Tina Charles receives medical exemption, will opt out of 2020 WNBA season

Charles announced the news in a Players' Tribune article that also detailed her commitment to social justice

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Team USA center Tina Charles (left) and Team Canada guard Kia Nurse welcome the fans before a FIBA World Cup exhibition game in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on September 8, 2018. Photo credit: Chris Poss

Days after the WNBA’s independent medical panel controversially denied Elena Delle Donne’s medical opt-out request, it resolved the case of the Washington Mystics’ other MVP, center Tina Charles, much more amicably.

Charles announced on Friday in an article in The Players’ Tribune that the panel had granted her request for a medical exemption and that she will miss the 2020 season.

Charles wrote that, when the WNBA announced its plans for the 2020 season, she had been “conflicted” about playing.

“I was leaning toward playing, but with COVID-19 still taking hundreds of lives each day and the movement for racial justice in this country gaining real momentum, something about playing basketball at a time like this just felt, I don’t know, off,” she explained.

Undecided, Charles filled out a medical questionnaire from the league, and the Mystics’ team doctor noted that she could be at high risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19 based on her responses. Charles wrote that, in the end, “the decision about whether to play or not was made for me” when she was granted a medical exemption due to extrinsic asthma.

Charles was diagnosed five years ago with extrinsic asthma, also known as allergic asthma, after suffering an asthma attack during a game in China.

“I felt fine during warmups, but then two minutes into the game, I couldn’t breathe,” she wrote. “Literally. … In the middle of a play I walked off the court in a panic. I was suffocating.”

In addition to breathing problems, Charles’s asthma has also led to pneumonia, bronchial spasms, and wheezing, and she indicated that she has severe asthma attacks at least once a year.

Extrinsic asthma is the most common form of asthma, affecting about 60% of people with asthma. When an external allergen such as pollen or mold enters the body of someone with extrinsic asthma, the immune system overreacts and produces too much of an antibody called immunoglobulin E, which causes inflammation of the person’s airway and makes it difficult to breathe. Charles indicated that a virus could trigger a similar reaction from her immune system.

Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault responded to the news in a statement on Friday evening: “While we are disappointed that Tina will not be with us this summer, we fully understand the reason for her medical exemption and look forward to having her with us next season. Again, the health of our players takes precedence. There hasn’t been anything normal about playing this season, but we are prepared and excited to play with the group that is here in Florida.”

New York Liberty center Tina Charles (second from left) passes the ball to guard Kia Nurse (right) during a game against the Connecticut Sun on May 19, 2019. Photo credit: Chris Poss

The panel’s decision means that the Mystics will have a maximum of ten players to open the 2020 season. Charles will receive her full salary of $175,000 and count against the Mystics’ salary cap, and although Delle Donne was not granted an exemption for her Lyme disease, she will remain on the roster and be paid by the Mystics. She has not indicated whether she will play this season, but it’s currently a moot point because she is still recovering from offseason back surgery.

Because Charles was excused by the panel, she will be credited for a year of service in the league, which means that she will be a free agent after this season. That may worry some Mystics fans after the team traded reserve guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and four draft picks to get Charles, but Thibault has been confident ever since he acquired her that Charles will re-sign with the team.

Although the news of Charles’s medical exemption may get the most attention, the majority of her Players’ Tribune article was about social justice and how she plans to make a difference. “As someone who knows what it’s like to struggle for breath — as a person who knows the terror and powerlessness that goes along with gasping for air, and having no control over your breathing — I can tell you that what I’ve been seeing on the news has been all the more heartbreaking,” she wrote.

“Every time I hear the words ‘I can’t breathe,’ my body has a specific, involuntary response, not just to the words, but to that feeling. … My experience absolutely pales in comparison with what they went through. But what they likely felt … registers with me and cuts even deeper.”

Charles wrote that being a professional basketball player guaranteed her the medical care that too many Black people, from George Floyd to Eric Garner, did not receive when they struggled to breathe. But off the court, “I’m no different from any other African-American who could be subjected to racism at any time.” She added, “I’m done with surface-level discussions. … I need to be a part of making sure change happens as soon as possible.”

Charles will start by making financial contributions to Black-owned businesses and organizations. Since 2013, she has donated her full WNBA salary to the Hopey’s Heart Foundation, the organization she started in honor of her late aunt to provide automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) to schools. (AEDs are used to restart a person’s heart when they experience sudden cardiac arrest.) This season, she will reallocate her $175,000 salary to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Charles also called for policymakers to provide restitution for slavery and generations of systemic racism and for the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor earlier this year and Byron Williams in 2019 to be arrested. She praised protesters in New York State for prompting changes to state policing laws and her former UConn and USA Basketball teammate Maya Moore for setting aside her basketball career to help an unjustly convicted inmate named Jonathan Irons overturn his 50-year sentence. And she praised her fellow WNBA players for speaking out against Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, who has publicly opposed the Black Lives Matter movement.

Several of Charles’s peers also posted supportive messages on social media, including active players Natasha Cloud and Tiffany Hayes—both of whom have opted out of playing this season—along with former WNBA player Swin Cash and current Phoenix Mercury assistant coach Chasity Melvin.

Charles closed her Players’ Tribune article by urging everyone to step up for racial justice. “I really do want to encourage everyone — all of us, people of all backgrounds — to rally together around making sure that we achieve the change we need,” she wrote. “It’s going to take all of us, because there’s not going to be any real, lasting change until the people who are and have always been comfortable are made to feel uncomfortable. …

“I encourage you to keep going and to always keep the faith. … And just know that while I’m away I’m going to be doing my part to help ensure that by the time I’m able to return to the court, God willing, this country will be in a much better and more equitable place.”