WNBA losing its credibility

Let me just say this: No other sports section in the country devotes more time, staff and space to the WNBA than ours, necessitated by a team at Mohegan Sun and 7,000 fans every night. And still, it's to the chagrin of some of our readers, who, you know, haven't caught the fever. (Or the Fever.)

That's not meant as an infomercial. It's background for the suggestion that the WNBA, in spite of its need for more coverage, has never been luckier that more media outlets aren't as inclined as this one.

Because if the mainstream media covered the WNBA, Erika De Souza's departure from the Atlanta Dream in the middle of a playoff series would zap much of the legitimacy the league has worked diligently to create.

De Souza left the Dream this week after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana to join the Brazilian national team. Brazil is playing in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Colombia.

Most pundits would be apoplectic at the idea the WNBA playoffs aren't important enough to keep a player here. And would they be wrong?

Could you imagine Kornheiser and Wilbon on PTI if, say, Manu Ginobili left the Spurs in the NBA finals to cry for Argentina?

This is a matter league owners and league officials must address with the utmost seriousness once the finals have concluded. If any players are left to play them.

WNBA player contracts do not allow for such departures unless their teams acquiesce. It's clear Dream management figured some of De Souza was better than none of her at all. It's reasonable for them to think that way.

But is such thinking in the best interest of the league? The only thing standing between the WNBA's perception as a laughingstock right now is its relative irrelevance.

Even if you dismiss the more global issues of perception and legitimacy, what does a prominent player's departure suggest for the game's integrity?

A few weeks ago when the WNBA revoked Tina Charles' triple-double, the "integrity of the game" discourse began. Which was fine. But I'd make the same argument about a player participating in one playoff series, helping her team advance and then willfully departing during the next one.

Remember those words: willful departure. This is not about a "what if," such as "what if she got hurt and the team didn't have her anyway?" This is not about, "well, didn't the Dream win Sunday?"

This is about the principle of it.

This is about the premeditated act.

It's wrong.

I get the idea that the WNBA is not the primary league for some players, especially the Europeans, for whom national team pride and bigger salaries overseas are more compelling.

I get the idea that many players join their WNBA teams late every year because of overseas and Olympic commitments.

It's not ideal.

But there is a huge distinction between bailing during the playoffs and players arriving to camp a few weeks late or missing a handful of regular season games.

It's the playoffs.

And it's time WNBA owners and officials draw their line in the sand. It needs to be written into the next Collective Bargaining Agreement: No leaving for Europe or anywhere else while your team is alive in the playoffs. Period.

It would make for some difficult decisions. But then, this is professional sports. Not afternoon tea.

Dream coach Marynell Meadors told the Associated Press Sunday that she had been in talks with the Brazilian team since January. Meadors said the talks included "a lot of threats'" from Brazil's team that if de Souza missed the qualifying tournament "it would cause her not to play in the Olympics."

I ask: Can't the WNBA, this country's longest running women's professional sports league, make a "threat" once in a while, too?

I'm not about to feel sorry for De Souza and the Dream. Not when the legitimacy of the WNBA playoffs are in the discussion. If the WNBA's rules were more stringent, maybe some players would decide they don't want or need to play here. But at least the playing field would be even for everyone. Because this is not right.

Every time the league tells us to "expect great," or trumpets itself as the longest running women's professional sports league, someone else can counter with "your playoffs aren't even important enough to keep the players on their teams."

It's got to stop.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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