Dearica Hamby Found Out Who The WNBA Puts First
4:22 PM EST on January 24, 2023
Athletes enduring the slights of professional sports often remind themselves, "It's a business." Cut while rehabbing a serious injury? Well, it's business. Traded to a shitty team and shittier city in a salary dump? That's the business. All just part of the business. Nothing more needs to be said. Everyone agreed to this brutal, transactional arrangement, and maybe it helps to restate the relationship in those terms, to remember that self-interest trumps everything else. Nothing personal. Still, it doesn't make the business suck any less. Dearica Hamby said as much this weekend when she was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks, seven months after signing a two-year extension with the Las Vegas Aces and about two months before she is due to deliver her second child. (She announced the pregnancy news at the Aces championship parade, in September.)
That she could have signed for more money in free agency didn't figure much into Hamby's decision to re-sign. When a WNBA writer pointed out the contract math in June, Hamby replied that "peace of mind & happiness" took precedence. And her 5-year-old daughter, Amaya, wanted to stay in Vegas, she added, with a little shrug emoji. There's another lesson that athletes tend to learn: You might make a career decision not totally informed by cold business calculus, but don't expect the team that employs you to ever return the favor.
After the trade, Hamby posted a goodbye message on Instagram, its third slide explaining that she felt she'd been treated by the Aces in an "unprofessional and unethical way." Hamby was clearly left with the impression that she was only traded because of her pregnancy. Hamby described the team's displeasure that she hadn't planned her pregnancy around the season, and then, when she told them she hadn't planned her pregnancy, that she hadn't taken "precautions" not to get pregnant. "I was accused of signing my extension knowingly pregnant," she wrote. "I was told that 'I didn't hold up my end of the bargain.'" The WNBA Players Association announced soon after that they would investigate.
That's the business, right? Certainly if the WNBA aspires to the condition of the men's league. The Clippers declare Blake Griffin a "Clipper for life" only to trade him before the ink on his extension dries; the Jazz give Joe Ingles the boot when he tears his ACL. But if trading a player for being pregnant isn't illegal in itself (remember that American pregnancy discrimination law allows a pregnant worker to be treated as badly as any other employee might), the conversations with management she recounts can't be called anything but way out of line.
I get the sense, though, from its years of shrewd marketing, that the WNBA aspires to something else. The Aces introduced Hamby as "Amaya's mom" at games. Regular photos and videos of Amaya won the team likes on social media. Much has been made of the Aces' reputation for being a player-first organization, coached and managed by former WNBA players. No doubt Hamby, the franchise's longest-tenured player before the trade, assumed that favor would extend to her. But she became casualty to a math problem. The Aces won a championship last year with a weak bench and no real margin for injury. Up against the cap, they felt no use for a player they evidently didn't expect to contribute this season. (Hamby did say in October that she plans to be in shape for the regular season.) Athletic careers and motherhood both entail a peculiar, similar anxiety, trying to maximize what feels like a fleeting window of time. So Hamby's sense of disappointment was likely compounded. "I have only put this organization first since day one," she wrote, "before any of them were here."
This kind of muddled relationship with pregnancy has haunted the WNBA since its creation. Sheryl Swoopes, one of the league's founding star players, missed the early days of the inaugural season and returned to play six weeks after giving birth. WNBA higher-ups mined some value from her absence. A woman playing basketball connotes subversion (scary!); a woman having a child does not. And what better defense against the charges of the players being—shudder—lesbians? Swoopes became the face of an image-conscious, "family-friendly" league.
The campaign, if less fraught with moral panic, continues. In the WNBA's recent TV ads, Lisa Leslie lists things an unspecified "they" said women couldn't do, over footage of WNBA players doing them. One earworm-y line from that commercial references Candace Parker and DeWanna Bonner (both gay women, for what it's worth): "They said...that women couldn't play after having kids. Candace was an MVP making history. I mean, DeWanna had twins!" ("DeWanna had twins!" walked so the Whopper jingle could run.)
Who actually says women can't play basketball after having kids? Why did Skylar Diggins-Smith say in 2019 that she had played the entire 2018 season pregnant without telling anyone? The mystery they? An irony pervades the ad; the party who historically made parenthood in the WNBA most difficult is also the one whose logo appears at the end. The players have fought for more, and won some battles. Under the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, they now receive fully paid maternity leave, childcare stipends, nursing accommodations, and some money to defray the costs of family planning options, like adoption and egg freezing. But can any player see Hamby's predicament and feel free to use those resources? Or trust that they won't be seen by management as lesser athletes for having children? "Having no support from your own organization is unfortunate," Diggins-Smith said.
This summer, Hamby appeared on the cover of SLAM Magazine's women's basketball issue with a banner that read "SUPERWOMAN. HOOPER. MOTHER. HERO." The issue celebrates the possibility of work-life balance, even as it tells a very different story. In the interview, Hamby ascribes her quick return after her first pregnancy to fluke timing; Amaya was born three weeks before her due date. “Those extra three weeks saved me, and I was able to get in shape in time for the season,” Hamby says. So the WNBA approaches pregnancy and motherhood the way any American institution would, dignifying them in the shallowest way while keeping them—in a secure, easy, workable form—just out of reach.
The other day I went back to read something I wrote almost exactly three years ago, when WNBA players signed the most recent CBA. I was curious to see how the take had aged—I remember worrying at the time that it was too gloomy, or gloomier than everyone else's—and a few of its smaller concerns now seem misplaced. But one thing holds true from that blog: "This CBA doesn’t quite answer the difficult, existential question hanging over the league: How seriously does the WNBA expect its players to take it, and how seriously will it take them in return?" The answers remain extremely and not extremely.
If anything, the problem has grown starker. A prioritization clause in that agreement, set to go in effect this year, punishes players who don't arrive at training camp on time. (Some 50 players arrive late each year to wrap up their seasons in overseas leagues.) It quite literally asks players to put the WNBA above all else, even while those other jobs pay better and more closely resemble full-time work. A recent feature from Isabel Rodrigues at The Next suggests that the CBA demands more of the league's middle class but benefits them the least, and may squeeze some players out of professional basketball altogether.
Hamby's post mentions the union's fight for "provisions that would finally support and protect player parents," but it's clear those maternity pay and childcare wins came at a cost most players didn't register at the time. Her experience, of course, shouldn't be mistaken for league policy; a different team might have treated her differently. But what Hamby described—management's undue sense of betrayal, how dare you not put us first!—seems simply like the league's age-old philosophy enacted. Business as usual.