The WNBA and NBA are fighting to withhold pay from Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne and Pacers guard Victor Oladipo, as reported by ESPN (Delle Donne link and Oladipo link). Both players have announced that they do not intend to play in their leagues’ upcoming summer seasons.
Unlike several other players who have opted out without incident, Delle Donne and Oladipo present extenuating circumstances that have drawn attention from NBA and WNBA management.
Delle Donne and Lyme Disease
Delle Donne, the reigning WNBA MVP, has requested a medical excuse from the season based on the advice of her personal physician. In a statement, Delle Donne wrote:
“I love my team, and we had an unbelievable season last year, and I want to play! But the question is whether or not the WNBA bubble is safe for me. My personal physician who has treated me for Lyme disease for years advised me that I’m at high risk for contracting and having complications from COVID-19.”
But the NBA’s panel of physicians apparently disagrees. While the league has not officially announced an explanation for its decision, it may be related to Lyme Disease not being listed by the CDC as an underlying condition that exacerbates COVID-19 risk.
Oladipo recovering from ruptured quad tendon
Unlike Delle Donne, Oladipo’s concerns are not related to COVID-19 — he is in the Orlando “bubble” and has been practicing with the team under no restrictions. However, the Masked Singer alum told the Athletic that he is still recovering after rupturing his quadriceps tendon on January 23, 2019. He fears the long layoff between games could increase risk for a soft tissue injury which would slow his return to form. Oladipo did play in 13 games earlier this season but looked rusty, putting up career-low statistics across the board.
ESPN reports that the NBA plans to withhold Oladipo’s remaining $3 million in salary to avoid setting a precedent that healthy players could simply leave the bubble without consequence. Conversely, the Pacers have no problem with paying Oladipo’s salary regardless of whether or not he plays.
Is this a battle worth fighting for the league?
The leagues risk opening several proverbial cans of worms with their responses to Delle Donne and Oladipo.
In the case of Delle Donne, while the medical community has struggled to understand or even classify Chronic Lyme Disease (link to an excellent podcast summarizing the history and debates around Lyme Disease), it’s clear that Delle Donne does believe she is at higher risk for COVID-19 related complications. Given that the possible long-term effects of the novel coronavirus are still unknown, and that doubting self-reports of those suffering from invisible chronic illnesses can have negative consequences (example), it seems uncaring and/or unethical for the NBA to disregard Delle Donne’s request.
Similarly, Oladipo is not the first player in recent years to take an extremely cautious approach to injury recovery. The league thus far has not penalized players for extending recoveries under normal circumstances — it feels at least somewhat insidious that they would choose a global pandemic as the moment to punitively crack down on load management. Especially given that Oladipo’s team has publicly supported his decision and is willing to pay him.