Last week, Notre Dame junior Jewell Loyd announced she was declaring early for the 2015 WNBA draft.
On Thursday night, the dynamic guard could go to the Seattle Storm with the No. 1 overall pick.
Usually a college star turning pro is a celebrated move, the announcement accompanied by congratulatory messages, with statements of excitement and support from coaches and teammates. In fact, the same week as Loyd's announcement, the Kentucky men's basketball program held a news conference during which seven of their players officially declared for the 2015 NBA draft and head coach John Calipari smiled and clapped like a proud papa.
But that's not exactly how things went for Loyd, as not everyone within women's basketball seemed supportive of her decision. Former Notre Dame star Skylar Diggins, who played with Loyd for one season, tweeted on the day Loyd declared for the draft: "The four years I spent as a student-athlete at Notre Dame were the best years of my life."
The missive seemed to be a thinly veiled shot at Loyd, and many of the responses referred to Loyd, with some folks even expressing "concern" for her because of the decision. (San Antonio Stars guard Kayla McBride, also a former teammate of Loyd's, retweeted Diggins' message.)
Then on Tuesday night at the Notre Dame team banquet -- Loyd did not attend -- head coach Muffet McGraw offered this statement to the local media: "I don't know of anyone that thought it was a good idea. Yet she wanted to go on with it."
McGraw also said, "I think it's a really bad decision for women, especially to try to leave early. They're not making the money that the men make. They're going to make less than $50,000 in the league. To get your degree, especially from a school like Notre Dame, it's just mind-boggling that anybody would choose to leave early."
Is it mind-boggling, though?
It doesn't seem that mind-boggling, really. And it doesn't seem that Loyd has made a "really bad" decision, either -- just one that female basketball players rarely make. Candace Parker and Kelsey Bone previously walked away from a year of NCAA eligibility, but both already had their degrees; Minnesota sophomore Amanda Zahui B. also declared early this year, but the center is from Sweden and facing different factors than Loyd.
This may seem counterintuitive, but Loyd's decision could actually be good for the women's game -- it could be another mile marker in the evolution of the professional product.
Right now, the women's game is too often predictable. (And not just when filling out your NCAA tourney bracket, when most write "UConn" six times.) Almost without exception, female players stay in college all four years. And once players land on WNBA teams, there is very little movement -- via trades or free agency.
Player movement, or the speculation of, is actually the lifeblood of most professional sports. Part of what fuels media coverage and fan excitement about professional leagues is the wheeling and dealing, the belief that your team is simply one phone call away from landing the league's best player.
The combination of these three things -- early declarations, trades, free agency -- keeps sports fans perpetually interested in their sport, even during the offseason.
Of course, many deep-rooted reasons exist for why society values men's sports more than women's and why media coverage of women's sports is so minimal. So there is no quick fix. But one thing is certain: Dismissing Loyd's decision without careful consideration about what it might represent is myopic. (Also, Loyd will get her Notre Dame degree, so let's not hide behind faux concern over her "long-term" future.)
Over the next generation, more players likely will make the same decision as Loyd, especially given that the NCAA now allows teams to practice during the summer, which means kids are stockpiling summer credits while practicing year-round. Graduating in three years is easier than it has ever been.
Also, the truth is, women's college basketball players face the same concerns as their male counterparts -- that college programs develop players to excel in systems, not necessarily to develop their game for the pro level.
And female players must overcome an additional hurdle: that women's basketball has no offseason, so there's no chance for players to revamp their game during the summer.
In case anyone forgot, women play year-round. McGraw failed to acknowledge this when predicting Loyd's rookie salary. Sure, Loyd will probably make around $47,000 as a rookie in the WNBA. But when that season ends, she'll travel overseas for the winter, where she'll probably make upwards of $200,000 for the season. All told, when you also account for endorsements, Loyd will likely make somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 next year.
That number makes her decision look a little different now, doesn't it?
So let's look at that decision through a new lens: Loyd could make around $300,000 developing her pro skills a year early, challenging herself on the next level, or she could play for free for Notre Dame, while McGraw collects a yearly salary around $1.1 million, including bonuses.
And, not that this factored into Loyd's decision, but Notre Dame lost back-to-back NCAA titles games to UConn and star Breanna Stewart, who will be back next year to pursue her fourth consecutive championship. Realistically, what more could Loyd achieve in South Bend? The 2015-16 women's college basketball season was shaping up to look awfully similar to the previous two.
The world of women's basketball can occasionally be provincial. And change can be hard -- for everybody.
But if women's hoops really wants to be a part of the mainstream conversation, then the decision Loyd made isn't a "really bad" one.
It's simply the next step in the evolution of the game.