Where things stand between Elena Delle Donne, the WNBA and the Mystics

On issues of pay, recovery and relationships, lots of moving parts to sort out

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Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne answers questions after winning the WNBA championship on October 10, 2019. Photo credit: Chris Poss

Since Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne revealed on Monday that the WNBA’s independent medical panel had denied her request to opt out of the 2020 season, the league has faced a barrage of criticism.

“The league should be ashamed of this, period!!!!!!” said Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham.

“League dropped the call with this. Can’t call it any other way,” Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields agreed.

“It’s bullshit,” Delle Donne’s teammate Natasha Cloud wrote on Tuesday night. “@WNBA either play or risk her life...what do we stand for? Cause apparently it’s not the players.” The next day, she sent another tweet: “This decision shows they’re more worried about the business side of things than [about] their players.” 

Delle Donne has been affected by Lyme disease for over a decade, and she indicated in her initial statement that her personal doctor had advised her that she has a higher risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19. However, ESPN reported that the medical panel considers the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines when determining whether a player is at a higher risk, and those guidelines do not include Lyme disease as a preexisting condition that could increase a player’s risk of contracting a severe case of the virus.

As a result of the panel’s decision, Delle Donne ostensibly faced a difficult choice: risk her physical health or forfeit the $215,000 salary that she was slated to earn this season. On Wednesday, Delle Donne elaborated on that choice—and the Mystics announced that they will not force her to make it. The team will pay Delle Donne her full salary regardless of whether she plays this season.

Delle Donne published an article about her experience with Lyme disease and the WNBA opt-out process in The Players’ Tribune titled, “An Open Letter About My Health.” It began by revealing the lengths Delle Donne has to go in order to treat her condition.

“I take 64 pills a day,” she wrote. “Sixty-four pills: That’s 25 before breakfast, another 20 after breakfast, another 10 before dinner, and another 9 before bed. … It’s a never-ending, exhausting, miserable cycle. But I do it anyway. I do it anyway because I have Lyme disease.”

After the WNBA denied her request for a health exemption, @de11edonne wrote an open letter. The two-time MVP on living with Lyme disease and a compromised immune system: ”I take 64 pills a day.⁠

Sixty-four pills: That’s 25 before breakfast, another 20 after breakfast, another 10 before dinner, and another 9 before bed.⁠

I take 64 pills a day, and I feel like it’s slowly killing me. Or if it’s not killing me, directly, then I at least know one thing for sure: It’s really bad for me. Longterm, taking that much medicine on that regular of a regimen is just straight-up bad for you. It’s literally an elaborate trick that you play on yourself — a lie that you tell your body so it keeps thinking everything is fine. ⁠

It’s a never-ending, exhausting, miserable cycle.⁠

But I do it anyway.⁠

I do it anyway because I have Lyme disease. (Since I’m not a doctor, I say I have “chronic Lyme.” It’s a shorter way for me to say that this disease is still affecting me after more than a decade — I prefer it to the alternative, which is 'Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome with a current active infection with a different strain of borrelia and bartonella as well as other co-infections.') Taking 64 pills a day is the only way to keep my condition under any sort of control. It’s the only way to keep myself healthy enough to play the game that I love — healthy enough to do my job and earn the paycheck that supports my family.⁠

Healthy enough to live something approaching a normal life.⁠

I regret not having done more in the past to speak up about Lyme disease. It’s a terrifying thing to live with, yet not many people know much about it — and I take my fair share of responsibility for that. I could have been using my platform to help raise awareness, and to help improve understanding. I could have been helping so much more.⁠

I know that I need to help so much more.⁠

I know that I need to help us get to a place with Lyme disease where what happened to me this past week never happens to anyone else.” (Link in bio)
July 15, 2020

Delle Donne said that taking so many pills is likely detrimental to her long-term health, but in the short term, it’s the only way that she can “live something approaching a normal life.” Lyme disease has weakened her immune system so much that she has had “scary” medical issues from a flu shot and from the common cold. So, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Delle Donne knew she had to take “every possible precaution” to avoid contracting the virus.

That ultimately included applying for a medical exemption, after careful discussion with her doctor about the WNBA’s plans to prevent infection in its single site in Florida. The Mystics’ team doctor even wrote a report agreeing with Delle Donne’s personal doctor that she was at high risk, but to no avail.

“It hurts a lot,” Delle Donne wrote about her request being denied. “… It hurts that the W — a place that’s been my one big dream in life for as long as I can remember, and that I’ve given my blood, sweat and tears to for seven going on eight seasons — has basically told me that I’m wrong about what’s happening in my own body. What I hear in their decision is that I’m a fool for believing my doctor. That I’m faking a disability. That I’m trying to ‘get out’ of work and still collect a paycheck.

“Yup….. they caught me,” she added sarcastically. “That’s why I played in the finals last year with THREE HERNIATED DISCS IN MY BACK. … That’s why I take 64 pills a day. … They figured me out.”

Delle Donne also appeared on SportsCenter on Wednesday afternoon, where she reiterated her surprise and hurt at having her exemption denied. She acknowledged that a lot is still unknown about Lyme disease and that many doctors are skeptical that it can persist for as long as it has for her.

“This is kind of an eye-opener,” she told host Elle Duncan, “… [that] I've got to do my part and continue to speak up and speak out for those people that are fighting the same battle that I am.”

A few hours later, Washington Mystics general manager and head coach Mike Thibault held his first press conference since Delle Donne announced the panel’s decision and said that the team had been planning to pay Delle Donne regardless of whether she received a medical exemption. “We have intended to do that from the start because she’s … a major part of our team,” he explained.

Delle Donne is currently recovering from back surgery, and that process has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Given the number of months off from [basketball], not that we're starting from square one, but it sure feels like it some days,” Thibault said. Depending on how Delle Donne’s rehab goes and how comfortable she is with the WNBA’s COVID-19 precautions, Thibault did not rule out her joining the Mystics in Florida later this season.

Delle Donne is introduced before Game 2 of the WNBA Finals on October 1, 2019—a game she would leave early with what was later revealed to be three herniated discs in her back. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

Thibault underlined the Mystics’ support for Delle Donne, saying that the team “[has] witnessed firsthand” the measures that Delle Donne has to take in order to be healthy enough to play basketball. “The Mystics organization will never put Elena's or any other of our other players’ health and well-being in jeopardy at any time,” he said. “As in the past, both with her Lyme disease history and her on-court injuries, all decisions about her ability to play will be made jointly with Elena.”

Delle Donne’s teammate Emma Meesseman also spoke with the media on Wednesday and indicated that she had been in touch with Delle Donne via text and social media. “We all support Elena in her decisions,” Meesseman said. “And she should be able to just decide for herself what she would be capable of doing [or] what would be dangerous for herself or not healthy to do. So we fully support [her].”

Being able to decide for herself is a theme that Delle Donne also touched on in her Players Tribune article. “We can never fully understand what someone else is going through, or what they’ve been through,” she wrote. “… There’s so much in the world that we don’t know. Which means the best that we can do is to listen to each other, and to learn from each other — with as much humility as possible. I hope that in the future the WNBA can aspire to do the same.”