When sports leagues established their return-to-play plans, they all decreed "the safety of our players is of the utmost importance." Yet, when one of the WNBA's biggest stars tried to apply for a medical opt out of the league's Florida bubble season because of her battle with chronic Lyme disease, the W decisively said no.
The struggle of having to choose between your health and your income is not new. Essential workers have had to make that decision over the last four months and counting because of the coronavirus pandemic. But there's one notable difference between the essential workers who've been bagging your groceries, delivering your mail and caring for COVID-19 patients and professional athletes: No athlete, amateur or professional, is an essential worker.
Delle Donne, who helped lead the Washington Mystics to their first WNBA championship last season, has been battling Lyme disease since 2008 — the disease isn't currently part of the CDC's list of underlying medical issues that could put someone at "high risk" for contracting coronavirus.
Her personal physician said her condition puts her at high risk for contracting and having complications from the coronavirus, Delle Donne said Monday. The Mystics' team physician, who even though she cleared her for play, sent a letter to the league's physician panel — who denied Delle Donne's medical opt-out request — stressing her condition should be considered "higher risk," per ESPN.
Delle Donne can still opt out of the season like other players have. She just won't get paid her full salary, which she'd be entitled to if she received a medical waiver.
There is absolutely no reason why Delle Donne, or any of the other players seeking medical opt outs, should have to choose between their income and their health, especially knowing there's an added risk.
Lyme disease and the coronavirus have similar symptoms like fever, headache, chills, fatigue and muscle aches. They are both also quite misunderstood. Even though Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be readily treated with antibiotics, if not detected and treated early, can cause life-long symptoms, according to Project Lyme.
"When the world first heard that pre-existing conditions can lead to a higher risk for COVID-19 fatalities, it sent an immediate chill through those who struggle with Lyme Disease," Isabel Rose of Project Lyme said in an editorial written for USA Today.
Chronic Lyme — what Delle Donne suffers from — leaves the body with a weakened immune system, which makes it harder to fight diseases, according to Lyme specialist Dr. Raphael Kellman.
Truthfully, no league should have continued their seasons while the country is still in the grips of the pandemic. But since they have, merely saying they care about their players' safety does nothing if you can't even give your highest-profile athlete, who's basically immunocompromised when her symptoms flare up, the safety of staying home.
"I love my team, and we had an unbelievable season last year, and I want to play! But the question is whether or not the WNBA bubble is safe for me," Delle Donne told ESPN. "I'm thinking things over, talking to my doctor and my wife, and look forward to sharing what I ultimately plan to do very soon."
Several players already in the wubble, as many in the W have come to call it, have said they feel safe at the IMG Academy and grounds included in the bubble in Bradenton, Fla.
But that's what almost all the players inside the pro sports bubbles have been saying and we've already seen players in the MLS bubble test positive for coronavirus, while already in their bubbles. On Monday, two players in the NBA bubble were said to have tested positive for the virus while inside the Orlando campus, according to ESPN. And it's near impossible to control every movement of every person and player in the bubble. Some NBA players were under the impression picking up food delivery just outside the bubble lines was a safe move to make and now the Kings' Richaun Holmes has another eight days of quarantine for testing those waters.
There's so much unknown about the coronavirus. Anyone with even the slightest chance of being at a high or higher risk of contracting it or having complications from it should be allowed to medically opt of their jobs and still be able to get paid because people still have to eat and pay their bills.
Even though these leagues are following the CDC guidelines, those are subject to change at any given moment as more information about the virus comes about. It's better to take a precaution now than figure out the effects after someone becomes seriously ill.
So a word to the W, NBA, MLS, NWSL, NFL and MLB: if you're going to say you truly care about the health and safety of your players and have them play during a pandemic while preaching you're still about trying to "slow the spread," actually mean it and take their individual medical circumstances seriously. Maybe, perhaps, bring in a specialist knowledgeable to the specific area of concern.
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