Cathy Engelbert, announced as the WNBA’s new commissioner in May, officially starts this week. The former CEO of Deloitte LLC had a lot of success in the business world, and she needs to hit the ground running in the WNBA. Her to-do list is extensive; working on a new collective bargaining agreement is at the top, and that will need to be in place before next season. More immediately, here are five things we’d like to see from the commissioner.
1. Leadership statement about player discipline
This can be tricky, no doubt. Everyone deserves due process under the law. But all professional leagues have had to deal with the question of disciplining players even if they are still in the legal process or aren’t yet facing charges but are being investigated.
The WNBA currently has one player (Los Angeles’ Riquna Williams) facing assault charges for an altercation with her former girlfriend. Another player (Minnesota’s Odyssey Sims) is facing charges after being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, for which she apologized to the Lynx organization. And this past weekend, Seattle’s Natasha Howard was accused of domestic violence by her wife in a series of Twitter posts that included a video of a verbal confrontation between the two. At this point, there has been no formal complaint against Howard or any police investigation, although the Storm said they are investigating.
None of the players has been suspended by her WNBA team. Admittedly, they are all in different situations, but all raise the question of how the WNBA has responded. The league has a section on player conduct and discipline in its current CBA that is very generalized. It leads with: “Players shall at all times conform their conduct to standards of good citizenship, good moral character, and good sportsmanship and shall not do anything detrimental or prejudicial to the best interests of the WNBA, their teams, or the sport of basketball.”
The WNBA does not have a specific policy on domestic (or intimate partner) violence, as the NBA and Major League Baseball now have. It’s very likely that will be discussed for the WNBA’s next CBA.
In the meantime, fans are looking to the WNBA for leadership. Again, there are legal parameters the league has to respect, but a statement from Engelbert on how seriously the WNBA takes these issues would be a welcomed sign of that leadership.
2. Promise to meet with every team’s fans
Like previous WNBA leaders (who had the title “president”), Engelbert spoke when she got the job of wanting to travel around and learn more about every organization.
How about a fan “forum” in every WNBA city? If not all this summer, then including next summer too. It’s not just that the fans’ monetary investment in the league is critical. It’s that they genuinely hope to be part of the WNBA’s continued growth and have important insight to share about what they want (more merchandise, for one thing) and how much it matters to just feel heard.
3. Have a conversation with Maya Moore
Maya Moore, a four-time WNBA champion and the 2014 league MVP, is taking off this year from basketball. She said in a recent New York Times story that she doesn’t want to talk right now about when — or even if — she is returning to the sport. Moore also discussed the work she is doing involving the criminal justice system, specifically with an inmate in her hometown of Jefferson City, Missouri.
That story has been the only real insight into Moore’s life since her announcement via The Players Tribune in February saying that she wouldn’t play this WNBA season. Other interview requests have not been granted, although Moore is reportedly working on a documentary and might address the media in the fall.
It is certainly Moore’s prerogative to take time away from the sport and media. It seemed clear even last season that she probably needed a break.
Still, Moore is a vitally important figure in women’s basketball, a future Hall of Famer even if she never plays another minute. If Engelbert hasn’t talked to Moore already, she should; it doesn’t have to about basketball, but just about what Moore is doing now and how she feels. That would send a message to Moore about her value to the league as a person, not just as a player.
4. Clarify Breanna Stewart’s ambassador role
The league offered Stewart, last season’s MVP of the regular season and the WNBA Finals, the chance to be an “ambassador” this season after she suffered an Achilles tendon injury playing overseas in April.
But it still isn’t clear exactly what her role is. Stewart might not entirely know. She has done a few television interviews but otherwise hasn’t really talked to the media. It is understandable that she is rehabbing a serious injury, and that takes a lot of time. But what does being an ambassador entail?
Will she be at the All-Star Game in Las Vegas later this month in a meet and greet with fans? Is she mostly going to do clinics with kids? Is she meeting with sponsors or potential sponsors? Some or all of that?
WNBA interim president Mark Tatum said in May that the ambassadorship deal with Stewart is something the league expects to engage in with other players in the future. The league in the past has hired players to do promotional work. But Stewart, who is getting a salary larger than what she would have made if she had played this season, has the title “ambassador.” Engelbert should explain what that really means.
5. Talk up the 2020 Olympics
Sure, the Tokyo Games are a year away. But this Olympic cycle is the expected last go-round for WNBA and USA Basketball legends Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. There are several other WNBA players who’ll compete in Japan. Team USA is going for a seventh consecutive gold medal. The sport of 3×3 basketball is debuting in these Summer Games. So, there’s a lot to be excited about from the WNBA’s perspective regarding the upcoming Olympics.
There are several reasons why the U.S. women’s basketball team really hasn’t seemed to get its due recognition despite all its success. One is likely just because they have dominated the sport so much since the 1996 Atlanta Games. But if there was ever a time for the WNBA to do everything it can to celebrate and promote its Olympians — Americans and others — it’s now. And in selling the WNBA to more sponsors, Engelbert also can sell its stars’ commitment to playing in the Olympics — and what a huge deal that still is for them.