The NBA finals are in full swing. In the next week, we could see the Phoenix Suns close out the series and win their first title in franchise history, or we will see the comeback completed by the Milwaukee Bucks for their first title since 1971. Both of these teams are considered “small market” fanbases—though Phoenix is a significantly larger media market than Milwaukee—and it is refreshing to see some new enthusiasm on display.
It is amazing to think about how both of these teams reached this point. First, let’s take the Suns. They drafted Devin Booker 13th overall and then Deandre Ayton first overall. They traded to get Mikal Bridges on draft night. They signed Jae Crowder in free agency. By far their most important move was trading for Chris Paul. The 36-year-old has transformed their play, their culture, and their spirit. It is important to note that the Suns were already on an upward trajectory, but there is no way they get to the finals without Paul.
Now for the Bucks. They signed Brook Lopez in free agency when he was not a sought after name. They got Khris Middleton as a throw-in to a trade. They traded several draft picks to acquire Jrue Holiday this year. Obviously, their most important move though was drafting a wiry kid out of Greece named Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in 2013. He has won two MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award while anchoring the team’s repeated success in the regular season the last several years.
Chris Paul is making upwards of 41 million United States dollars this season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is making just 27 million dollars this year, but with his new deal already signed, he will be making 39 million next year and after that, it leaps into the 40s. These numbers are rounded because really, they defy imagination anyway.
Do they get paid enough?
Determining the worth of a person to a business is hard to quantify. I’m sure there are equations for some aspect of this sort of thing, but even car sales at dealerships are not all that cut and dry. As I mentioned, Chris Paul’s effect on the team does not have a monetary value attached. He, along with the coaching staff and other teammates, has pushed Ayton to reach his potential and that has had a profound impact on this finals run.
The joy that both Giannis and CP3 bring to their fanbases is also immeasurable. Thousands upon thousands of people are experiencing new levels of emotions watching these games. That is the beauty of fandom. Taking all of that into consideration, my initial question becomes hard to answer. They also happen to just play a silly game for a living.
And they aren’t the only ones. The WNBA is also a league made up of professional players who have dedicated their lives to becoming the best in the world at basketball. Yet WNBA players make a fraction of their male counterparts.
Sue Bird—maybe the Chris Paul of the WNBA—has been playing for the Seattle Storm since they drafted her in 2002(!). She is making $221,450 this season. Elena Della Donne, a two-time MVP like Giannis, is also making $221,450 for the Washington Mystics. A’ja Wilson, last year’s league MVP for the Las Vegas Aces, is on the last year of her initial contract and is getting paid $70,040—similar to a long haul truck driver, an environmental scientist, or a police sergeant according to Indeed.com.
I will say that there is a new collective bargaining agreement in place that will allow the top players in the WNBA to make $500,000 and will raise the overall average salary to $130,000.
Contrary to what my tone might suggest, I do understand some of the economics behind the pay disparity between professional players in the league designated for men and for women. I realize it does not make sense to simply pay these two divisions of players the same amount. The NBA as a league rakes in around $8 billion a year. Yes, that’s with a “B.” The WNBA brings in $60 million. The NBA finals have started out with a viewership of eight million people this year. The 2020 WNBA finals were watched by 440,000 people.
While the sport is the same, the trappings are also different. The WNBA plays a shorter game, 40 minutes vs 48. The season is shorter too, usually close to 34 games as opposed to 82. There are 12 teams generating that revenue and not 30. The NBA has been around for 75 years, while the WNBA is still relatively young at 25. When the NBA was 25, they hadn’t even merged with the ABA yet.
So yeah, I get the argument that the salary discrepancy actually makes sense. I am not even saying that NBA players should be paid less. Do I wish that teachers and social workers got paid like pro athletes? Yes. But that’s not possible unless one could pinpoint who the 450 best teachers are. So what is my argument?
It’s all BULLSHIT.
That’s my argument.
If this were an isolated case of women making less than men, then that would be one thing. The fact that this is the norm across the country regardless of the type of work is the problem. This is a part of systemic oppression in the United States. We live in a sexist country. Women were not “supposed to” work for so long and it is no wonder they haven’t caught up yet. The basketball wage gap can’t be taken out of context from the general gender inequities.
While I am focusing on the gender gap right now, I want to also acknowledge that the NBA might be the only place this isn’t also true—if not more so—for race.
According to the 2018 census and americanprogress.org, women still make between 90 cents to 54 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make, depending on race and ethnicity. Maternity leave is still a joke in this country and the pandemic highlighted just how many mothers had to choose between working and raising their kids once childcare options disappeared. Over a span of decades, these cents and slights compound into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I’m using broad brushstrokes, but I hope that I’m not bringing up anything revelatory. I want to highlight that this continued challenge is exactly why the WNBA players are still paid less. We view sports through the same cultural lens that we see everything else, which means the exact same prejudices too. I imagine that many of the people who say that the NBA is just more exciting haven’t watched a modern WNBA game.
I would draw the comparison to the way we debate a person with a uterus’ right to choose about childbirth. The people that are against it honestly have no idea what the hell they are talking about. They have entrenched biases. I don’t need to go too deep on that tangent, though.
I’m not suggesting that all people who are not WNBA fans are also anti-abortion. My point is that these perspectives do not happen in a vacuum. Thus, it is not surprising that a women’s basketball league is less popular in a country that historically and presently legislates their childbirth, voting laws, and general rights while mostly leaving white men alone. It is another form of occupational segregation, where it is believed that women are “better suited” for other jobs and are thus pushed in those directions. This has something to do, in my opinion, with why women’s soccer or gymnastics are seen as more palatably popular sports.
In order to change this system, we have to change the way we as a society treat women. I am not absolved from this. I watch more NBA than I do WNBA. I am trying to balance that out. Still, even my doing so has revealed inequalities. I receive a newsletter with daily stat updates for the NBA and the WNBA. They list the games taking place each day as well…except the times for the WNBA games are often not posted! I know they will be hard to watch, but at least put down the tip time!
In summary, I do not care that Sabrina Ionescu cannot jump as high as Russell Westbrook. They can both get a triple-double and she would still kick my ass up and down a basketball court. It is about appreciating the strengths of the game rather than its supposed shortcomings.
Let’s return to my initial question: Are athletes paid enough?
Answer: Some are. I support Giannis getting that money. He has earned it. But I can’t wait to live in a world where women’s bodies are respected, their contributions valued, and their dope basketball games honored.