it's going to be very hard to change that. But at the same time, sometimes you need that flaw to succeed." Folkl starts laughing. "It's difficult." Yes, it is. Maybe it has to be.  


The Lynx' first game is June 12 at the Target Center against the Detroit Shock. An exhibition game against the other '99 expansion team, the Orlando Miracle, will be played June 4 at the Mankato Civic Center.

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