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Washington Mystics superstar Elena Delle Donne revealed this week that her petition for a medical opt-out from the 2020 WNBA season had been denied.
In a scathing article for The Players' Tribune published Wednesday, the two-time league MVP wrote that she's now faced with the decision to "risk my life or forfeit my paycheck."
Later in the day, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault told members of the media that Delle Donne is "part of our roster" and "is being paid [while] continuing to rehab from her offseason back surgery."
Delle Donne has yet to decide if she'll join the team in the Florida bubble, but Thibault stressed that "her long-term care and health as a major foundation piece of the Mystics will always take precedence."
Elena Delle Donne may not have received a medical opt-out from the WNBA, but she'll still receive compensation for the 2020 season.
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On a call with members of the media Wednesday afternoon, Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said that the team is currently paying Delle Donne and treating the two-time WNBA MVP and six-time All-Star "as a full-time member of our roster."
"The fact of the matter is the Mystics organization will never put Elena's — or any other of our players' — health and well-being in jeopardy at any time," Thibault added. "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. She is part of our roster. She is being paid and is continuing to rehab from her offseason back surgery."
Delle Donne petitioned the league for a medical exemption from the 2020 season due to her long-time, public struggle with Lyme disease. When the 6-foot-5 sharpshooter sought medical counsel regarding how to approach playing basketball through the coronavirus pandemic, her personal physician suggested that she is "at high risk for contracting and having complications from COVID-19."
"I love my team, and we had an unbelievable season last year, and I want to play!" Delle Donne said in a statement, per ESPN. "But the question is whether or not the WNBA bubble is safe for me."
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The reigning WNBA MVP revealed earlier this week that the medical council — which was jointly approved by the league and the players association — rejected her request to sit out the season due to medical risk even though she submitted a letter recommending that Delle Donne avoid joining her teammates in the WNBA's bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Delle Donne said she felt "shock" when she learned of the panel's decision, and she wasn't alone in her surprise. Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart said on a video call with members of the press Wednesday that she "considered her a high-risk player.
"I hope the league and Elena can figure out something where she doesn't have to be in an uncomfortable situation," Stewart added.
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While the league has not offered up any updates on Delle Donne's status beyond the rejection of the medical opt-out, the Mystics have resolved to support their star — both vocally and financially — regardless of whether or not she joins the team in Florida.
"We have always felt that she was going to be a part of the roster one way or the other, because if she had gotten the medical opt-out, we would have had to pay her," Thibault said. "She would have counted against our cap. So there was gonna be, for the most part, her being paid. Now, if she had just said 'You know, I'm gonna opt out. I'm not doing anything right now' than that would have been a different choice."
"She has a guaranteed contract that is paid whether you have an injury or not," he added.
The WNBA's lone member of the exclusive 50-40-90 club famously played through a broken nose, a lingering knee injury, and three herniated discs to deliver Washington's first WNBA championship last season. She is still recovering from surgery and undergoing treatment for her back injuries, and Thibault acknowledged that her rehab process has been delayed due to the pandemic.
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"She is being paid and we are treating her as a full-time member of our roster," Thibault said. "We have intended to do that from the start because she is a major part of our team and she's making every effort to do the rehab she needs to do."
"If at some point, later in the season, we are all comfortable — and I mean all comfortable — enough with both her physical progress and the safety of joining the team in Florida, then we will make those arrangements," he added. "If we don't feel that, then she will continue to do her workouts in D.C. and get herself ready for the following season. Her long-term care and health as a major foundation piece of the Mystics will always take precedence."
But according to reporting from ESPN's Mechelle Voepel, Delle Donne and her agent, Erin Kane, were not entirely comforted by this resolution. Kane explained that training and rehabbing at the team's facility in Washington, D.C. is "still a risk she's not sure she's willing to take." Plus, if the Mystics' medical staff determine that Delle Donne is healthy enough to rejoin the team and play at some point during the season, she could once again be faced with a decision between her health and her paycheck.
"She really appreciates their support and that they're trying to find a happy medium, a way to kind of resolve this situation," Kane told Voepel. "We're trying to figure out with the team what the parameters are because Elena doesn't want to go to the facility full-stop or work out somewhere else indoors where there's someone else around because she feels like that's risky. None of that has been finalized. Elena is trying to mentally sort through this, and all of it is happening in pretty short order."
The 2020 WNBA season tips off at noon July 25 with a battle between Sue Bird's Seattle Storm and Sabrina Ionescu's New York Liberty. Washington's first game of the year comes later that day against the Indiana Fever.
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