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Elena Delle Donne, MVP With Lyme Disease, Says WNBA Asked Her to 'Risk Her Life or Forfeit Her Paycheck'

Illustration for article titled Elena Delle Donne, MVP With Lyme Disease, Says WNBA Asked Her to Risk Her Life or Forfeit Her Paycheck
Image: Ethan Miller (Getty Images)

On July 25th, the WNBA will begin its 2020 season in Florida in what has been dubbed as the “wubble,” a bubble of dormitory-style housing and workout facilities that will theoretically enable them to conduct their season without spreading covid-19. Videos from players currently inside the wubble show the living conditions are subpar and downright disgusting in some areas. Rat traps litter the floor and a particularly dirty laundry room appeared to be fostering mold. And, while the wubble is meant to protect players and staff during the season, Elena Delle Donne, a player with the Washington Mystics says she is still facing a choice between her health and her job.

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Delle Donne suffers from Lyme disease and is immunocompromised, as she explains in an open letter on The Players’ Tribune. (“I take 64 pills a day,” her letter begins.) When the WNBA announced it would be moving forward with a full season, Delle Donne’s doctor reportedly recommended that she excuse herself, calling it a matter of life and death. Delle Donne followed WNBA protocol and submitted a request to sit out the season under a health exemption, which would have allowed her to remain a member of the Mystics but be moved to the inactive list. Her request was denied.

She writes:

The doctor who treats my Lyme disease wrote up a full report, detailing my medical history and confirming my high-risk status. The Mystics team doctor (who is awesome, but who’s never treated my Lyme disease) wrote a report essentially deferring to my Lyme disease doctor, and agreeing about my high risk profile. I filed both reports to the league, as required, along with a signed form waiving my right to an appeal.

A few days later, the league’s panel of doctors — without ever once speaking to me or to either of my doctors — informed me that they were denying my request for a health exemption.

I’m now left with two choices: I can either risk my life….. or forfeit my paycheck.

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If Delle Donne opts out of the 2020 season the WNBA will not be obligated to pay her salary for the year. “I don’t have NBA player money,” she writes in her letter. “I don’t have the desire to go to war with the league on this. And I can’t appeal. What I hear in their decision is that I’m a fool for believing my doctor. That I’m faking a disability. That I’m trying to ‘get out’ of work and still collect a paycheck.” Delle Donne, the current league MVP, points to the numerous times she’s sacrificed her health for the sake of the sport, referencing the fact that she played in last year’s finals with “three herniated disks” in her back.

But, as Delle Donne writes in her letter, she is one of many people who have been forced to choose between a paycheck and maintaining their health during the coronavirus epidemic, which has highlighted the Grand Canyon-sized gaps in protection for people’s jobs. But this particular case also highlights the ongoing need for more financial investment in women’s sports and particularly the WNBA.

Similar to the WNBA, the National Women’s Soccer League has been operating within a wubble of its own in Utah and conducting a tournament in lieu of a full season. But unlike the WNBA, soccer players were given the choice to opt out of the season entirely and still receive their salaries for the year. One team, the Orlando Pride, removed themselves from the tournament entirely after tests revealed that some people within the organization had tested positive for covid-19. It’s unclear why the WNBA was unable to assume a similar model.

The WNBA, which is sponsored by AT&T and Nike, hasn’t given a reason why their players are being forced to play or forgo their salary. But until the health of women in sports is considered the important investment that every worker’s safety should be, everyone will just have to deal with their own hellish wubbles.

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This headline has been slightly changed to include Elena Delle Donne’s name.

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For those of you who might call her out as a snowflake, I invite you to do some more research. Start with an episode of HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumblebee on her history before she was an NBA star.

I’ll wait.