Gender discrimination of women in sports has been well documented for decades. Yet, to this day, women participating in sports still have to abide by a different set of rules than their male counterparts. More specifically, the Women’s National Basketball Association is a prime example of the hypocritical implementation of rules and policies that differ vastly from those in the National Basketball Association. Of all the policies in the WNBA, the age and education policy is one that stands out as extremely unfair to the women who dedicate their lives to reaching the highest level of professional basketball. Some would suggest that this policy is illegal under antitrust and labor laws, but nonetheless, players are still required to adhere to this policy. Players have long expressed their grievances to league officials and with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) on the horizon, changes to this policy could be imminent. In this report, I will provide background information on the policy, discuss the various issues the policy currently presents, and propose a policy reform solution. The age and education necessary to compete at the professional level in basketball should be the same across both the WNBA and NBA.
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WNBA Age and Education Policy Background
The history behind the development of CBA’s, professional leagues, and age eligibility policies extend far beyond the recently configured WNBA. Variations of age and education policies range from unspoken agreements among club owners to formalized rules in a league’s CBA (Hendricks, 2017). The NBA, in particular, has changed their rules multiple times. For some years, the NBA did not have an age and education policy before they ultimately instituted one in 2005. The NBA’s policy has had a major impact on college basketball and the development of programs looking to build sustained success. The NBA’s current policy states that a player shall be eligible for selection in the first NBA Draft if he has satisfied all applicable requirements of Section 1(i) below and one of the requirements of Section 1(ii) below:
“Section 1 (i) requirements: The player is or will be at least 19 years old during the calendar year in which the Draft is held, and at least one NBA Season has elapsed since the player’s graduation or projected graduation from high school if the player did not graduate. Section 1 (ii) requirements: The player: (1) graduated from a four-year college or university in the United States (or is to graduate in the calendar year in which the Draft is held) and has no remaining intercollegiate basketball eligibility; or (2) is attending or attended a four-year college or university in the United States, and his original class in such college or university has graduated and he has no remaining intercollegiate basketball eligibility; or (3) has graduated from high school in the U.S, did not enroll in a four-year college or university in the United States, and four calendar years have elapsed since such player’s high school graduation or projected graduation year had he graduated; or (4) has signed a player contract with a “professional basketball team not in the NBA”, and has rendered services under such contract prior to the Draft, or (5) has expressed his desire to be selected in the Draft in a writing received by the NBA at least sixty (60) days prior to such Draft” (Duru, 2015).
As you can see, this policy is extensive and does not limit players age 19 and older from declaring for the NBA draft.
Contrastingly, the WNBA, which is under the direction of the NBA, has had the same age and education policy since the league started in 1996. The league existed for two years before a WNBA Player’s Association or Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was ever created. During the late 1990’s, the WNBA officially incorporated an age and education policy into the CBA that sought college graduates over players with years still left in school (Hendrick, 2017). The abundance of quality college graduates available to play in the WNBA discouraged teams from picking players who had not yet graduated from college. One would assume since the WNBA is a subsidiary of the NBA, policies in the WNBA would be similar to those in the NBA; however, that is not the case. The WNBA Age and Education policy states that in order to be eligible for the WNBA draft, a player:
“(1) Must be at least twenty-two (22) years old during the calendar year in which such Draft is held and she either has no remaining intercollegiate eligibility or renounces her remaining intercollegiate eligibility by written notice to the WNBA at least ten (10) days prior to such draft; (2) has graduated from a four-year college or university prior to such Draft, or “is to graduate” from such college or university within the three (3)-month period following such Draft and she either has no remaining intercollegiate eligibility or renounces her remaining intercollegiate eligibility by written notice to the WNBA at least ten (10) days prior to such Draft” (Article XIII: Player Eligibility and WNBA Draft, 2018).
Since the league is fairly new, policy makers believed that requiring players to be 22 years of age or graduate college to enter the league would translate into a better overall product. While the origination of this policy appeared to be in the best interest of the athlete, it has not lived up to its perceived purpose. Players have long lamented that this policy is bias against women, affects a woman’s ability to make a livelihood for themselves, and significant changes need to be made. Also, players believe that this age and education policy increases the possibility of injury and eliminates their ability to attain future earnings. The gender bias within the policy and the way in which it is structured, enforced, and regulated are all causes for concern and support the player’s call for reform.
Issues Surrounding Policy
The way in which the NBA has exerted control over the WNBA with their age and education policy raises concerns regarding gender discrimination. For example, Greg Oden from Ohio State University and Courtney Paris of Oklahoma University were both considered high draft prospects in the NBA and WNBA respectively. After a monstrous freshman season leading his team to a national championship, Oden is allowed to enter the NBA draft. Similarly, Paris led her team to the NCAA tournament after putting up big numbers in her sophomore campaign. However, because Paris is less than 4 years removed from high school and under the age of 22, she was not allowed to declare for the WNBA draft. Paris is forced to return to Oklahoma University where risks of getting injured and losing out on potential future earnings looms large. Because of their gender, Oden and Paris face different circumstances. In fact, Jessica Hendrick (2017) states that the “WNBA age/education policy is the only policy in any established professional sports league that precludes a potential class of players from entering the professional leagues until their expected dates of college graduation.” The NCAA and NBA would have you believe that the policy regarding age and education is an issue only on the men’s side, but female basketball players are even more impacted by a policy unique to them. With women being treated different by the league, arguments could be made that the NBA is violating Title VII sex discrimination laws. Title VII is designed to prevent gender inequity, but that is exactly what the NBA is perpetuating. Even though the NBA ultimately acts as third-party to the WNBA, they can still be liable for violations of Title VII laws. The drastic difference in policy regarding entrance eligibility for the draft of each league suggests that the NBA believes women need to be more mature before they can declare for the draft.
Furthermore, the NBA views the WNBA in a different light than its own league. The NBA wants to portray the female athletes in the WNBA as role models for pursuing their career after graduating from college, but the NBA itself does not require graduation as a stipulation for entry into their league. While being seen as a role model is great and honorable, female athletes want to be able to pursue their chosen career early just like their male counterparts. Women and men both face the same possibility of potential injury, so there’s no excuse why women aren’t allowed to declare early for the draft.
Additionally, the WNBA policy prohibits women from making their own individual choices regarding college and the WNBA. The NBA basically forces women’s basketball players to choose between their education and their chosen profession. Much like the NBA, the WNBA “has a monopoly over American women’s professional basketball opportunity because it denies them the opportunity to play professional basketball in any capacity in the United States” (Edelman & Harrison, 2015).
Lastly, the policy prevents women from securing financial stability and independence Although the WNBA minimum starting salary is $32,400, that income is enough to live sufficiently and independently (Edelman & Harrison, 2015). The way that the age and education policy is structured practically keeps women dependent on family and friends for money. The entire purpose of the policy to promote independence, maturity, and education is defeated when the well-being of the athlete mentally and financially takes a backseat. Women are subjected to harsher demands and expectations than their male counterparts and this policy simply highlights that fact. All of these issues mentioned emphasizes the need to reform this policy and remove the clear inequities.
Case Study- Shea Ralph and Caroline Doty, UCONN
The story of Shea Ralph and Caroline Doty highlight the extreme inequity between men and women basketball. Ralph and Doty were highly recruited players out of high school, and both tore their ACL in their freshman season at UCONN. To provide a brief parallel, Nerlens Noel was also a highly recruited player out of high school and went to play his collegiate ball at the University of Kentucky. Noel also tore his ACL during his freshman year at Kentucky, but the age and education policy of the NBA allowed him to declare for the draft anyway. In contrast, the WNBA’s age and education policy prevented Ralph and Doty from declaring for the WNBA draft; instead, both had to return back to school. After rehabilitating their injuries, Doty tore her ACL again right before her senior season and Ralph had an astounding five reconstructive knee surgeries following her first initial ACL tear (Duru, 2015). Doty exhausted all her eligibility and never got the chance to play professionally in the WNBA. Ralph, on the other hand, bounced back from her first two surgeries, becoming the 1999-2000 Big East Player of the Year and an All-American (Duru, 2015). However, Ralph also exhausted all her eligibility and even though she was drafted into the WNBA, her body never allowed her to play a single game. If not for the age and education policy in the WNBA, these players could have declared for the draft earlier and not have risked further injury to their ACLs while also not receiving any benefits of financial compensation from playing professionally. Duru (2015) states that “they were denied the opportunity to enter the WNBA after their freshman years because of their sex, and the subsequent injuries they suffered in college.” Ralph and Doty are examples as to why this policy is unfair and discriminatory to female athletes. If Ralph and Doty were men, their professional dreams and aspirations would have likely come true had they not been subjected to the harsh policies of the WNBA.
Case Study- Sabrina Ionescu, University of Oregon
Sabrina Ionescu had just led her team to a Final Four appearance where her team loss to the eventual champion Baylor Bears in the first semifinal game. Minutes after her team’s defeat, she receives a message stating that she must decide whether she will declare for the draft or not within 24 hours. Because of the lack of time between the end of the NCAA women’s basketball season and the WNBA draft, athletes are often forced to make a decision on their future within a few days or even hours. According to the CBA, players have to declare for the draft at least 10 days prior with exceptions to those still competing after that deadline (Negley, 2019). Ionescu is one of those exceptions which is why she had 24 hours to decide her future. Although she was slated to turn 22 during the calendar year of the draft, the stress and lack of time given to the athletes to decide ultimately made her chose to return to school. Ionescu explains how the 24-hour turnaround affects athletes like her when she says that “it’s horrible that a student-athlete only gets 24 hours to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives. You really don’t have enough time to process what you want to do until after your season’s over. And 24 hours is not enough” (Negley, 2019). The WNBA age and education policy filters into other draft policies that are unfair to female athletes. If the WNBA simply allows female athletes to declare for the draft similar to male athletes in the NBA, the time a player has to declare would be obsolete in their mind because they would be able to declare for the draft on their terms.
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Formal Policy Proposal
As stated previously, the necessity of the reform of this age and education policy is clear and evident. Women are not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts even within the same sport. Not only are women paid extremely less in terms of the percentage of revenue they receive compare to males in the NBA, they are also forced to put their professional dreams on hold until the league says, ‘they’re ready’.
Steps to start reform
Before true reform can take place, the WNBA Player’s Association and the WNBA league office must agree to sit down and explain to other why the policy should or should not be changed. Next, the players should make their grievances clear to their representatives and league owners that the policy clearly differs from that of the NBA and subjects’ female players to possible injuries in college—derailing their quest to even make it to the league. Players must also realize that the owners and league officials are not going to completely capitulate to their demands. Proposing a new policy that still promotes some importance to academics while allowing players to declare earlier would be the best start to negotiations.
With new CBA negotiations approaching, the WNBA Player’s Association needs to enter the sit-down meetings with drafted proposals and counteroffers that have already been voted on and approved by the players. Walking into the meetings unprepared would decrease the perceived importance of the issue to the players in the owners’ mind.
For a player to be eligible for the WNBA the following requirements must be met:
MANDATORY REQUIREMENT: Player must be 21 years old during the calendar year that the Draft is held;
Must meet ONE (1) of the following requirements: (1) If attending or previously attended a four-year college or university, the player must renounce her remaining intercollegiate eligibility by written notice to the WNBA at least thirty (30) days prior to such draft; (2) If the player graduated from a four-year college or university in the U.S, (or is to graduate in the calendar year in which the Draft is held) and has no remaining intercollegiate basketball eligibility; (3) If the player is attending or previously attended a four-year college or university in the U.S and her original class in such college or university has graduated and has no remaining intercollegiate basketball eligibility; (4) has graduated from high school in the U.S, did not enroll in a four-year college or university in the U.S, and two calendar years have elapsed since such player’s high school graduation or projected graduation year had she graduated; (5) has signed a player contract with a “professional basketball team not in the WNBA”, and has rendered services under such contract prior to the Draft.
This policy will likely go into effect before the start of the 2020-2021 women’s college basketball season to give players time to review and adapt accordingly to the new policy.
Gaining approval and generating buy-in
The WNBA Player’s Association can conduct a survey amongst college coaches, players, and administrators regarding their views on decreasing the age and expanding requirements for entry into the WNBA Draft. Also, players must be willing to compromise on other important policies in order to get the approval of the owners for a new age and education policy. Highlighting potential moves of star players to international leagues permanently could entice owners to act on reforming this policy as well. Owners know that players are paid significantly more overseas and the league has a history of star players such as Diana Turasi forgoing an entire WNBA season to play overseas (Hendrick, 2017). If star college players go overseas instead of declaring for the WNBA Draft, the WNBA could take a significant financial hit. Owners in any sport will be willing to act if their bottom-line is significantly affected.
The WNBA should be applauded for lasting twenty years. It has inspired many female athletes, and in some ways has broken the glass ceiling in athletics. But for all of the league’s accomplishments, there still seems to be a huge disparity in treatment between male and female basketball players. Why is it less acceptable for male athletes to receive a degree and more encouraged for them to become professional athletes at an earlier age than female athletes? This Comment is critical of both sides, men not being encouraged academically and women not being encouraged athletically, but the larger focus is on why the WNBA is limiting its opportunities and future by not allowing younger players to enter the league. A prime example would be Breanna Stewart from the University of Connecticut. She has been one of the most talked about players in women’s college basketball and just completed her first season in the WNBA.
If she were a male, sports commentators would most likely have recognized her as a prime “one-and-done” player. An athlete may not be able to bring successful claims under antitrust law or labor law, but this does not mean that the league and Players Association could not initiate the change. As noted in an article by Kate Fagan discussing the debate surrounding Jewell Loyd’s draft, a surcharge of student-athletes to the WNBA might be the wave of the future and could improve the WNBA.142 With the recent change in women’s college basketball moving from a period system to a quarter system, like that used in the WNBA, it is even easier for players to smoothly transition from the college level to the professional level. Additionally, the growing dispute over whether student-athletes should be paid during their time in college presents another component that will influence how female basketball players feel about the Age/Education Policy. If male athletes are the only ones to receive compensation, then women are placed at an even greater economic disadvantage, since men would receive more money than them at both the collegiate and professional levels. Overall, the continual disparity in treatment and perception of female athletes will hold the WNBA back from growing. Allowing younger players into the league can add excitement to the game and could allow veterans an opportunity to rest while their teams still maintain their competitive edge. The Age/Education Policy is an exemplary example of how female athletes are still prompted to do the “right” thing by staying in school, compared to male athletes who are less inclined to receive a college education simply because society is more accepting of male athletes. Even though a female student-athlete more than likely would not be able to bring a successful labor lawsuit against the WNBA, it could strike a chord with the league to truly reevaluate how the rule affects the game and players. The WNBA’s Age/Education Policy should be less restrictive and allow female players the same opportunity as their male counterparts to consider the viability of leaving college early and entering their respective professional leagues. (DURU, 2015)
- Duru, J. (2015). Hoop dreams deferred: The WNBA, the NBA, and the long-standing gender inequity at the game’s highest level. Utah Law Review, 3(1), 559-603.
- Harrison, K., Edelman, M. (2008) Analyzing the WNBA’s mandatory age/education policy from a legal, cultural, and ethical perspective: Women, men, and the professional sports landscape. Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy, 3(1), 1-28.
- Hendrick, J. (2017). The waiting game: Examining labor law and reasons why the WNBA needs to change its age/education policy. Marquette Law Review, 27(2), 521-542.
- Negley, C. (2019). WNBA draft: Sabrina Ionescu isn't a fan of the 'horrible' 24-hour deadline to declare. Retrieved from https://sports.yahoo.com/wnba-draft-sabrina-ionescu-horrible-24-hour-deadline-to-declare-final-four-oregon-145520082.html
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