The "Ace"-tivists: The Las Vegas Aces are Continuing to Stand Up for Players Rights

The Las Vegas Aces have become an unwitting lightning rod for some of the WNBA's most pressing player issues.

The Las Vegas Aces have been on the names of fan and pundit lips since the beginning of the season. Not only because of the relocation, renaming, and rebranding of the franchise that started its life back in 1996 as the Utah Starzz and ended as a sale of the San Antonio Stars to MGM Entertainment in 2017; that was enough to generate a plethora of headlines. Nor was it the return of head coach Bill Laimbeer, the former two-time WNBA Coach of the Year who took the Detroit Shock (now the Dallas Wings) to three championships, and who won two NBA championships of his own as one of the top defensive players of his time with the Detroit “Bad Boy” Pistons.

The buzz out of Sin City revolved around the number-one pick of the 2018 WNBA Draft, consensus national player A’ja Wilson from the 2017 NCAA champion University of South Carolina. Wilson, who is widely considered the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, has been heralded by rookies and veterans alike as “not playing like a rookie.” Granted, she makes rookie mistakes as expected, but her overall level of play is way beyond her professional years and is almost unheard of in someone fresh out of college. She belongs to an elite group of players who played at similar levels as rookies, which include Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) and retired Indiana Fever icon Tamika Catchings.

The other head of the Vegas monster, Kayla McBride (fondly known as “McBuckets”), is a five-year veteran out of the storied Notre Dame program and another gem in the desert. Her behind-the-arc prowess is renowned and she is just as fearless as getting to the basket as Wilson. Together, they have catapulted the Aces from a feel-good story to a legitimate contender for a playoff spot. Speaking of which…

On Thursday, August 2, the Aces were en route from Las Vegas to play the Washington Mystics in Washington, DC on Friday, August 3.

A series of bizarre events (including mechanical issues with their plane) found the Las Vegas squad traveling over 25 hours via commercial flights (as the 2014 Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulated that all teams must fly coach), both together and separately; available commercial flights were unable to accommodate the entire team plus coaching staff, so the team and coaching staff split up on different flights.

The Aces were given the option of breaking the flight rule and getting a charter plane but were unable to secure one on such short notice. They finally arrived in the Washington, DC area around 2:45 pm ET. Tipoff was supposed to begin at 7:00 pm, but the league pushed the game back to 8:00 pm in an attempt to accommodate the road-weary Aces. When the Aces opted not to play (they didn’t even show up for the pre-game shootaround), the game was canceled for the first time in league history.

The Mystics stayed to sign autographs for the fans, and fans were offered ticket refunds and tickets to future games.

Reactions around the league were mixed. Some fans and players, such as the Wings’ Skylar Diggins-Smith and the New York Liberty’s Shavonte Zellous (in an Instagram Story) were in favor of the game cancellation.

Others, mainly the Mystics, were not pleased with the cancellation.

Mystics head coach Mike Thibault had some things to say.

A Bleacher Report video of Washington guard Kristi Toliver expressing her “disappointment” in the cancellation has since been removed from the WNBA section of Bleacher Report, though she has been quoted as calling the Aces “unprofessional”.

Of course, one could readily argue that if it were the Mystics in such a situation -- especially with former league MVP Elena Delle Donne in the mix as one of the league’s most recognized faces -- judgment wouldn’t be as harsh, but I digress. Plus, no athlete wants an asterisk attached to a win; if the Mystics are awarded a win via forfeit and make the playoffs, they will always carry the stigma of, “Well, you didn’t really win…” or “You got some help because the Aces didn’t play.”

The rest of the league’s players have been quiet as they await the final ruling from the WNBA via Lisa Borders, the current WNBA president. As of 6:00 pm ET on Sunday, August 5, a ruling had not yet been made.

Understandably, lot's of questions surrounding this.

Why didn't the league offer a charter sooner? (dunno)
Will the game be made up? (no)
Whose decision was this? (the Aces)
Will this be a forfeit for the Aces? (dunno)
If not, how will the playoffs be determined (dunno) #WNBA

If Borders rules the game a forfeit/Mystics win, she risks the backlash of the players and fans. If she rules the game a reschedule, she gives the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) -- the players’ union --  ammunition for the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) renegotiations. Rock, meet Hard Place.

Borders opted for the "fair is fair" approach: on Tuesday, August 7, the league ruled the game a forfeit for the Aces, which gave the Mystics (currently ranked #4 as of today, August 7) a win. The climb to the playoffs for Las Vegas, which currently sits at #9 in the league, just got steeper. The Aces knew this was a possibility and were willing to pay the price anyway for standing up for their beliefs in a player's unassailable right to healthy playing conditions and minimal travel drama. 

The Perfect Storm

This isn’t the first time the Aces have clapped back over outdated and unfair league policy, and they aren’t the first to do so. Nor will they be the last.

Pay inequity has been a long-standing complaint among players, especially for those who play overseas in the offseason and make up to 12 times their league salary, which is capped at $115,500 for this season.

Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury is an infamous example, as she was paid her entire WNBA seasonal salary, plus a bonus, by her former overseas team UMMC Ekaterinburg, to sit out the regular three- to four-month WNBA season in order to be fresh for the eight-to-nine-month overseas season. WNBA salary increases are to be $8,000 per year until the current CBA expires in 2022. The WNBA also only receives an estimated 22% of total revenue, compared to the NBA's 50%. 

Travel has also been a sticking point, as players have repeatedly (and correctly) stated that increased travel time versus rest time impacts the product, which is them and the games they play (Swish Appeal does a deeper dive into the travel/rest statistics). Who would you trust to know more about a subject: the people actually playing the game, or the people sitting behind a desk studying numbers related to a game?

No one (except internet trolls) are disputing the validity of the Aces’ commentary regarding certain issues. It’s the timing of their comments that lends what should be a tempest in a teacup the energy of a hurricane.

In case you missed it, the last time the league and the WNBPA signed the CBA was 2014, which was to span a period of eight years. The next CBA is due to be signed in 2022 but either side can opt out in 2019. Notification of such has to be given by October 31 of this year -- in just over two months, and one month after the end of the playoffs.

Borders, during an in-game interview when Las Vegas hosted the Phoenix Mercury for their final meeting of the season, gushed about the progress the league has made with regard to ratings this year, especially for the All-Star Game. Borders cited TV deals with ESPN and NBA TV, as well as select games live-streamed on Twitter, as contributing to the uptick in viewers. There is also what has been heralded as the most competitive season in the league’s history, following one of the strongest draft classes in the league’s history.

All of this implies that salary increases will be at the forefront of the new CBA negotiations, as well as the use of charter planes in light of the recently publicized travel woes (the Indiana Fever also had flight delays and landed a few hours before the 3:00 pm ET tipoff against the New York Liberty).

Needless to say, it’s not a good look for the WNBA as a league right now; the positives of increased fan viewing is being negated by the league’s stances regarding salary and travel, and even facility maintenance.

The increased strength of the fan base plus an energized group of younger players that are active on social media are shining a glaring light on league flaws that have been able to be previously covered up or pushed to the backburner.  Veteran players who are approaching the eventual sunset of their careers are continuing to speak out, led by All-Stars Taurasi, Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, Elena Delle Donne of the Mystics, and Seimone Augustus of the Minnesota Lynx; they have a lot less to lose as they prepare for the day when they hang up their sneakers as players and want the league to be a more welcoming place for those players who come after them.

The new WNBPA director of operations, Terri Carmichael Jackson, is a savvy negotiator in the vein of the men’s NBPA executive director Michele Robinson. Borders, who serves at the pleasure of the owners much as her counterpart NBA commissioner Adam Silver does for the men’s side, is in for a battle. It’s not just player salaries and charter planes at stake; the life of the 22-year-old league hangs in the balance. Given the strides made over the years, now is not the time for an old-school mentality that hampers what growth has occurred and jeopardizes future growth. It’s time for the league to get with the program and give the people -- and the players -- what they want.

Thanks for stopping by.

Article updated to reflect the WNBA's ruling on the game forfeit. 

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