On a day when Washington’s Elena Delle Donne questioned whether her status as reigning WNBA MVP had impacted her being denied a medical exemption this season, the Mystics also announced that she was on the roster and would be paid her salary even if she did not end up playing.
Delle Donne, 30, had been anticipating a medical exemption — which guarantees players full salary if they are deemed high risk regarding the potential impact of the coronavirus — because of the effects of Lyme disease on her immune system.
She spoke on SportsCenter on Wednesday after also writing about her situation for The Players’ Tribune. She was asked whether she thought her status as one of the most prominent players in the league had any effect on the panel of physicians — which was appointed by the league and players’ union — regarding the decision to deny her the exemption.
“I’m not sure, and I really hope it didn’t,” Delle Donne said. “I hope they would treat me as ‘Player X’ and they see that I’ve been treated for something for nine years. They’ve seen my bloodwork; I’ve submitted everything.
“So I really hope that wasn’t the reason why this happened. I hope it’s doctors just still being unaware of Lyme disease and not having Lyme-literate doctors on that panel, because I don’t want to believe that’s what happened. Unfortunately, it might be what happened.”
Delle Donne said she is on a regimen where she takes 64 pills per day.
“I know taking that much medication every day probably doesn’t have a great effect on my long-term health, but I love the game of basketball,” Delle Donne said. “I found a protocol that sometimes works for me and enables me to play. But I think I’m just going to have to be way more open about my treatment, which I’ve been private about. Because medical things are not always open. But I think people deserve my honesty and deserve to see the fight that I go through just to have a normal life, let alone be on a basketball court.”
Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault said in a Zoom call Wednesday that Delle Donne is on the team’s roster and is being paid. He said she will be paid throughout the WNBA season, even if she is only doing her rehab after back surgery — which she underwent in January — and doesn’t get the chance to play.
Thibault seemed somewhat perplexed as to why Delle Donne gave the impression, though, that she had to choose between playing this season and getting paid. He said that is not the case. Thibault said that Delle Donne shared with the team that she had been denied the exemption.
“But we weren’t able to make an announcement regarding the decision unless the player makes a public statement first,” Thibault said. “Elena and her agent, Erin Kane, picked a time to share it publicly.
“The fact of the matter is the Mystics organization will never put Elena’s — or any other of our players’ — health and well-being in jeopardy at any time,” Thibault said. “As in the past, with her Lyme disease history and her on-court injuries, all decisions about her ability to play will be made jointly with Elena. She is part of our roster, she is being paid, and is continuing to rehab from her offseason back surgery.
“If at some point, later in the season, we are all comfortable enough with both her physical progress and the safety of joining the team in Florida, then we will make those arrangements. If we don’t feel that, then she will continue to do her workouts in D.C. and get herself ready for the following season. Her long-term care and health as a major foundation piece of the Mystics will always take precedence.”
Kane, though, told ESPN that Delle Donne hadn’t been entirely clear on what the parameters of her getting paid by the Mystics would be, and that she had two major concerns with the situation. First, she thought that the Mystics would require her to rehab at their training facility in Washington D.C. — instead of at her home — and that could present a possibility of contracting coronavirus there.
“That’s still a risk she’s not sure she’s willing to take,” Kane said, adding that Delle Donne has been doing her rehab regularly at home. “And for her, the decision has never been about her back. It’s about her Lyme disease, and what’s safe.”
Further, even if it could be agreed on that Delle Donne did not go into the Mystics’ facility for rehab, eventually she would be faced with the decision of whether to go to the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, if the Mystics felt she was healthy enough to play. And Kane said Delle Donne feels that also would be a major risk.
Kane said Delle Donne is thankful toward Thibault and Ted Leonsis — the CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Mystics — for trying to do the right thing, and that she thinks they want what’s best for her. But figuring out the details while also dealing with the disappointment about the medical panel’s ruling has been challenging for Delle Donne.
“She really appreciates their support, and that they’re trying to find a happy medium, a way to kind of resolve this situation,” Kane said. “We’re trying to figure out with the team what the parameters are. Because Elena doesn’t want to go to the facility full-stop, or work out somewhere else indoors where’s there’s someone else around. Because she feels like that’s risky. None of that has been finalized. Elena is trying to mentally sort through this, and all of it is happening in pretty short order.”
The WNBA is playing a shortened 22-game regular season, which begins July 25 at IMG Academy. Some players have opted out over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, while others have done so to focus on social justice concerns. Players had the option of applying for medical exemptions based on their risk factors if they were to contract coronavirus. If players are deemed medically exempt, they get their full salary for the season.
“I considered her a high-risk player,” Seattle’s Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP, said when asked about Delle Donne’s situation Wednesday. “I hope the league and Elena can figure out something where she doesn’t have to be in an uncomfortable situation.”
Phoenix forward Jessica Breland is one player who has received an exemption — because she had Hodgkin lymphoma while in college at North Carolina a decade ago. Delle Donne’s Mystics teammate Tina Charles also is seeking a medical exemption, but it hasn’t been publicly announced whether she has gotten it.
Delle Donne’s back surgery was for three herniated disks that she dealt with last season while leading the Mystics to the WNBA title. She said her concerns over the coronavirus were a major factor in how she has been living her life the past several months.
Thibault said he thought Delle Donne also saw the refusal for a medical exemption as an an opportunity to make a stronger statement about how Lyme disease is perceived. Kane agreed, and Delle Donne made that clear in her comments to SportsCenter as well.
“For nine years now, I’ve been dealing with Lyme disease and other co-infections that have destroyed my immune system, and I’ve been immune compromised for years,” Delle Donne said. “When COVID has come around, and I saw that if you’re immune compromised you have to be super careful. I’ve been that.
“I went through the process with the league of submitting all my information. My doctor, who has been treating me for nine years, submitted a letter basically saying: This isn’t safe for her. So when I got the call that I was denied, I was completely shocked. I didn’t really understand, and now it’s almost like I’m asked to ignore the one doctor that heard me and has been treating me and is enabling me to kind of live a normal life with the protocol and the treatment he’s had me on for years.”
Delle Donne said she would continue to discuss the situation with her wife, Amanda, and wouldn’t take long to make a decision about what her next step will be, now that she is not getting the medical exemption.
“Luckily, I’m privileged enough to be able to make a decision, and I know there are so many people through COVID who have lost jobs, who are going hungry, who don’t have an option to make a choice whether to go to their job or not,” Delle Donne said. “But I’m in a position where we can figure it out; we’ll find a way to push through if my decision is to not go play. So we’ll see what happens. Maybe this is good; maybe this is an awakening for me to speak out more about Lyme disease, to fight for the people who have been ignored for years, just like myself.”