WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert addresses bubble protocol, contingency plans and social justice initiatives: “We’re ready to go”

Three days before the WNBA season begins in Florida, the league’s commissioner Cathy Engelbert held a teleconference with media. She opened the call with comments summarizing the lead up to teams and staffers arriving at IMG Academy in Bradenton.

“We were in huge planning and scenario-modeling mode for many months leading up to July 6 when we all came on campus, including myself,” Engelbert said. “And now that we’re here, it’s amazing to see the work playing out, seeing the players back on the court. IMG Academy, as I mentioned before, is a beautiful and vast campus, known for elite training of athletes, including professional athletes.”

Some of the main topics discussed in the teleconference included:

  • The health and safety of players
  • Bubble protocol
  • Social justice issues and opposition to those efforts from Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler

Health and Safety

Even before teams arrived at the league’s summer home, they underwent medical evaluations and testing. The day that teams began arriving (July 6), the league announced that seven players received positive COVID-19 results from a round of tests between June 28 and July 5.

“We have only had two players test positive since we got here and that was in the initial quarantine period,” Engelbert said in response to a question about updated COVID-19 numbers for the league. “So, once we came out of quarantine, we’ve had no other player players test positive. And obviously we’ll report out if there’s some significant story there but right now, of course, knock on wood every day, but you know things are stable here and no positive tests since we came out of quarantine a couple of weeks ago.”

Game officials will be in the bubble during the season and the league will have a tiered-system of access for staff who work during broadcasts.

“We’ve tiered, as they have across the way in Orlando, certain people who will be at broadcast who will not be at any time within 10 feet of any player. We’ve got plexiglas, other barriers for that set of people. Those are still subject to testing, but they’re not staying inside the IMG campus. That’s important. But the referees are inside.”

Bubble Protocol

Less than a two-hour drive away, the NBA is restarting its season at Walt Disney World. As of July 13, two players inside the NBA’s bubble have tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, two other players inadvertently broke that league’s quarantine bubble. Once games start, NBA players will be penalized 1% of their salary according to ESPN. The WNBA will also punish players who leave the bubble.

“If someone leaves for unauthorized reasons, obviously there will be significant ramifications of that including that they may not be able to come back for the season,” Engelbert said. So far, there have been no unauthorized exits.

Players and staff who must leave IMG Academy for family and medical emergencies need to provide advance notice before they exit. When they return, they will undergo quarantine for seven to 10 days, according to the commissioner.

Engelbert also indicated that the league had developed relationships with local hospitals and public health officials in Manatee County in case someone in the bubble gets sick and needs immediate medical attention. In addition, there is a team of doctors at IMG Academy on standby for a range of issues, including COVID-19 as well as sports-related injuries.

Not all players with pre-existing medical conditions received medical waivers to opt out of playing this season, the most famous being Washington Mystics center Elena Delle Donne, the reigning WNBA MVP. Engelbert reiterated her emphasis on trusting the recommendations of medical experts and scientists and the plan worked out with players when asked about the rejection of Delle Donne’s waiver request.

“The virus is very complicated,” she said. “We had to put in a process that we worked out collectively with the Players Association to create a level playing field for all WNBA players so everyone is treated fairly. Independent medical review panel, including specialists. The level of player is not a factor when making those decisions.”

Social Justice Issues and the Loeffler Situation

Last month the league and the players’ union, the WNBPA, announced a slate of social justice initiatives for the summer. As part of these efforts, the players formed a social justice council that often meets to plan and carry out events over the season.

Players will wear warm-up shirts that display the slogan “Black Lives Matter” on the front and “Say Her Name” on the back. They will wear uniforms honoring the lives of Black Americans who were murdered by police officers this year. “Black Lives Matter” will also be prominently displayed on courts during games. In addition, players plan to participate in podcasts and virtual roundtables.

Atlanta Dream co-owner, Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), is a vocal opponent of the social justice efforts and even wrote a letter to Engelbert expressing her disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement. Players and teams responded to Loeffler’s attacks via social media and in messages posted online.

Even with the concerns about COVID-19, Engelbert said during the teleconference that “we’re really focused on the social justice platform and focused on basketball and keeping everyone safe and healthy.”

She also indicated that she was surprised to receive the letter from Loeffler, given the senator’s previous support of women’s empowerment issues and the causes players care about deeply.

“It’s important for us to continue highlighting the strides we and the players are making in the social justice space,” Engelbert said.

The Season Ahead

The season begins this weekend with triple headers on Saturday and Sunday. All games during the opening weekend will be televised nationally. The action kicks off at 12 p.m.ET with the Seattle Storm taking on the New York Liberty.

With all of the preparation carried out by the league, it remains to be seen how everything, from the pandemic protection to bubble life, turns out this summer in these uncertain times. Engelbert is optimistic.

“Whether it’s watching a team practice or watching players ride their bikes around the campus, doing pool workouts led by team captains, you can feel the motivation and chemistry of the teams right now,” she said. “I will say it wasn’t an easy process, but we’re confident with the extensive health and safety protocols in place, a process for quickly triaging issues as they arise on-site. We’re here, ready to go.”

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