Swin Cash on the WNBA's fight for respect and recognition

Mike Stocker for ESPN

Every winter, half the WNBA's players, including stars such as Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, flock overseas in search of a paycheck that dwarfs the one they get from the WNBA. That fact only compounds the league's difficulty in marketing itself.

Swin Cash came into the WNBA 15 years ago out of Connecticut, where she had more media attention as a senior than in her rookie year as a professional. Now, with the Liberty for the WNBA's 20th season, the veteran wants to see this league get the attention it deserves.

"There are so many amazing women and stories, and not just the faces of our franchise, that people will connect with," Cash said.

The Husky class was deep that year. Cash was picked second in the 2002 draft, behind teammate Sue Bird. Asjha Jones went fourth overall and forward Tamika Williams was the sixth pick. It looked like they would give the young league momentum, and they did. And yet ...

"Five years in, coming from UConn we were supposed to put that jolt into the league and we took a big responsibility for that," Cash said. "And now you have Brittany (Griner), Elena Delle Donne. We have those same players come in at that same level, and telling those stories is very important."

Cash, who was practicing with her teammates at the MSG Training Center in Greenburgh, New York, on media day recently, now looks at the milestone of 20 years with a mix of curiosity and optimism. The Liberty are one of the original franchises from 1997, still looking for a title though they've been so close. It's a lot like the league, in a way, whose quality of play has never been better, but whose attendance fell to its lowest average in league history at 7,318 per game

Still, any team in New York that's been pulling thousands of people into Madison Square Garden for a couple of decades deserves some big-time recognition.

"So many young girls are playing basketball," Cash said. "We have to be that staple of what they're looking at, and this year with the 20th anniversary, we have to look at how we do that."

Even if that means challenging cultural assumptions, whether they have to do with sexuality or race. Cash has heard the comments that assume all players are a single orientation, or that speculate about the number of women of color having something to do with the league's struggles.

"The same hot-button topics that we're looking at in society, we're dealing with in the WNBA," Cash said.

Her teammates are people, not labels. Any stereotype of what players are supposed to be -- and what that's supposed to mean -- quickly break down when you learn about them as individuals. It's part of why that storytelling is so important, and Cash challenges her fellow players to be evangelists for the league.

"I try to encourage women in the WNBA," Cash said. "We have to take ownership of the conversation and what our league is."

Other things on my mind this week:

I did my time covering rookie minicamps, and the practice portion always seemed overrated. Few plays had been installed, fewer of the rookies knew their teammates, and the resulting action had a slapstick quality to it that seemed only moderately productive.

So kudos to the Miami Dolphins for replacing the first weekend with rookies and undrafted free agents with classroom sessions on Miami football and orientation. This is the team that drafted Laremy Tunsil, so it's useful to reinforce team expectations. Especially when those expectations didn't keep you from drafting him.

Congratulations to "Hamilton" for its record 431 Tony nominations! Of course, I've yet to see the musical, and it's not looking likely, unless I want to sell one of my organs for tickets or quit my job and stand outside the box office. But I'm sure it's wonderful. I mean, I've heard the soundtrack.

But here's the thing: The lead-up to the Tonys is going to be unbearable with all the applauding from the people who have seen the show -- you know, the ones who are always going on about the ah-may-zing first-class service on the Air France route to Paris. And that's great! For them.

So, for the rest of us mortals, here's the link to the daily lottery.

  

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