Most people have been there: You’re stuck at the airport — or in a plane on the tarmac — with your travel plans delayed. You don’t know how long it will be — and then it keeps getting worse. Delay … delay … delay.
That’s the situation the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces faced in a travel odyssey lasting more than 24 hours that began Thursday and got them to their Washington, D.C., hotel around 3:45 p.m. ET Friday for an 8 p.m. tipoff against the Mystics. They’d spent all that time in airports and on planes, and they were — understandably — tired after having not slept in actual beds.
Then the Aces — perhaps less understandably, depending on your point of view — did something that had never happened before in the league’s 22-year history: They decided not to play.
“We just really felt like after a full day at the airport, a night of no sleep, no proper nutrition, we were really putting ourselves at risk to go play very high-level, competitive basketball,” Aces center Carolyn Swords said. “It was a very difficult decision because we love what we do. We love the opportunity to compete in front of WNBA fans no matter what city we’re in.”
How you see their decision likely depends on if you think their concern for fatigue-induced injury was a valid enough threat to override their responsibility to the league’s other teams and the paying customers (many of whom were already in the Verizon Center when the cancellation was announced) to play the game. That has divided WNBA fans, based on social media reactions.
For most people, if there’s any way you can go to work, you should go to work. People deal with travel delays, weather issues, sick children, their own illnesses, lack of sleep and myriad issues every day, yet still do their jobs.
But the counterargument for professional athletes is that their work is high-performance physical labor, and their bodies are their most valuable asset for careers that won’t last past a certain age. That said, the nature of athletics is that players could get hurt in any game or practice, even with adequate rest.
And while no one denies the Aces were on the extreme end of travel difficulty, that is a regular part of the WNBA, and always has been. Especially this season, as the WNBA schedule is compacted — the regular season is three weeks shorter than last year because of the FIBA Women’s World Cup (formerly called the world championship), which runs Sept. 22-30. The WNBA doesn’t set the date for that quadrennial event, but to accommodate players’ participation in it, the league adjusts its schedule.
Swords, the Aces’ representative for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, is in her seventh season. She has experienced tough trips before, including the back-to-back road games on consecutive days that all teams dread. Was this trip really so much more difficult that it warranted such an extreme response as not playing?
“In my experience, yes. In addition to the difficult travel and delays, it was having to cross multiple time zones,” Swords said of going from Pacific Time to Eastern Time. “It was having to lose that time and not having an opportunity for proper sleep the night before or once we arrived.”
Swords said the Aces had been in contact with the union since Thursday night, when the delays went so late they began to wonder if they would even get to Washington, D.C. The union was then in contact with the WNBA, trying to see if there was a way to postpone the game.
Perhaps that could have happened earlier in the season, when there was time to make it up. But the WNBA’s regular season ends Aug. 19, with the playoffs starting two days later. Trying to get both teams together again at a time when the Verizon Center (or even an alternate facility) was available, all on short notice, was not feasible. The WNBA delayed the tipoff an hour to 8 p.m.
“If the league decides to count it as a forfeit, it’s put them in a really tough position in terms of the playoffs. … If their end game was to make a statement that the league needs to look into charter flights, there’s probably a better way to do that.”
ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo on the Aces’ decision to not play Friday
As of Sunday, the WNBA had not announced whether the game will count as a win for the Mystics and a forfeit for the Aces, although that seems likely. The Aces came into Friday’s game at 12-14, 1½ games out of the playoffs. The franchise moved from San Antonio to Las Vegas for this season. Previously as the Stars, they had missed the postseason the past three years with the league’s worst record.
This could not only be a blow to the Aces’ playoff hopes, but the Mystics are still in the hunt for an all-important bye into the semifinals. Other teams might be frustrated at the idea of Washington getting a victory without playing, although the Mystics said they were disappointed and wanted to play the game.
That raises the question of whether the Aces considered all the consequences of not playing. For some families, this might have been their only trip this summer to see a WNBA game. It was Breast Cancer Awareness night for the Mystics, who were expecting a good-sized crowd and were having a charity auction. The Mystics had to give refunds, and as a goodwill gesture are also offering tickets to another game. And how did the cancellation impact the paychecks of concession workers and vendors?
How did it impact the perception of the WNBA, a league that even after two decades is still working to establish itself in the American sports landscape? Will there be people who think, “This WNBA team decided not to play because they were too tired?”
That’s not a fair representation of the Aces’ position, yet the bottom line is they did something no other team in league history has done.
“When I look at this situation in particular, my prevailing thought is, ‘What is the endgame for Las Vegas deciding not to play?’ ” said longtime ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, one of the league’s founding players in 1997. “Did this accomplish getting closer to that goal? Is it simply that they were afraid of injury and their bodies needed rest?
“If so, then they accomplished that goal. But if the league decides to count it as a forfeit, it’s put them in a really tough position in terms of the playoffs, because these games are so important to them. If their endgame was to make a statement that the league needs to look into charter flights, there’s probably a better way to do that.”
Indeed, the Aces’ travel issues bring up the long-simmering question of whether the league should have charter flights. But that is part of the bigger issues of WNBA compensation and working conditions that will be negotiated for the next collective bargaining agreement. Since the players’ union has the opportunity to opt out of the current CBA early — the deadline for that is Oct. 31 — discussion about CBA issues has been constant throughout this season.
In short, though, the league prohibits charter flights because of financial and competitive-balance issues. Some WNBA teams are better positioned — particularly those owned by NBA franchises — to use charter flights. And that’s a problem in a 12-team league that has put a premium on trying to keep a level playing field.
The WNBA gave emergency permission to the Aces and their ownership, MGM Resorts International, late Thursday/early Friday to try to get a charter flight. But nothing could be found that quickly.
Swords said the ultimate decision on whether to play was left in the players’ hands, but that coach Bill Laimbeer and the ownership supported them. Swords said the Aces hope this accelerates dialogue on travel issues. She points to a provision in the NBA’s CBA that prohibits teams from playing on the same day they would travel across at least two time zones, except in unusual circumstances and with the union’s agreement.
“Something like that is missing from the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement,” Swords said. “I think this is a starting point from which we can have a conversation about implementing something like this.”
Then was the Aces’ decision actually about making a statement to the league? Were they drawing a line in the sand with an eye toward CBA negotiations?
Swords said that was not the reason; it was the safety concerns. But the Aces undoubtedly realize that a statement was indeed made.
The Aces are one of the youngest teams in the WNBA; only two players on their roster (Swords and Tamera Young) have more than five years’ experience in the league. Six players — half the roster — are in either their first or second year; two others are in their third year. Despite their youth — or maybe even because of it — several of the Aces have been outspoken on social media all season on a variety of issues concerning the WNBA.
That leads to more questions: Will the WNBA’s younger players push harder in regard to league reforms, or will they push too hard? Would a team that had a larger veteran presence have made the same decision not to play?
Lobo thinks those are fair questions. She said she also understands firsthand the challenges presented by difficult travel circumstances and how beat up players are at this point in a season.
“It’s not just that your body is tired from running up and down the floor. You’re bruised. You’re weary,” Lobo said. “And this has been a hard season, especially, because of the compacted schedule.”
Lobo was on the 2003 Connecticut Sun team that Washington coach Mike Thibault — who has said he was “really disappointed that the Las Vegas players and organization didn’t come to compete” — referenced Friday night in regard to difficult travel. Because of the massive blackout in the Northeast in August 2003, the Sun, then coached by Thibault, had to travel by bus back to Connecticut from Cleveland, then took a bus to New York, and arrived about an hour before tipoff with the Liberty. The Sun players didn’t get a night’s sleep in a bed, either, but they played. And they won the game.
But that was 15 years ago, and some might argue the league should be more advanced now in dealing with travel issues — which brings us back to the Aces’ unprecedented decision.
Did refusing to play the Friday’s game resonate with the WNBA and NBA brass in a way that will have extended positive results or negative repercussions? And how will it affect other teams’ decisions about how they deal with travel or fatigue? That’s what we’ll wait to find out.