Breanna Stewart crumpled to the court with a ruptured Achilles tendon Sunday in the city of Sopron, Hungary, near the Austrian border, just south of Vienna and nearly halfway around the globe from her WNBA home of Seattle.
Another day, another dollar, this is how many elite women’s basketball players go about their professional lives, chasing supplemental cash from here to Timbuktu. It is a grueling and necessary process, and it is a problem because it is both.
We tend to forget, or fail to always appreciate, what it is for a women’s player to squeeze the most of her substantial talent — and then one of the sport’s brightest young stars is carried off a court in Europe, an ugly scene that underscores the fight for WNBA players whose average salary is around $75,000.
They are underpaid and overworked, issues that must be addressed in the next collective bargaining agreement, issues that come under the microscope with what happened to Stewart.
Her injury could be coincidental, just a basketball happenstance. Such injuries happen occasionally to the most well-prepared and well-rested men and women and, really, one could argue there’s no difference between this occurring with a foreign team after a 34-game WNBA season or in, say, game 75 of an NBA season.
And you know what? Even if WNBA salaries were tripled tomorrow, I’d guess many players would still opt to spend the seven or so months they have free to make additional money playing in Europe.
Still, the Stewart injury does represent the perils potentially awaiting players in offseasons of no rest, and the bottom line is the WNBA has lost one of its best players, perhaps for a long time, to injury that didn’t even occur under its watch. Imagine the Bulls losing Michael Jordan for a year to an injury he sustained during the offseason in, say, Greece.
Most contracts that pay NBA players more than 100 times a year what a WNBA player makes wouldn’t even allow such reckless offseason activity. WNBA contracts practically push for it.
The Stewart injury is a point of emphasis, and entry, for the argument over low salaries and unrealistic workloads. Don’t buy the argument that WNBA players are run into the ground by the need to earn money elsewhere during the offseason? Look what happened to Stewie. The players’ side of the table has something substantial to cite.
The WNBA is the best league in the world, by far. It is far from the most lucrative, though, with salaries topping out at just over $115,000, which is why even the best players start globetrotting at the conclusion of each season, looking for more six-figure paydays and leaving themselves virtually no time for recovery. Some rookies make just over $40,000.
WNBA players race through three-and-half-month seasons, all the while having agents line up their next move. It is a messy situation. It is a basketball around-the-clock and around-the-world life, and on Sunday Stewart was in uniform for her Russia-based team, Dynamo Kursk, in the EuroLeague championship. She crossed paths with UMMC Ekaterinburg’s Brittney Griner, another top WNBA player, and landed awkwardly after some contact with Griner during a jump shot.
Stewart, a four-time national champion at UConn, is becoming the face of the sport. She was the WNBA MVP last season and, just 24, she is expected to set the bar for the league for years to come. She is a transcendent player, a generational talent, and her injury is devastating to her short-term future, the Seattle Storm and an entire sport.
Look, Stewart is not struggling. She drives a Maserati and has unique earning potential that she has capitalized on. She’s probably already a millionaire, as she should be, yet there are scores of WNBA players below her in stature who truly travel a similar offseason path with a need to make ends meet.
The players have exercised a right to opt out of the current CBA after the upcoming season, looking for more money and more accommodating travel and playing schedules over the course of a truncated season of three-plus months.
Diana Taurasi, one of the richest players in history, estimates that just 10 percent of her career earnings are from WNBA salaries, the rest coming from lucrative overseas contracts and endorsement deals. Of working conditions experienced in a season of three-plus months, she said, “It’s terrible. It’s horrible.”
Taurasi cited travel, mostly, noting that the product suffers when the individual players struggle — and they’re struggling, some. Many top players even prioritize their overseas work, and why wouldn’t they? Taurasi (2012) and Maya Moore (this year) are among players who have opted to skip WNBA seasons altogether, in order to rest or pursue other interests.
No one is getting rich off the WNBA alone. NBA counterparts make millions to their thousands, and that’s just the way it is, that’s the way it is going to be, because the WNBA is not a sliver of the product that is the NBA, a global cash machine.
Still, WNBA players want a more substantial share of revenue, which they deserve. The league needs this, too. It needs happier, healthier players who make the WNBA what it is and see playing overseas in the eight-month offseason as an option instead of a necessity. There has been a lot of talk and a lot of inaction over the years, dealing with problems like salaries and even complicated summer scheduling built around world championship and Olympic competition, and everything will soon come to a head.
One of the best players in the game just sustained a devastating injury while playing for a Russian team in Hungary.
The next CBA needs to be negotiated and the next deal needs to make an emphatic statement that the WNBA is the best league with the best product and the best people, in every way. That can be accomplished by taking better care of players.