|Friday, June 14
Updated: June 21, 9:01 PM ET
Strike? Someone, stop the madness
By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com
Generally, I dislike media rants. They tend to be mean-spirited exercises in self-aggrandizement masquerading as knowledge. The sports-media world has become polluted with them.
That said, sometimes a rant is necessary, and here comes one: There is nothing more idiotic than the idea of a WNBA strike.
OK, there might be one or two things as idiotic, although none come to mind at the moment.
A strike is not just a bad idea. A strike is an intolerable, moronic idea. I say this as someone who has covered women's hoops for almost two decades now, who cherishes the sport. This message isn't coming from one of the enemies.
Players have no business saying the word "strike." It's ridiculous to even think about it in regard to the end of the collective bargaining agreement that will expire in September. And yet Sonja Henning, president of the WNBA players association, actually said of a recent talk with about 100 players, "We discussed the idea of getting comfortable with a strike."
Then I hope they also discussed the idea of getting comfortable with going back to playing professionally only overseas. WNBA players, you have NO leverage, OK? You're being subsidized by a big business that thinks one day you'll pay off pretty decently as an investment. But you're not popular enough, you haven't been around long enough to even think about strong-arm negotiating with the NBA.
If you don't believe that, take a hard look at who "won" the war when the NBA players went on strike against the league. Or try remembering anything you might have learned in school about labor relations and bargaining power.
"Of course, we love the game," said Henning, who is a lawyer, "but understand it's a business."
Really? They really understand that? Then how can they think a player strike is in any way an option for a league only in its sixth season? Surely, they've heard of what a strike did to baseball in 1994 and what it might do to the sport if it happens again this year. Some fans abandoned baseball or significantly changed their attitude toward it eight years ago. More will do both if the players strike again.
So baseball players are very worried about a strike, even though they know their sport, our national pastime, can survive another one. Shouldn't that tell you something, WNBA players?
Do you know what would happen if David Stern and the NBA decided to terminate you tomorrow? You'd be terminated. End of story. Do you think the national media would go to bat for you? Do you think most people would blink, let alone take up your cause? Are you living in a dream world?
Would some people be upset? Of course. The WNBA does have fans. But could they do anything about it? No. They would have to go back to essentially not seeing the rest of your development as players, nor that of anyone coming after you for the foreseeable future.
And where would you be? Spending more time practicing your French, Italian, Spanish, etc., for whatever foreign league you could hook up with. Or just not playing pro basketball anymore.
Yes, this message is directed toward American players. This is in your laps totally. Foreign players contribute to the WNBA, but I don't expect them to have the same understanding of what the WNBA means, historically, for women's athletics in the United States.
The WNBA has taken the initial steps to becoming a small but legitimate part of our social fabric, giving girls and women another in a select few counterparts to the rich tapestry of professional opportunity and achievement that men have long enjoyed in many sports.
WNBA players, you are still among the pioneers. Nothing's "made" yet. Not even close. You're carrying a baton that's been passed by women who had to work twice as hard as any of you to get a fraction of what you've gotten. If you screw this up, your legacy will be that of a generation too selfish, immature and short-sighted to understand its place in a long, long relay race.
At the same time, from a strictly business end this has nothing to do with gender. I would consider a strike by Major League Soccer players equally as stupid and suicidal. Fans are sick to death of strikes/salary complaints from players in very popular sports. Why would sports with much smaller audiences think they can get away with it?
And this isn't about Title IX, either. That applies only to what goes on in schools. The point of collegiate athletic teams is -- ideally, anyway -- to give participants a chance to grow/learn while representing their schools. It isn't -- again from the idealistic standpoint -- about how much money such teams might make.
But in the pros, that's exactly what it's about. You have a product to sell, and you're dependent on enough people wanting to buy it.
One of the reasons the ABL was doomed from the start was that it was conceptualized and managed more like a crusade than a business. It would have failed whether the WNBA came along or not because its financial plan never made sense. Among other things, ABL player salaries were absurdly high.
In their zeal, many of those involved in the ABL decided to be willfully blind of the reality of the sport's position in the marketplace. And barely into its third season, the ABL sank on the rocks of that reality.
The WNBA is sailing in the same treacherous waters, albeit in a much bigger and better-equipped ship. It's a good league, sellable, able to grow and last long-term. It can continue to etch its place in American sports consciousness. The NBA has every reason to want the WNBA to succeed, if for no other reason than the bottom line: You can't have too many profitable arms of a business.
But the development of all that does take time. A long time.
Pam Wheeler, head of the WNBA union, said of the players, "They've made sacrifices to help the league grow."
I about gagged upon hearing this. Sacrifices? What have they sacrificed? They're playing basketball for a living. If they have another skill that would make them more money, they're free to go pursue that instead. They haven't sacrificed anything. They've made a choice to play basketball -- a choice millions of women before them never had.
If you count training camp, which some players don't even attend because they're still playing overseas, and the playoffs, WNBA players are on the job a little more than four months each season.
The rookie minimum salary is $30,000. The veteran minimum is $40,000. Let me repeat: That's for four months of work. The rest of the year, they can go overseas to make more money/hone their skills or they can stay here, get another job and work out in the off-season. Or, they could stay here and do nothing except work out.
A person easily can live on $30,000 a year, even after taxes, especially considering the WNBA provides housing and transportation and per diem money in season, too. Lots of people live on far less -- and work the whole year to get it.
Of course, that means they probably don't have a new car and a cell phone with 8 million minutes a month and they're not buying new CDs and DVDs every week. But those things aren't necessities, they're luxuries. They're nice to have if you can afford them. They're not entitlements.
I worked for seven years as a journalist before I went over $30,000 a year. I could count using my hands how many weekends I had off in my 20s and have a couple of fingers to spare. And I STILL thought I had it great. I STILL saved money. I didn't have to keep the thermostat on 60 degrees in the winter and eat gruel, either.
But who cares what I did, really. Let's just compare WNBA players to other athletes. I was just reading recently about a St. Louis Cardinals player who, the night before he pitched a 1967 World Series game, slept on the floor of his house so his mother could have his bed. His relatives were visiting to watch the Series, and they didn't have the money for a hotel. Neither did he, making $7,000 a season.
So what, players may say, that was 1967. Yes, but in 1967, professional baseball had already been around for more than 100 years. And most players still were not "rich." In fact, many of them -- even into the 1970s -- had other jobs in the off-season to help with expenses.
Ah, yes, players may say, but look at baseball now, along with some of the other major pro men's sports. The average salary in baseball is $2.4 million, the minimum is $200,000. In the NBA, it's $4.5 million and $332,817. In the NFL, it's $1.5 million and $150,000 and in the NHL it's $1.1 million and $225,000.
What do they have to do with the WNBA? Nothing. Those are all well-established businesses. From the standpoints of longevity, popularity and media coverage, there is simply no comparison between the WNBA and the four major men's sports leagues.
Now, the last thing I want is for this to sound like I'm denigrating the WNBA or its players. Women athletes, like women in general, have to hear too many negative things about themselves. They are constantly compared to men, which is not only silly and unproductive, it can be genuinely harmful to self-esteem.
I'm not out to undermine players' belief in themselves. But you can be self-confident and still be realistic. You have to acknowledge what rung of the economic ladder you're on before deciding which one you can reach for next.
Is it harder for women in every occupation to be treated fairly in regard to pay? Yes, historically that has always been the case. And sometimes the threat of a strike or actually taking part in one is the best option for employees who have legitimate complaints and bargaining power.
The WNBA players, at this point, have neither.
To even bring up comparisons to the four major men's sports leagues, as Wheeler has, is either bluffing for the purpose of negotiation or being totally unaware of history and capitalism. I would assume the former for her. However, for many of the players, I would guess the latter.
It's not because they're dumb. What a lot of them are, though, is young. The league has gotten younger every year. And young people tend to lack perspective and the ability to see the big picture.
Further -- and this is not a knock on athletes but simply an observation from someone who is not one of them but has dealt with them for a long time -- it's distressing how many athletes of both genders and all ages tend to take the framework surrounding and supporting their competitions for granted without giving it much thought.
All of which is why I fear many WNBA players can be herded in a dangerous direction by the union. Either they can't or won't think through the issues themselves or they can do it but are too timid to challenge what might be presented as a consensus.
In the major men's leagues, this "Oh, I'll just do what everyone's doing, it's not my responsibility to figure it all out" mentality is bad enough because it's damaged pro sports. In the WNBA, though, the damage could be fatal.
I'm not anti-union. But I fear the union in this case will do more harm than good, especially if there aren't more realists willing to speak out among the players. Remember, you're supposed to control the union, not the other way around.
Some will say that the WNBA can rig its books for a long time to show the league isn't making money, that it can exploit the players. I don't think that's happening. I respect Val Ackerman, the WNBA president. Is she a corporate mouthpiece? I don't know of anyone in her position in any industry who isn't. Comes with the territory. But that doesn't mean she doesn't have a genuine concern for the well-being of the players.
Still, even if you think the WNBA finances are not what the league claims them to be, it doesn't begin to justify a strike. Have the players been paying any attention to the economy? Do they know how many people have lost jobs in the last two years? Do they think there's any public support for their salary grievances, even among their biggest fans?
Somebody needs to step forward and say, "We are NOT going to strike. Maybe we have some tough negotiating to do, but a strike isn't an option. Because not only will we make fools of ourselves, we could be setting up our own demise."
I hope there is somebody, or a group of somebodies, in the WNBA with that kind of intelligence, pragmatism and courage.
Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.