Nneka Ogwumike and the W.N.B.A.’s Big, Complicated Moment By Louisa Thomas

Amid a global pandemic and nationwide protests, the W.N.B.A. is playing basketball in a bubble. Ogwumike is trying to make sure it succeeds.

Nneka Ogwumike, of the Los Angeles Sparks, was named Rookie of the Year in her first season and M.V.P. in her fifth, and now serves as the president of the W.N.B.A.’s players’ union.Photograph by Meg Oliphant / Getty

Nneka Ogwumike’s parents, Peter and Ify, were born within a hundred miles of each other, in Nigeria. They met, years later, in Colorado, got married, and settled in Houston. Ify became a teacher and, later, the assistant superintendent of a school district in Harris County. Peter owns a tech company called Automated Systems. They have four daughters: Nneka, Chiney, Olivia, and Erica. Growing up, the girls played basketball, volleyball, and soccer, and did gymnastics. There was also “student council, playing the piano, going to church, mentoring others, being role models, having straight A’s, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn with me,” Ify said recently. Her tone was lighthearted, but she was serious. “The only expectation we have of the girls,” she went on, “is that they are hardworking, focussed, and have good personal morals and values, and remember who they are.” Today, Nneka and Chiney, who both went to Stanford, are teammates on the Los Angeles Sparks, in the W.N.B.A. (They were each drafted No. 1 over all, two years apart.) Olivia, who played college ball at Rice, is in business school, and Erica, who also played at Rice—and who was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in the spring, but was cut before the season began—plans to attend medical school. In December, Ify received a Ph.D. in education. “Our custom and culture is about excellence,” Peter said.

Among the sisters, Nneka, the eldest, is the “mother hen,” Ify told me. “Very nurturing with her sisters, but also the disciplinarian. It’s kind of a fine balance. But she doesn’t allow anyone else to be hard on them.” Playing that role was, perhaps, the perfect preparation for the remarkable series of challenges that Nneka has taken on this year. As the president of the W.N.B.A.’s players’ union, she helped complete the negotiations for a historic collective-bargaining agreement, in January. A couple of months later, she played a central role in deciding how to start the season during a pandemic. On the season’s first night, she scored twenty-one points for the Sparks, against the Phoenix Mercury, in the most-watched W.N.B.A. opener in eight years. She didn’t miss a shot; the Sparks won by twenty-three points.

Condoleezza Rice, who got to know Chiney and Nneka at Stanford, told the Times several years ago, “Whatever career they find themselves in, they will eventually end up on top of that career. They’re going to be transformative personalities.” But, for Nneka, none of that seemed like a given. Even after leading Stanford to four Final Fours, she didn’t plan to enter the draft—she was preparing for medical school—until Chiney convinced her that she could make it. And, though she joined the executive committee of the players’ union just after entering the league, she never thought about serving as its leader until the outgoing president, Tamika Catchings, urged her to run. She was elected unopposed.

Ogwumike is clearly aware of her accomplishments, but she seems conscious that others may not be. On the court, her style is practical, matter-of-fact; to watch her bait a defender with a fake jump hook before stepping into open space and sending up a gentle floater is to be more impressed than awed. Her calling card is efficiency: in 2016, her true-shooting percentage was nearly seventy-four per cent, an unheard-of stat. (Men’s and women’s basketball are different enough that making comparisons is complicated if not pointless, but it is perhaps worth nothing that the single-season record in the N.B.A., held by Tyson Chandler, is a shade under seventy-one per cent.) In a three-game stretch that season, she made twenty-three straight shots. Careful execution is her style off the court, too, Layshia Clarendon, who plays for the New York Liberty and serves on the players’ union’s executive committee, told me. “She makes calculated, poised decisions.”

Ogwumike is six feet two, with wide-set eyes and muscular shoulders. She is a dominant physical presence on the floor. She should have known that she could succeed in the W.N.B.A.—she was named Rookie of the Year in her first season and M.V.P. in her fifth—but her decision to become a pro basketball player rather than a doctor was less inevitable than it might have seemed. Under the W.N.B.A.’s old collective-bargaining agreement, Ogwumike, the year that she was the M.V.P., made $63,710. The league’s average salary was around seventy-five thousand dollars; the league minimum was about thirty-five thousand. Spots in the W.N.B.A. are limited, the competition is ruthless, and life on the road can be gruelling. Most players supplement their income by going overseas—to China, Turkey, Spain, Russia—where the money is better. European contracts involve confidentiality, Ogwumike’s agent, Lindsay Colas, told me, but, under the old salary structure, a player of Ogwumike’s calibre could make five to eight times the top W.N.B.A. salary—and a few players were making ten to fifteen times what they made in the United States. But the sacrifices were real. “When I say Siberia, it’s not a figure of speech,” Howard Megdal, who reports extensively on women’s basketball, told me of where some athletes end up competing. “Players who wanted to have relationships, friends, lovers, whoever, simply didn’t have them.”

Ogwumike went to Poland after her rookie year. Later, she played in Russia and China. After winning the W.N.B.A. title with the Sparks in her M.V.P. season—she hit the championship-clinching shot, off balance, with 3.1 seconds on the clock—she led Dynamo Kursk to the title there. That year, 2016, was when she realized her “superpower,” she told me—some ineffable awareness of her own capabilities, the sense that she had something rare and special within her. She cited her favorite book, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.” In the novel, a parable about personal destiny, a shepherd travels from Andalusia to Egypt in search of a treasure that he has dreamed about, only to realize that the treasure—a box of gold coins—was buried back home all along. “Every search begins with beginner’s luck,” an alchemist tells the shepherd. “2016 was like that for me,” Ogwumike said. The alchemist adds, “And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”

The W.N.B.A. began, in 1996, as an offshoot of the N.B.A. Its teams were owned by N.B.A. franchises, and many of them played in N.B.A. arenas. At the end of 2002, the N.B.A. sold the teams either to the N.B.A. franchises or independent parties, though it retains a controlling interest in the league, and there was a period of reshuffling and contraction. There are still a number of chauvinistic sports fans who seem to assume that the women’s league is some kind of social-justice project, or charity case, rather than a business. Like many fledgling leagues, it loses money; in 2018, shortly after the players decided they would opt out of their previous collective-bargaining agreement, Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, noted that the W.N.B.A. had lost more than ten million dollars every year of its existence. Of course, the previous N.B.A. commissioner, David Stern, had insisted on multiple occasions—often in the context of labor negotiations—that the N.B.A. itself lost hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And Major League Soccer, which is a year older than the W.N.B.A., and which garners the same ratings on ESPN for its regular-season games that the W.N.B.A. does, acknowledged in 2014 that it was losing a hundred million dollars annually. (According to a source recently cited by the Wall Street Journal, the M.L.S. “is losing more than that now . . . because it is investing more in players.”)

Terri Jackson, the executive director of the W.N.B.A. union, told me that the first thing Ogwumike did after becoming president was question the union’s constitution. (“She’s structured,” Ogwumike’s father told me. “Everything has to be planned.”) The constitution was from the league’s early years and “perhaps hastily done,” Jackson explained. “It really didn’t speak to the organization that we had and the level of engagement we expected.” After Ogwumike took charge, the union expanded its executive committee from five to seven players, allowing for new platforms for player engagement, to better represent the diversity of athletes in the league: gay and nonbinary players, international players, players with children, role players, veterans, rookies.

Once the players opted out of the previous contract, they had a long list of issues to consider. They wanted quality-of-life improvements, and they needed to push the league to pay and market its stars more aggressively. For the league, perhaps the most pressing challenge was shifting the players’ focus from their overseas teams to the W.N.B.A. These issues were all connected. It was hard for the league to promote players who were on the other side of the world for half the year, and to demand that players show up on time at training camp when their foreign teams were paying double or, in some cases, ten times their W.N.B.A. salaries. Leagues live and die by their stars, but the structure of the W.N.B.A. was not set up to create them.

They women weren’t asking to earn as much money as N.B.A. players—not even close. (N.B.A. players were making about ten times more, on average, than their female counterparts.) They weren’t in the same situation as the U.S. women’s soccer team, whose players are more popular than the men’s team. But they wanted a larger share of the W.N.B.A.’s revenue—closer to the fifty per cent that the men commanded, rather than the reported twenty to thirty per cent that went to the women. And they wanted something else, too: a broader commitment to the idea of growing the league by investing in it.

The players had a new negotiating partner: Cathy Engelbert, who was named as the league’s commissioner last year. She came from the corporate world, having served as the C.E.O. of Deloitte. Both sides knew that a work stoppage could destroy the league. “Sponsors want to know you have long-term labor peace,” Engelbert told me. Ogwumike had been part of the difficult negotiations for the previous contract; in 2018, before the players opted out of that contract, Diana Taurasi, who is widely considered the best women’s basketball player of all time, suggested that it would take a strike to force meaningful change. But things were different now. From the beginning, Ogwumike insisted that a strike was “not on our radar.”

The players got much of what they asked for early on: a decent housing allowance, fully paid maternity leave, individual hotel rooms on the road. Their health care was expanded—veteran players could now receive up to sixty thousand dollars to cover adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing, or fertility treatments. But compensation for the best players was a sticking point. The last push for sharp increases was made in December, more than a year after the players opted out of the old contract. Chiney, who is also a member of the executive committee, credited Sue Bird, a Seattle Storm veteran and one of the league’s all-time greats, with convincing her fellow-players to demand more. “Sue had planted a lot of thoughts about being radical,” Chiney told me. “She would say we have to un-brainwash ourselves, or de-brainwash ourselves, because for so long our league has been on autopilot.”

The sides eventually agreed on a maximum annual salary of two hundred and fifteen thousand dollars, with the possibility for incentives that could bring guaranteed compensation above half a million dollars. Players agreed that, after an implementation period, they would no longer be allowed to miss any time at training camp in order to finish seasons overseas. “We have to create a league that is the only one we play in, and that’s going to take some time,” Ogwumike said.

More than ninety per cent of the players voted in favor of the contract. It doesn’t benefit everyone equally—mid-tier players, in particular, won’t see the kinds of gains that rookies and top players will see. But it appeared to give the whole league a boost. There were glowing stories about it on ESPN, in the Times, and in the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post called it a “landmark deal.” The day of the announcement, Ogwumike appeared with Engelbert on “Good Morning America,” wearing a royal-blue sheath and matching eye shadow—a ball gown for a morning show, a kind of regal flex. She went on “The Daily Show” wearing emerald green. We made plans to meet on March 16th, after she was set to speak on a panel about pay equity, in Los Angeles. Then, days before that could happen, everything stopped.

We spoke on the phone the following week. Ogwumike was at home, in Houston. She was helping players across the globe navigate hastily erected travel restrictions; the race to see whether the W.N.B.A. season could be salvaged, and the momentum coming out of the union-contract negotiations preserved, had begun. “Everybody recognizes that a protracted off-season for us is really not an option,” Terri Jackson told me in May. The hiatus was particularly brutal for women’s sports. That month, the journalist Lindsay Gibbs tracked how men’s and women’s sports were being covered in six major newspapers and on four ESPN networks. Of fifteen hundred and thirty sports stories in the newspapers, only a hundred and seven—seven per cent—were about women’s sports. On ESPN’s flagship station—which, in the absence of most live sports, supplemented its talk shows with documentaries, replays, and events like fishing and poker—there was no programming devoted to women’s sports at all. The other three ESPN networks aired a total of nine and a half hours of women’s-sports programming, just under one per cent of what they broadcast. They aired seventy-two hours of cornhole.

The W.N.B.A. had a potential window of visibility, though, with fewer sports on TV than usual—particularly if they could start the season before the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. returned. The league focussed on constructing a “bubble” in Florida, where the players and a reduced staff would live for the duration of the season and postseason. Under an initial proposal, players would have been paid sixty per cent of their salary, but the athletes pushed back. “It was not a good look,” Clarendon, the New York Liberty player, told me. Jackson and Ogwumike set up individual calls with all twelve W.N.B.A. teams over two days. “That was her clearing the air,” Clarendon said. The union got the league to pay a hundred per cent of players’ salaries.

In June, the league announced plans for a twenty-two-game season, followed by playoffs, to be held at the IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Florida. Players can decline to play in the shortened season, though they will not be paid unless an independent medical board rules that they have a medical reason for not playing. Last month, the league’s reigning M.V.P., Elena Delle Donne, was denied a medical exemption from the season despite her doctor’s belief that she is at high risk for COVID-19, because of chronic Lyme disease. This prompted a wave of bad publicity. Delle Donne’s team, the Washington Mystics, later decided that they would pay her anyway.

But some athletes had other reasons to consider not playing. The protests against police brutality and systemic racism that arose after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor galvanized many players—the league is majority Black and has a strong tradition of activism. In 2016, the league initially punished players for wearing shirts supporting victims of police brutality and gun violence, which left hard feelings. And, although some players see the upcoming season as a platform for protest, others worry that sports will distract from the movement. (Last week, Kyrie Irving, the star guard for the Brooklyn Nets, announced that he was committing $1.5 million to supplement the income of W.N.B.A. players who choose to sit out the season for health concerns or to focus on social justice.) Ultimately, the league and players’ union announced that the season would be dedicated to social justice. They created a council to explore critical issues and amplify players’ voices. On their jerseys, players are wearing the names of women who have been the victims of police brutality and racial violence. There will be podcasts, social-media campaigns, fund-raising efforts, and conversations about racism and voting.

The players began arriving in the Wubble, as some call it—players often refer to the W.N.B.A. as “the W”—on July 6th. It did not go entirely smoothly. Videos of bedbugs and mousetraps went viral; the league and the union scrambled to move the women into better accommodations. The day after move-in, Kelly Loeffler, an owner of the Atlanta Dream who was appointed to the U.S. Senate by the governor of Georgia earlier this year, wrote a letter to Engelbert criticizing the league for promoting the Black Lives Matter movement. Players were outraged, and some believed that league executives did not push back hard enough on her remarks. (Engelbert told CNN that Loeffler’s views did not reflect those of the W.N.B.A., but that the league would not force her out of an ownership position.) “I don’t agree with players having to bear the brunt of these questions” about Loeffler, Ogwumike told me. “We can respond to it. But actions need to be taken from the league. I anticipate that’s what will happen.” Gibbs, the journalist, told me, “Nneka’s a politician. She’s careful.”

There are advantages to life in the bubble. The players are in walking distance of one another, and can have conversations that wouldn’t happen if they were spread across the country. But, Ogwumike told me, “it’s depleting, being over-accessible.” Though the Sparks have championship ambitions, the team’s coach, the former N.B.A. guard Derek Fisher, told reporters that he felt a responsibility not to ask too much of his best player. “We know how important she is to everyone,” he said.

Ogwumike is mindful, too, of those who aren’t there—including her sister Chiney, who is not playing, for medical reasons, and instead will focus on her other career, as an ESPN analyst. Ogwumike herself wavered about playing the season. Coronavirus cases were spiking in Florida. There was a risk of injury after such a short training camp. She was also sensitive to the concern that playing a game might pull attention away from a crucial moment in the movement for social justice. “We’ll gain nothing if there’s judgment around anyone’s choice,” Ogwumike told me. She sees the other teams’ players “less as opponents” right now, she added. “I look at them as my teammates, really. We all want to be healthy and safe, grow the game, not be tone-deaf about the times.”

So far, the bubble seems to be holding. After two players tested positive during the initial quarantine period in the bubble in early July, there have been no more positive tests. Ratings for the opening game were up twenty per cent from last season, and ESPN announced that it would expand its regular-season schedule, raising the number of games on its networks from twenty-four to thirty-seven. Players hope not only that the W.N.B.A. will get more attention but that they’ll be able to direct that attention elsewhere. The day before the opener, the players’ union arranged a call between athletes in the bubble and Breonna Taylor’s mother. The next day, they had a conference call about voting with Michelle Obama and Valerie Jarrett. Ogwumike is averaging 15.5 points a game, and shooting better than sixty per cent from the floor; the Sparks are 2–2. After every game, the team sends out postgame notes, with the scorer’s report, game recap, quotes, highlights, and a key stat, which is always the same one. In the most recent report, it read, “It has been 141 days since Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her own apartment. The officers responsible for her death have not been arrested.”


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