The WNBA may not have to delay its season. Yet, the league is dealing with a potentially more complicated challenge.
President Donald Trump banned foreign nationals from traveling from most European countries to the United States, which became effective Friday at midnight ET. That has left the WNBA wrestling with how to ensure its players who compete overseas during the offseason can return.
“So many unknowns right now,” Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, told USA TODAY Sports. “Understanding that travel ban and understanding what came out of the White House is tough to grapple with.”
Like the NBA, which commissioner Adam Silver shut down after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the WNBA and WNBPA sent memos to teams to help them prepare for the coronavirus crisis.
It is not clear the number of WNBA players that spent the offseason playing for professional teams overseas, all of which shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.The Euroleague and EuroCup suspended play Friday. The majority do, partly because those leagues offer more lucrative contracts.
Some played in countries affected by the coronavirus (China, South Korea, Italy, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Russia). Some also played in countries affected by Trump’s travel ban (Spain, France, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Hungary, Czech Republic, Greece).
The WNBA, its players union and its 12 teams declined to discuss with USA TODAY Sports individual players’ travel arrangements.
It is also unclear how many players overseas are American citizens, who are exempt from the travel ban, or foreign nationals, who have to wait 30 days before traveling. But a number of high-profile stars have played this year, including Chicago’s Gabby Williams (France), Phoenix’s Brittney Griner (Russia), Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry (Russia) and Seattle’s Jewell Loyd (Spain) and Breanna Stewart (Russia).
That has left the WNBA and its players union busy. The league had ongoing talks with its players about the coronavirus before and after the NBA suspended itsseason Wednesday. The WNBA and its players union have spent plenty of time consulting with players about travel itineraries after Trump announced the ban.
Since then, Jackson said she has spoken with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert frequently on the phone and via text.
“We have been in close communication and will continue to connect with and offer resources to players in the U.S. and those playing overseas,” Engelbert said in a statement.
Though it remains unclear if the NBA will resume operations, the WNBA is operating as if its season will be unaffected. That includes the WNBA Draft (April 17), the beginning of training camp (April 26) and the season opener (May 15).
Jackson said none of the players have tested positive for the coronavirus, but not all players have been tested.
“That’s not where we are," Jackson said. "But in another few days or weeks, we’re all going to be wondering about getting a test. So particularly when the season starts, it might be an issue we have to talk about and discuss.”
Jackson held a conference call Friday to answer players’ questions on the upcoming season and how players should follow self-quarantine guidelines. The discussion also centered on the logistical issues with players trying to travel back from overseas, which Jackson described as a “multi-layered process.” The variables involve length of contracts, living arrangements and varying connecting flights.
Jackson and Englebert have been working with staff members to help the players with travel logistics since December. This is usually what the WNBA handles in most offseasons and there has been uncertainty before, such as the volatile situations in the Middle East.
However, those conversations became more involved when the coronavirus affected parts of China. Jackson said several players returned before the Chinese New Year (Feb. 12), which coincides with most of the country’s professional leagues either ending or taking a break. Those players included Chicago’s Stefanie Dolson and Cheyenne Parker, who then played for a professional team in France.
Others weren’t as fortunate. The Sparks’ Sydney Wiese left Spain and Chicago’s Kahleah Copper left Poland before the travel ban went into effect. But that required both players to opt out of their contracts early, which may mean they lost wages. The WNBA would not comment on individual cases because each player's contract varies from team to team.
The Sparks’ Maria Vadeeva and Chicago’s Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot remain in Russia while the Sky’s Williams is in France. Though they have to wait for the travel ban to be lifted, they likely would have had the same travel arrangement so they could finish the season, which usually concludes at the end of March.
It is typical for WNBA teams to allow players to arrive after training camp starts so they can play overseas.
“I’m getting the sense that players and agents are handling those conversations with the team,” Jackson said of terminated contracts. “But I don’t sense there is a high rate of concern.”
There is a high rate of concern, however, on how the fluid nature of the coronavirus and the travel ban could affect the league’s future.
“We were able to get the word out to players right away,” Jackson said. “I’m very appreciative of the league recognizing the very unique needs of WNBA players in this offseason and recognizing that they have a responsibility to these individuals. We don’t have to be in-season to work on their behalf.”
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