Opinion: WNBA botches decision to deny MVP Elena Delle Donne medical waiver

The WNBA’s attempt to play its 2020 season had a good start when it dedicated its season to social justice.

Since then, it’s been marred by controversy.

There’s the distraction from Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a U.S. senator who dismisses Black Lives Matter, and the rightful backlash she received from WNBA players and its union, who do not want her owning any part of a WNBA team.

Now, the league has been hit with another distraction. A panel of physicians has denied 2019 WNBA MVP and champion Elena Delle Donne’s request to opt out of the 2020 season because of medical concerns.

This is a horrible look for the WNBA, and one that should be rectified.

Delle Donne, who has chronic Lyme disease and was advised by her doctor that she is at high risk for contracting and having complications from COVID-19. However, the panel disagreed, concluding she is not a high-risk person. That means if she decides not to play, she won’t be paid.

Forward Elena Delle Donne led the Washington Mystics to their first WNBA championship in 2019. (Photo: Brad Mills, USA TODAY Sports)

The panel is three-pronged and similar to the NBA’s protocol: one doctor is appointed by the WNBA, one doctor appointed by the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and a physician appointed by agreement of the WNBA and WNBPA. Majority vote rules.

The WNBA should reconsider. Given her desire to compete and possibly win a second consecutive championship, Delle Donne is not a player looking to skip out on a shortened season just because she doesn’t want to play.

Also worth adding: the Washington Mystics’ team doctor has cleared her to play but said Delle Donne should be considered high risk, according to ESPN.

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Delle Donne is looking out for her short- and long-term health. While Lyme Disease isn’t on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of conditions that may put an individual at increased risk or the possibility of increased risk, immune deficiencies are listed. There are studies that indicate Lyme Disease has an impact on the immune system, and there are some doctors who believe those with Lyme Disease are at a higher risk for COVID-19 and complications from the virus.

‘The Lyme Times’ medical journal dedicated several stories of its summer 2020 issue to COVID-19. It's a significant concern in that community. Since it’s a novel coronavirus, there’s much still not known about the virus, including potential harm to those with chronic Lyme disease.

During a pandemic when player health and safety are expressed as paramount by the NBA and WNBA, the WNBA missed a chance to acknowledge a star player’s health concern and act with compassion and understanding.

I understand the physician’s panel. The league and players agreed to that method, and Delle Donne has to, for now, live that decision. But she’s faced with “making a choice between what's best for her from a health standpoint and what's best for her from a financial standpoint for her and her family,” her agent, Erin Kane, told ESPN.

It underscores the problem others in the U.S. are facing. The WNBA is in position to do something about it.

A $215,000 salary is at stake. But much more, too. Kane said her client’s initial reaction was disbelief.

What will disbelief become? Frustration? Anger? Disappointment? With its MVP, a players union vice president, marketable star and Olympian at the crux of the issue, does the WNBA want to know?

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