Sports have been one of the most adversely affected industries as a result of COVID-19. Gone are the days of packed stadiums and thousands of fans cheering on their favorite teams. Although many sports have been able to return to action in the past few months, the atmosphere now looks a lot different than pre-COVID-19 times. The WNBA is one of the leagues that had to completely alter the way their 2020 season was played in order to abide by COVID-19 guidelines and make sure to keep players, coaches, referees and all other personnel safe.
The WNBA’s 2020 season was initially postponed on April 3, but following discussions, a plan was approved, and the league played a 22-game regular season from July 25 until October 7. All players and personnel from the 12 teams were housed and played games within a ‘bubble’ at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
To reflect on this unique season, SUBOG hosted a Q&A session with former UConn Women’s Basketball players and current WNBA Champions Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm. Both players agreed that although the season was unusual, they were excited to have the opportunity to play basketball and, given the current political climate, also play for something bigger than themselves and the sport.
“The non-negotiable … was that we were going to make sure this season was about something bigger, bigger than basketball,” Bird said. “Very quickly it turned to ‘Say Her Name’ and it turned to Breonna Taylor.”
“The non-negotiable … was that we were going to make sure this season was about something bigger, bigger than basketball…Very quickly it turned to ‘Say Her Name’ and it turned to Breonna Taylor.”Sue Bird, Current WNBA Champion, Seattle Storm
Prior to the start of the season, Bird said that members of the WNBA had many discussions centered on the Black Lives Matter Movement, specifically focusing on the death of Breonna Taylor and using their platform to amplify the voices of the Black community, especially Black women.
“Women are overlooked even more so. They’re not talked about,” Bird said, “Their names aren’t even in people’s minds to forget, so we wanted to make sure that women were talked about in this fight, and who better to do than a league full of women because we know what it’s like to be forgotten.”
For Stewart, who missed the entire 2019 WNBA season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon, this season was also a time to reunite with her teammates and be able to get back to playing the game she loves.
“I was looking forward to it just because I had already missed the previous WNBA season, and at that same time we knew that it was going to be about something bigger than basketball and that was super important to us,” Stewart said.
Throughout the season, Stewart shared how all members of the WNBA were continually working to better educate themselves in order to use their platform to its fullest advantage. This included having discussions with important political figures like Stacey Abrams and former First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother.
In addition to placing attention on the Black Lives Matter Movement, the 2020 season also marked a continuation in the fight for gender and pay equity. Women athletes have historically been paid much lower salaries than their male counterparts, which can be attributed to many factors like media coverage, endorsement deals and expected economic return for sponsors.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that what equal pay and equity is is about having the opportunity to make that money, it’s about having the opportunity to have our league grow, it’s about the opportunity to have more media coverage,” Bird said.
Bird doesn’t want people to think that they are asking to be paid as much as NBA players like Lebron James, who made roughly 37.4 million dollars in 2020 alone. What she, and other WNBA players are looking for, is for people to begin investing in their potential, which is something they have been able to live up to in the past.
On January 14, 2020, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was reached between the WNBA and the WNBA Players Association. This eight-year agreement included many key provisions, such as an increase in base salary expectations and a new paid maternity leave policy, that has set the league on the right path toward gender and pay equity.
Due to notoriously low salaries, many WNBA players spend their offseason oversees in order to continue making money. Although Stewart, who is currently playing in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg, and Bird both talked fondly about their time playing oversees, they hope that one day in the future WNBA players will be able to make enough money that this can be a choice, rather than a requirement.
When asked about their time at UConn, Bird and Stewart agreed that, despite the challenges that come with playing for Geno Auriemma and the rest of the coaching staff, it shaped them into the players and person they are today.
“Both on and off the court, it just set my foundation for who I was going to be as a person,” Bird said.
UConn Women’s Basketball has solidified itself as one of the top ranked programs in college basketball history. Many notable alumni have gone on to have successful professional careers due in large part to their time at UConn. Coming off a WNBA championship amidst a pandemic, Stewart put it simply:
“We were very appreciative to have the opportunity to even play because obviously during this time a lot of people don’t even have jobs,” Stewart said, “We were excited to do what we love.”