Thursday, June 20
Updated: June 21, 9:03 PM ET
WNBA plays hardball with players union

By Ray Ratto
Special to

As the WNBA continues to strive for America's recognition and acknowledgment, it's good to see that the league is following the lead of one of the nation's most prominent sports.


And not just baseball, but baseball's proud legacy of labor-management cooperation in pursuit of the greater good.

Bud Selig as collective bargaining role model ... who'da thunk it?

Actually, that isn't fair to Selig. In fact, ham-handed though he might be in this area, he is Franklin Roosevelt in comparison to the WNBA's deepest thinkers.

That is, if you believe the WNBA is an entity separate from its elderly uncle, the NBA, and that commissioner Val Ackerman does not take her business lead from David Stern.

And now, back to "Florida Real Estate Today."

Seems that the head of the WNBA players association, Pam Wheeler, was barred the other night from holding a meeting with New York Liberty players at Madison Square Garden by Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski. And further, that Wheeler was asked to return her season credential.

The WNBA players, you see, are considering a strike to improve their lot, and the WNBA is viewing this in exactly the way the baseball owners did 40 years ago ... like steamfitters playing a harp.

That the WNBA would want to play it this way is amazing, given that baseball's gentle view of its work force has led to 10 work stoppages. But that assumes that what you see is what you are getting.

Your assumption is probably wrong.

In fact, NBA players association head Billy Hunter is closely connected to the WNBAPA, and the NBA still remembers Hunter's quixotic but painful strike in 1998. Not fondly, mind you, because while the players were routed by their own internal rifts, but it did cost the league and its owners money, and you know how they hate that.

Thus, it takes only a bit more than an active working nose to smell something bigger than the silly intransigence of the New York Liberty here. That suspicious waft in the air became even more noticable after WNBPA president Sonja Henning was traded from the Seattle Storm to the Houston Comets, at a time when labor issues are at the forefront of the league.

I mean, parents don't get to use the "Because I told you to, that's why" tactic with their kids any more, because the kids can see through it and respond with the perfectly reasonable, "And that impacts me how, precisely?"

Either that, or they rat out their parents in therapy. It's not a pretty result in either event.

It surely isn't a smart way for a fledgling league to operate in a sports world that has been grudgingly slow with its acceptance. The NBA started this to have a summer consumer product and address the growing women's basketball market. And, oh yeah, because the overhead is low.

Now they'd want to keep costs down because, well, money talks and graciousness walks. But to actually stand in the way of the players meeting their union leaders on the job site is at the very least short-sighted, and might even be illegal if the NLRB agrees with the players association's unfair labor charge.

This isn't to say that the WNBA should cave in to the players' contract demands. One, we don't exactly know what they are yet, and B, that's what negotiations are for.

Which is why, if you're management, you can justify this petty nonsense only if your goal is to break the union, and only if you are fairly sure you can reach that goal. Otherwise you've needlessly antagonized the very product you're trying to sell, your players.

Then again, these are different times. Baseball's owners are ready for a duke-out with a union far stronger than the one Billy Hunter heads, and infinitely stronger than Pam Wheeler's. The hockey owners already are gearing up for their next go-round with Bob Goodnough and the NHLPA. Only football, where the players long ago caved in to NFL owners, enjoys relative stability.

And the colleges? Still successfully fighting off the 13th Amendment, as near as we can tell.

So it goes. Presumably, the Liberty players found a place to hold their meeting, and will forever hold it against Blazejowski for having to go off campus to do it. Presumably, this will escalate into something unpleasant and hurtful for the league, and to the extent that it resonates down to the next generation of women's basketball fans and practitioners, it will hurt the league there, too.

But hey, it's what those really smart guys in baseball did so long ago, and those who remember history are often as fated to repeat it as those who don't.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to

 More from ESPN...
WNBA players accuse Liberty, league of labor abuses
Union officials claim ...

Voepel: Talk of strike should end now
To put it bluntly, there is ...

Ray Ratto Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story