Imagine that you've toiled through four years of college in order to land an entry-level position with a highly specialized firm. Then, in April of your senior year, you learn that the firm, the only one out there capable of paying you what you're worth, is on the verge of folding due to labor problems.
Such is the plight of Chantelle Anderson, Vanderbilt's 6-6 senior center who projects (projected?) as one of the top players in the 2003 WNBA draft. Sadly, the league announced Monday that due to stalls in collective bargaining talks, Wednesday's draft had been postponed indefinitely, and league's future itself may well be in jeopardy. The NBA Board of Governors threatened to cancel the league's seventh season if the WNBA and its players' association cannot agree to a contract by Friday.
The announcement was distressing news for Anderson, as well as for promising seniors like Mississippi State's LaToya Thomas and Tennessee's Kara Lawson, all of whom were expected to be first-rounders. Also waiting to learn their fate are members of the disbanded Miami Sol and Portland Fire-- including former Commodore Sheri Sam-- who were scheduled to be distributed throughout the league by means of a dispersal draft.
Cynical fans of professional sports have grown accustomed by now to knotty labor negotiations in leagues such as the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball, where grossly overpaid players parry back and forth with greedy franchise owners. But this labor dispute is different from those-- way different.
WNBA player representatives are lobbying basically for subsistence salaries for league players. The minimum salary for WNBA veterans is only $40,000, while rookies generally make less than that. The league reportedly asked the union to drop the salaries of the top four draft picks from $55,000 to $40,000. (Dan Stricker, for instance, a likely NFL draftee, could potentially make four to five times that much next year as a rookie.)
Anderson, a player who has the capability of becoming a mega-star in the struggling league, could doubtless parlay her Human Organization and Development degree from Vanderbilt into a position in the business world making considerably more than she would make as a WNBA rookie under the league's new proposal.
NBA Commissioner David Stern, knowing the struggling league probably could not survive protracted negotiations, holds all the cards. "We are backing this league, and we are not asking our women to take cuts," he said last week. "But we are asking them to make a deal that we can demonstrate once and for all that the WNBA has a strong future. It's up to the women of the WNBA."
That the league is on shaky ground comes as no surprise to Anderson, who has known throughout her college career that a professional career is no given. Asked at last year's SEC Media Day about possibly being the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick, Anderson refused to look too far into the future.
"It's flattering, but I'm trying not to think about all that right now," she said. "I'm trying to push that as far to the back of my mind as possible. I have a lot of things I want to accomplish this year personally."
Paradoxically, had she merely been born with a Y-chromosome, Anderson would likely be staring at a starting salary in the millions. Unlike their counterparts in the NBA, WNBA players aren't in it for the money. They're in it for the love of the game, and their ultimate hope is to expand opportunities for women in professional sports who will come along behind them.
"I have thought about the salary differences between the men and the women," she told me last fall. "But, the WNBA has not been around for a long time, and men didn't get paid the millions of dollars that they get paid now when the NBA first started out. So first of all, I don't think it would be fair for me to make that comparison, and second, I'm playing a game that I love, and I'm about to get paid for it, in less than a year. I mean, how exciting is that?"
Count me among Anderson's legions of fans, who fervently hope that the league and the players' association can chisel together an agreement that can save the struggling league. Anderson has given so much of herself to Vanderbilt-- she's the school's all-time leading scorer and indisputably one of the top two or three female athletes in school history. It's almost heartbreaking to think of her dreams being dashed. (Just imagine what Anderson could do with endorsements!)
If not, however, the bubbly, resilient Anderson will excel in some other field. With a million-dollar smile, a charismatic personality, plus the doors that a Vanderbilt degree can open, Anderson will be a success in whatever field she chooses.
(Side note, while I'm thinking out loud-- starry-eyed high school stars looking for a place to spend their four years of college would do well to examine Anderson's plight, and consider what might happen if that planned professional career were to unexpectedly go sour.)
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