Black Women in the WNBA Fought for More Money and Better Quality of Life — And Won

In a landmark deal, players chart a new path for the WNBA with higher salaries, enhanced mental health resources, and other benefits

WWhen basketball star Nneka Ogwumike announced in a November 2018 essay for The Players’ Tribune that the WNBA Players Association would opt out of its contract with the league, she also commanded the WNBA, and society at large, to bet on women. And with today’s monumental news, the WNBA demonstrated that it heard Ogwumike’s call for action loud and clear.

In a landmark move between the Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association and the league, a new collective bargaining agreement was reached that invests more into the players, 88% of whom are Black or women of color. Under the leadership of Ogwumike as the WNBPA president and a diverse WNBPA executive committee, Black women of the WNBA fought for better pay and working conditions — and won.

“It’s a momentous day for the league,” Ogwumike, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, said of the new agreement. “It’s just remarkable to be a part of a league that is majority Black women and for us to be as progressive as we are. I think we’ve done a great job of showing support for the community. We have so much diversity in the league. … We wanted to make sure to represent everyone.”

WNBPA director Terri Jackson expressed hope that the achievements announced will “lift up other women and other women of color in the workplace.”

For the players of the WNBA, this means making the proper investment in the people who are, essentially, the product. The results are this: higher salaries, so that players do not feel forced to compete overseas during the WNBA off-season and instead allowing them to get proper rest and rehabilitation for their bodies; better travel conditions, so that players no longer have to share hotel rooms with teammates or cram their tall bodies into commercial airline coach seats; better marketing provisions, which will enable players to benefit financially; and nutritional and mental health resources.

Ogwumike and WNBPA director Terri Jackson were unrelenting in their fight. Jackson called the WNBA “a beautifully diverse league, from top to bottom,” and expressed hope that the achievements announced will “lift up other women and other women of color in the workplace.”

AAlthough the ink has not dried yet on the agreement, its compensation terms are groundbreaking. The maximum salary in the WNBA in 2019 was $117,000, with younger players making significantly less. Beginning in 2020, however, the top players can earn up to $500,000 per year (with bonuses and marketing agreements). For the first time in league history, the average player salary will reach six figures, a bump from the previous median salary of just under $72,000.

Beginning in the 2021 season, there will be a 50/50 revenue-sharing deal that is contingent on “the league achieving revenue growth targets from broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships and licensing deals,” according to the official statement from the league. And there will be an immediate increase in cash bonuses for performance-based awards, such as MVP, Rookie of the Year, and All-WNBA teams.

Still, in 2020, women who become pregnant have limited options if their employers refuse to provide commonsense accommodations. Often, these women are forced to choose between the health of themselves and their babies and their income. Those who continue working without accommodations sometimes are injured or even fired if they cannot perform their duties the same as they did pre-pregnancy. When the parent or parents are ready to return to work, families then struggle to afford adequate childcare. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the WNBA is setting the gold standard for the treatment of women who choose to start families. Players will receive a full salary while on maternity leave, with commissioner Cathy Engelbert stating that the length of the leave is up to the player.

Additionally, the league will be offering an annual childcare stipend of $5,000 and two-bedroom apartments for players with children in addition to a comfortable, safe, and private place for mothers to nurse their babies in the workplace. There are also “progressive family planning benefits,” separate from players’ cash compensation, that includes up to $60,000 in reimbursements for veteran players who incur costs related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing, or fertility treatments.

Ogwumike credited commissioner Engelbert’s trailblazing efforts on this front during her tenure at Deloitte and acknowledged the magnitude of these changes. It’s a new path for the league that can inspire positive change for women across the American workforce. “I think that we’ve always been a progressive league; we’ve always been in the forefront,” Ogwumike said. “We really hope that we can set a precedent for women in the workplace and women in sports.”

TThe new agreement will also address the dearth of Black head coaches in the WNBA, a prescient concern for a league that is predominantly Black. Through its Diversity in Coaching initiative, Engelbert said she hopes to “build a pipeline so that WNBA players get experience” in coaching during the WNBA off-season, which they can then parlay into future careers.

In a league in which two former NBA players hold head coaching positions but only one former WNBA player does, this “pipeline” is long overdue. To play in the WNBA, athletes must have an incredibly high basketball IQ, and most who enter the league do so with college degrees that help them to succeed in businesses outside of basketball. That the WNBA will tip off the 2020 season without even one Black woman in a head coaching role speaks volumes about the ingrained, sometimes unconscious biases that prevent those in decision-making roles from viewing women, especially Black women, as capable leaders.

What Ogwumike and the other Black women of the WNBPA did for themselves, they did for Black women everywhere.

Although there is much work to be done on that front, the gains that have been won should inspire confidence that further changes are going to come. What Ogwumike and the other Black women of the WNBPA did for themselves, they did for Black women everywhere. The WNBPA would not have gotten the deal done without having Engelbert on the other side of the bargaining table; she saw not only the players’ worth as people but also secured corporate sponsorship deals from AT&T, Deloitte, and Nike through the WNBA’s new Changemakers initiative, which provide the financial backing needed to make the new collective bargaining agreement a success.

With her legacy established, Ogwumike, an MVP and Rookie of the Year, knows how big this deal is for women in team sports, calling it “monumental.” Yet, in a society where the tendency is for those in power to take several steps backward after just a few short gains (see the #OscarsSoWhite outcry of 2016 which continues today, with a whitewashing of the nomination field this year), she also knows the work is just getting started. “The fight doesn’t stop here,” she said.

The significance of the agreement being spearheaded by Black women, for Black women, and with one of those women, Ogwumike, joining Engelbert on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts making the announcement, is not lost on WNBPA first vice president Layshia Clarendon.

“It means a lot as a woman of color,” Clarendon said. “I think for women who’ve often been underpaid, we know that Black women often are underpaid, and queer people. When you add all the layers on top of that, for us to fight this fight and kind of take our power back.”

Clarendon continued: “We set out a year ago, that we’re going to bet on women, that we want more, and that we’re demanding more, and that we deserve more. It’s still sinking in for me — what this means as the foundation we’re setting, what this means in the context of history, and even social justice. … What better way to fight for social justice than to do a deal like this?”

is a freelance journalist and author of a forthcoming book on the history of the WNBA. Find complete bio and more at newleafliterary.com and tamrynspruill.com.

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