WNBA misses mark with lack of answers on Breanna Stewart's ambassador role

A WNBA ambassador role is a smart concept. The league announcing it without communicating the move properly only sparked confusion and controversy. Joshua Huston/NBAE/Getty Images

The WNBA's decision last week to pay injured Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart as a league "ambassador" this season might seem at first glance an innocuous public relations move. But other WNBA players, general managers, coaches and agents have had many questions about it -- including how and when the agreement came about, what it entails, and what it means for the future.

"This was certainly a surprise to me, this organization and our peers," Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen said, echoing what several others in the league told ESPN.com. "While it has the foundation to be a good program, it shouldn't be unveiled without input from the teams and/or the Board of Governors."

And that's the problem. Too few details have been shared by the WNBA, in part because the exact nature of Stewart's work for the league still hasn't been determined. In fact, the league has yet to make a formal announcement about Stewart being an ambassador.

Is this really the start of a program that the WNBA will use to compensate players, specifically when they are hurt? Or is it unique to Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP who was injured April 14 while competing for her Russian team, Dynamo Kursk, in the EuroLeague final four championship game?

"The conversations that we've been having with the players' association is that in the future, there will be many more of these," said Mark Tatum, who remains as interim WNBA president until newly hired commissioner Cathy Engelbert takes over in July. "That this will not be a one-off situation, and that our players will be our partners in helping to promote and market the league. This is one in what I anticipate to be several arrangements like this that will take place in the future."

But the league didn't say any of this last week when the news was reported.

"The WNBA should have made an announcement when they decided to go forward with this," said Ticha Penicheiro, a longtime WNBA veteran who is now a player agent. "And they didn't, so there was more room for speculation. People are going to poke at it because it seems like it's a little unfair to other teams and players. Until the league gives more explanation, we all are just guessing. We're happy for Stewie, but if they'd made an announcement right way, it probably would have prevented a lot of questions."

The league said it made agreements in the past with some players like Tamika Catchings and Swin Cash to do promotional work in and out of season for a lump sum. But this is believed to be the first time an injured player will get a contract to work for the league during the season and receive a salary that's in excess of her projected base salary had she played ($65,000 as Stewart is on the last season of her rookie deal).

"We have talked more about engaging our players in the marketing and promotion of the league," Tatum said. "We said we've got the reigning MVP who is going to be in the United States rehabilitating and who's going to be available to do certain things.

"Breanna has a desire to do more on the grass-roots basketball level, so we're going to focus there. We're still refining the things that we're going to do together, then we'll get [the contract] signed and at that point we could officially start talking about the kinds of things we'll be doing."

"The conversations that we've been having with the players' association is that in the future, there will be many more of these [ambassador roles]. That this will not be a one-off situation." Mark Tatum, interim WNBA president

As for why Stewart is now going to be making a bigger base salary while not playing than she would have if she played, Tatum said, "This is the going price to have a league marketing agreement with the reigning MVP of the WNBA."

But what is that based on, especially since her role hasn't been fully defined?

"It was in conversation with her agent," Tatum said. "The roles and responsibilities are very different here with what we're asking her to do, being a representative and an engaged partner in promoting the league and being dedicated to that in a time when she's not playing. That's what we're paying her for."

Tatum said this deal with Stewart was allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement, which now expires after this season. Last fall, the players opted out of the agreement that initially ran through 2021. The Women's National Basketball Players Association, under the direction of Terri Jackson, is in the midst of collective bargaining for 2020 and beyond.

But the union was not involved in the negotiation of this deal with Stewart. In fact, the union wasn't informed about it until last Thursday night, shortly before the league released the news. The union didn't have time to alert the players' executive council before the news came out on Twitter, and the league had not informed the other 11 teams.

"I didn't know it was happening," said players' executive council president Nneka Ogwumike, the Los Angeles Sparks forward who is represented by the same agent as Stewart, Lindsay Kagawa Colas. "I see the opportunity, and I'm hoping it's something that will be made available to other players.

"But I was just as surprised as anyone. We'll have to see what happens as far as the lasting effects of it. I'm hoping it can be something incorporated into the support and investment that we're looking for."

"I see the opportunity, and I'm hoping it's something that will be made available to other players. But I was just as surprised as anyone." Nneka Ogwumike, Sparks forward and executive council president of the players' union

The timing was another concern for WNBA franchises. Each team had to cut its roster down to 12 players by 5 p.m. ET last Thursday. Other teams questioned whether the Storm were aware of Stewart's impending deal with the league, so it made it easier for them to suspend her with no salary. That could have been seen as the league specifically helping the Storm with their salary cap.

But both Tatum and Colas say that nothing had even been discussed about Stewart working for the league until after she already had been suspended by Seattle.

"The league has sworn Seattle knew nothing about it," Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said. "Because we, like the other teams, called up and tried to figure that out. No one told us in advance, so when it came out, it was like, 'What the heck is this?'

"With great players like Stewie in this situation, the question is do you pay her even though she's out, or do you suspend her with no money? If they knew it was coming, it made their decision easier to suspend her, because she'll get paid by the league and they could use that money on someone else. We all asked the same question. Because it's kind of unusual to make the decision to suspend your franchise player. Normally you pay them."

Colas said the Storm were willing to pay Stewart for the season, even though they weren't mandated to since her injury occurred while working for another employer. Colas said it was Stewart's decision to tell the Storm they should suspend her without pay and use the money on another player to help the franchise.

"Do the details need to get ironed out? Yes. ... It feels like this just got thrown in our faces. But simultaneously, I'm just trying to see the positive and how can we work with this and make it a good thing." Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird

Storm general manager Alisha Valvanis did not address the topic of Stewart's ambassadorship when asked by ESPN.com. Stewart hasn't addressed it except to ESPN's Holly Rowe in an interview during the Seattle-Phoenix game on ABC on Saturday. Stewart said then that the details of the ambassador role were still being worked out.

Storm veteran guard Sue Bird, who is out indefinitely awaiting knee surgery, spoke about it Saturday to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton.

"Do the details need to get ironed out? Yes. Do we as players need to understand what this means moving forward, how many players is this going to get offered to, how long is the length of the contract, if you will? Yes, there's like a billion details. It feels like this just got thrown in our faces," Bird said. "But simultaneously, I'm just trying to see the positive and how can we work with this and make it a good thing."

Collen has a star player in Angel McCoughtry, whose status for 2019 is uncertain as she's still rehabbing an ACL injury. McCoughtry was injured during a WNBA game last season, so the Dream couldn't suspend her without pay. They might have paid her anyway, though, as a good-faith gesture, as other teams have done with injured players.

But Collen makes a point that if there's to be an ambassador "program," all teams could benefit.

"There are many deserving athletes not playing this season due to injury, all of whom could be ambassadors in markets and across the league," she said. "Ambassadors are influencers, and there are 144 in this league, all deserving of an opportunity to be paid at or above their current salary if an injury befalls them."

Others feel that for maximum impact, an "ambassadorship" needs to be reserved for the league's very best players. And that discussion -- will the league make greater progress by doing more for its stars -- is part of the ongoing CBA negotiations.

But the bottom line is the agreement with Stewart needed to be presented to the rest of the players and teams in a way that gave them all the answers up front, instead of leaving them with so many questions.