Player empowerment is taking women’s sports to new heights

As Liz Cambage showed this week, female athletes have leverage, and they aren't afraid to use it.

UNCASVILLE, CT - AUGUST 14: Dallas Wings center Liz Cambage (8) during a WNBA game between Dallas Wings and Connecticut Sun on August 14, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Connecticut won 96-76. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
UNCASVILLE, CT - AUGUST 14: Dallas Wings center Liz Cambage (8) during a WNBA game between Dallas Wings and Connecticut Sun on August 14, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Connecticut won 96-76. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In a promising trend for professionals athletes’ labor rights, a growing number of NBA stars are opting to follow in the footsteps of LeBron James and take their careers into their own hands. These players are signing short-term contracts or demanding trades in order to have more control over the places they end up playing, as well as the people they end up playing for. Referred to as “player empowerment,” this approach helps millionaire athletes regain a modicum of control from billionaire owners.

But while NBA players have garnered the most attention for employing this tactic, the player empowerment movement in the WNBA is far more consequential to the sport itself — helping to take women’s sports to new heights. WNBA stars are seizing command of their careers, despite the fact that society has told them at every turn that they should be grateful, subservient, and quiet purely because they have a league to play in.

Women’s sports have come a long way, but female athletes aren’t happy just to be here. They’re willing to take big risks to improve their personal situation, and forge a better future for the sport they love.

This week saw the WNBA’s most recent — and most prominent — player empowerment saga finally reach a conclusion, when 6’8″ Australian center Liz Cambage was finally traded from the Dallas Wings to the Las Vegas Aces, nearly four months after she made her trade request public, and a mere eight days before the 2019 WNBA season begins.


This is fantastic news for anyone who loves women’s basketball. It means the All-Star — who was the runner-up in the 2018 MVP vote to Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm — will be back in the league, playing for a title contender, under an established, successful coach, the Aces’ Bill Laimbeer. And she had to work incredibly hard to make this a reality.

On Instagram, days after taking to the platform to express how the stress of the prolonged trade negotiations was impacting her mental and physical health, Cambage expressed relief, gratitude, and excitement that the deal was finally done.

“This is a battle I’ve been [fighting] since I was 19 years old,” Cambage wrote.

Cambage, now 27, was drafted into the WNBA back in 2011. She wanted to go to Los Angeles and play for the Sparks. Instead, the Tulsa Shock — which moved to Dallas and became the Wings in 2016 — drafted her. The organization was in absolute chaos. Her first season, the team went through two coaches and lost 24 games in a row. She missed the 2012 season, due to competing in the Olympics and experiencing burnout, and returned in 2013 to an only marginally improved organization. But the Shock held her rights, so if she was going to play in the WNBA, that’s where she had to play. She skipped the 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 WNBA seasons, instead primarily playing overseas and for the Australian national team, all while battling depression and injuries as well.

The Wings convinced her to return last season, and she had a much better experience than she had with the Shock. But then the head coach with whom she had bonded, Fred Williams, was fired. And the team’s other All-Star, Skylar Diggins-Smith, gave birth to a child, meaning she’ll miss a big chunk of this season.


So there she was, facing another year in rebuild mode, in a city she didn’t like, in a country half a world away from her family and friends, in a sport that has taken an extreme toll on her mental, physical, and emotional health. So, she took a risk, and said she wouldn’t play for the Wings this year — they had to trade her.

Cambage is hardly the only player in the WNBA who has taken this tact.

In 2010, Lindsay Whalen requested and received a trade from the Connecticut Sun to her hometown Minnesota Lynx. Four years later, Tina Charles — the result of the No. 1 overall draft pick the Sun got in exchange for Whalen — demanded to be traded from the Sun to her hometown New York Liberty. In 2015, Sylvia Fowles sat out for half a season and forced a trade from the Chicago Sky to the Minnesota Lynx. A couple of years later, Fowles’ former Sky teammate Elena Delle Donne threatened to do the same thing, and was traded from the Sky to the Washington Mystics.

This year, Chiney Ogwumike heard that her then-team, the Connecticut Sun, was listening to trade offers for her. So she took matters in her own hands and got traded to the Los Angeles Sparks in exchange for a first-round draft pick. Now, she’s playing with her sister, 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike, and is still able to continue her burgeoning career as an ESPN commentator.

“I’m glad she’s kind of taken ownership of, you know, what she wants and where she wants to be,” the Mystics’ Delle Donne told ThinkProgress last week in reference to Cambage, before her trade was finalized.

“It can be tough when you’re in a situation where you just feel like you can’t thrive as not just a player but a person sometimes. So I hope, you know, whatever she wants she gets, and I hope it happens quickly.”


These trade demands are necessary in part because the WNBA has an incredibly team-friendly collective bargaining agreement; not only are rookie players under contract for four years before they can become a restricted free agent, but each organization can also use the “core” designation on a player up to four times, which prevents players from negotiating with any other team. That means that if they don’t take a stand, they’re at the whim of a draft lottery for most of their prime years. Player empowerment is really the only weapon at their disposal.

While each situation is different, individually, these trade demands are part of a larger trend of women in sports dismissing the notion that they don’t have any power or marketability, and insisting that they be treated better by the organizations that they play for. More than 200 women’s hockey players are refusing to play in any North American professional hockey league this season until they get to play in a league that provides an adequate salary, benefits, and resources to its athletes. The U.S. Women’s Soccer team, which will be the favorite at the Women’s World Cup next month, is suing the U.S. Soccer Federation over what it considers wage discrimination. And the WNBA Player’s Association has opted out of its current collective bargaining agreement, and is trying to get a new contract that includes better salaries, benefits, and more player-friendly contract terms.

These are game-changing movements — and they show that both individually and collectively, female athletes aren’t just happy to have the opportunity to play. They’re unapologetically calling for more.

Dallas fans might be understandably disappointed by Cambage’s move, but anyone else begrudging her decision is missing the forest for the trees. Cambage is now in one of the league’s burgeoning markets, playing next to one of its other marquee players, in an environment where she will hopefully thrive. This is good for her present, and possibly even better for the sport’s future.

And more broadly, she’s showing a path forward for other top athletes in women’s sports. Empowerment isn’t a selfish concept; it’s a radical one. It’s also contagious. Thankfully, among female athletes, it’s starting to spread.