The WNBA and the Paradox Of The ‘Progressive’ Sports League

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s woeful personal political history further spotlights the dissonance between what the league says and what it does.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Is the WNBA progressive? The league has created a “new model of sports activism,” according to a 2022 dissertation by recently minted Yale political science Ph.D Angele Delevoye. Her in-depth, necessary research explores how the WNBA has found some success by finally pivoting towards the message of inclusivity and progress that its diverse (and too-often marginalized) player constituency demanded. 

Delevoye’s research confirmed what many have anecdotally observed — hell, I co-wrote a piece on the topic a couple years ago, and many of the same ideas certainly pepper this column. The WNBA is more progressive and inclusive than any of its male counterparts, and that is solely because of the league’s decision to finally embrace and encourage its players’ best interests (a decision that the players spent decades pushing for). 

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Finally, fans can expect that the WNBA will usually say something close to the right thing when confronted with some newsworthy injustice. Take, for example, the recent Dobbs Supreme Court decision, which rolled back 50-year-old federal protections for people seeking abortions (more on how that relates to sports here). The NBA and WNBA quickly released the following statement: “The NBA and WNBA believe that women should be able to make their own decisions concerning their health and future, and we believe that freedom should be protected. We will continue to advocate for gender and health equity, including ensuring our employees have access to reproductive health care, regardless of their location.” Hardly monumental, but in light of what other pro leagues offered — a whole lot of nothing besides, of course, the NWSL — it inspired some public appreciation.

Those kinds of statements, combined with the way the WNBA has made “civic engagement” a theme of its Commissioner’s Cup (here is its needless complexity in detail) and has been coasting off its players’ successful campaigning for U.S. Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock for years now, made some of league commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s comments at a mid-season press conference during All-Star weekend sound even more jarring than they might have otherwise.

When asked why a league-sponsored Chance The Rapper concert tied to All-Star festivities wasn’t open to the public, Engelbert basically implied that gun violence concerns were to blame and cited, among other recent mass shootings, “things that have happened here in Chicago.” This wouldn’t sound so absurd if large scale events didn’t continue to happen every day around the country despite the huge risk of gun violence in just about every corner of it.

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No one, anywhere, is safe ever, and that’s basically the deal with the devil that some powerful Americans have made in order to continue profiting off the poorest and most vulnerable. Because everyone knows this, Engelbert’s comment just sounded like an echo of the classic Republican pro-gun refrain, “What about Chicago?” — a paranoid overreaction to the right wing’s racist propaganda. 

This comment, as well as some mealy-mouthed responses to justified questions about whether the WNBA would consider limiting expansion teams and league events in places with restrictive anti-abortion laws, inspired Bleacher Report’s Joseph Zucker to look into Engelbert’s political donations on the nonpartisan site Open Secrets. Engelbert donated to Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential campaign against Barack Obama and — somehow even more startling — to longtime Kentucky Republican senator Mitch McConnell in 2014 from her home in New Jersey (???). She also donated to the PAC run by her former employer, Deloitte, which (like many corporations) donated to a mix of Republican and Democratic interests — including some very unsavory ones. 

Zucker also noted several instances in which Engelbert picked profit over many WNBA players’ and fans’ ideas of what is right — allegedly failing to take sexual assault accusations seriously, making optimistic statements about Donald Trump and glossing over Deloitte’s cooperation with notorious immigration agency ICE. It’s worth noting that Deloitte is a massive consulting firm, and like most consulting firms solely functions to leech off of companies (and their employees) that at the very least sometimes make things that people need. 

It’s fair to say that none of this is surprising — she was, after all, the U.S. head of an enormous, useless corporation — and it’s also fair to still be disappointed by clear dissonance between what Engelbert has said and the language of inclusion and progress she’s used, and the money that has quite literally not gone where her mouth is. Whether or not Engelbert has had a dramatic personal change of heart in the last half-decade or so, this is exactly who the NBA and Adam Silver wanted when they hired her with the idea that she would be well-equipped to schmooze corporate CEOs and billionaires into coughing up some dough for the league. 

To be fair, she has done just that, in the exact same cringey, cynical way she did at Deloitte with initiatives that shroud profiteering in progressive language (cue up the Changemakers). Of course, in the WNBA, most fans and players want the league to be profitable, so finding the right balance between celebrating the influx of cash and lamenting its less-than-ideal sources (read: Coinbase) is a real challenge. As writer Brendon Kleen put it on Twitter, “Growth and morals are always at odds — but as women’s sports lean more into our big capitalistic sports industry, it’s only going to become more clear that building the business means getting in bed with questionable actors. The question for the W is whether it’s worth it.”

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No question the hypocrisy stings, moreso because Adam Silver (of going out of his way to sabotage the WNBA fame) has a much less abrasive donation history — as does former president Lisa Borders, although giving any money to Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema is really a modest edge at best. Engelbert’s political bent is further evidence that conservatives will use women’s sports as a convenient charity case when it suits them — like right now, a moment when right-wing bigots are using women’s sports as an excuse to legislate discrimination and violence against trans people.

The billionaires who made up the WNBA’s capital raise undoubtedly see it as a convenient, nearly bipartisan veneer for their shadier dealings, the kind of feel-good spend that could curry good will like a rainbow logo in June. But even the supposedly apolitical Joe Tsai described Hong Kong protesters, who are fighting for democracy and free speech, as a “separatist” movement. Micky Arison made multiple donations to Kelly Loeffler during the very election where WNBA players were campaigning to unseat her. Michael Dell, whose Dell corporation is based in Austin, made maximum personal donations to abhorrent Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. Dee Haslam is a faithful and prolific donor to the Republican Party. 

In Delevoye’s dissertation, she asserts that “for the WNBA, at least, it’s true that business success and political success don’t come at each other’s expense. Both can happen at the same time.” If you take what the league says at face value, then perhaps that’s true. But I know they’ve never publicly stated specific support of abortion using the word “abortion.” I find it hard to believe that the money they’re getting from conservatives doesn’t come with some strings attached, and that there are some levels of progressivism — ones that might require more than just using the most widely accepted wording on any given issue — that wouldn’t be a bridge too far for its leadership.

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I don’t know what a sports league’s “political success” looks like, but hosting an All-Star game in a place like Texas, where I live in spite of its violent anti-abortion and anti-trans legislation, would make a particular kind of statement. In her presser, Engelbert dredged up the excuse that the league shouldn’t “just run away from a state but also help effect change in a state where we might be playing” — an argument that can be a convincing retort to so-called liberals online who believe cutting off all Southern and otherwise red states is the best rebuke to our current oligarchy, but a poor one from an organization with power and influence and a supposedly solid set of core values. 

The most important thing to remember is that what makes the league progressive is its players — and that’s literally it. Any lip service that might get paid towards inclusivity and equality by league administration or ownership is just the bare minimum to keep them on the court, and the fact that it’s paid at all is a testament to how hard the players have been pushing. 

Getting to the place where the players’ identities and voices are respected in a baseline way has been an uphill battle, and as the league expands, there will be new, equally important fights that require players, administrators, media and fans to pick sides. WNBA players — not the WNBA as a whole — will need support if they are to continue advocating for themselves and for progress. It’s workers over management, every time.