Elena Delle Donne’s medical request to opt out of 2020 season is denied

The 2019 WNBA MVP now faces a tough decision: risk playing, or forfeit her salary?

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Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics reacts in a game against the Dallas Wings on June 9, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne’s medical request to opt out of the 2020 WNBA season has been denied, as first reported by ESPN’s Sarah Spain and John Barr. That leaves Delle Donne between a rock and a hard place: does she risk her physical health and play, or sit out and forfeit her salary for the season?

Delle Donne had been in the WNBA’s medical evaluation protocol, which uses an independent panel of doctors to determine whether a player is at high risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19. She has dealt with chronic Lyme disease since 2008 and told ESPN that her personal doctor believes that she is at high risk. However, the medical panel, jointly agreed to by the league and the union, disagreed. ESPN reported that the panel considers the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines when making a determination, and those guidelines do not list Lyme Disease as an underlying condition that could worsen the effects of the virus, though recent studies have supported the long-term Lyme Disease effect diagnosis.

Delle Donne’s agent, Erin Kane, summarized the situation: “I know doctors don't always agree with each other … [but] now I have a player who is in an incredibly difficult situation because of the way things lined up.”

Players are not able to appeal the panel’s decision, so Delle Donne’s options going forward are either to report to Bradenton, Florida, and play this season or to opt out without pay. This is markedly different from how the other American women’s professional league playing right now, the National Women’s Soccer League, handled opt-outs: that league allowed any player to opt out for any reason, with pay.

“I want to play! But the question is whether or not the WNBA bubble is safe for me,” Delle Donne said in a statement to ESPN. “… I'm thinking things over, talking to my doctor and my wife, and look[ing] forward to sharing what I ultimately plan to do very soon.”

Delle Donne shoots over Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard on June 14, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

If Delle Donne decides to play this season, it would have massive implications for the rest of the league. She was the near-unanimous 2019 WNBA MVP after becoming the first WNBA player ever to shoot 50% from the floor, 40% from 3-point range, and 90% from the free-throw line over an entire season (minimum 100/25/50 makes). The Mystics are still missing several players from last season’s championship team, but adding Delle Donne would seemingly put them right back in the conversation to repeat.

If Delle Donne opts out, she would forfeit $215,000 in salary this season, which was slated to be the first of a four-year extension she signed in February. The Mystics would then be able to use that money to sign at least one additional player.

The Mystics have not publicly commented on the news, but point guard Natasha Cloud, who is not playing this season to focus on social justice, responded in an Instagram story, asking, “@wnba, how do you deny someone with Lyme disease [thinking face emoji].” Public response on Twitter was also very critical of the panel’s decision.

A screenshot of Natasha Cloud’s Instagram story on July 13.

The Mystics are awaiting one more decision from the medical panel, on 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles. The team acquired Charles from the New York Liberty in April and signed her to a one-year, $175,000 contract. However, Thibault confirmed that Charles had not been in Washington before the team flew down to Florida, so if her opt-out request is granted, Charles could complete her contract without ever setting foot in DC or on the court for the team.