Elena Delle Donne Denied Medical Exemption for 2020 WNBA Season Despite Chronic Lyme Disease

Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne was “shocked” this past Monday to learn that her request to be medically excused from the 2020 WNBA had been denied by the league’s panel of doctors.

This comes following the recommendation of both Delle Donne’s personal doctor, and the Mystic’s team doctor, that Delle Donne be declared medically exempt. Delle Donne, the league’s reigning MVP, has lived with complications following Lyme disease for over a decade, and for the entirety of her playing career.

Without being granted a medical exemption, Elena Delle Donne must now choose between joining her team at IMG Academy, or forfeiting her 2020 salary.

In a piece for The Players’ Tribune titled “An Open Letter About My Health”, Delle Donne opened up about her experience with Lyme, and the emotional pain she’s felt from the league’s decision to deny her opt-out. “I’ve been told time and time again over the years that my condition made me immunocompromised,” she explains in the letter, “that part of what Lyme does is it debilitates my immune system.” The effects of Lyme on her immune system place Elena Delle Donne in the high-risk category regarding Covid-19, meaning she is more susceptible to the virus, and may suffer worse symptoms if she were to contract the coronavirus.

By playing in the bubble, Elena Delle Donne would risk long-term health complications, including respiratory problems that could seriously limit her ability to continue her career as a professional athlete. Worse than that, Delle Donne’s risk of mortality if she contracts the coronavirus is significantly higher than that of her non-immunocompromised peers. “I’m now left with two choices,” Delle Donne writes, “I can either risk my life…or forfeit my paycheck.”

The WNBA’s public messaging around its bubble has repeatedly claimed that the league’s top priority is the health and safety of their players. However, you cannot prioritize your players’ health if you refuse to listen to them when they try to explain their health needs to you. The WNBA’s assumption that it and its team of doctors know Elena Delle Donne’s health better than she does is fundamentally grounded in ableism.

Diseases like chronic Lyme, which have few visible external systems, can often be overlooked and ignored as not as serious or dangerous as they really are. Elena Delle Donne, for example, revealed that she has to take sixty-four pills every day to stay in the shape she needs to be in to play basketball. Though ‘invisible’, Lyme disease is in no way intangible. It is something that Delle Donne lives with, adapts to, and copes with every day.

The WNBA’s decision to deny her medical exemption is for them to disregard and disrespect the labor that Delle Donne performs every single day to allow her to maintain her health to continue playing in the league she loves. Elena Delle Donne said that she felt “hurt” by this: “What I hear in their decision is that I’m a fool for believing my doctor. That I’m faking a disability. That I’m trying to ‘get out’ of work and still collect a paycheck.” 

We are talking about one of the greatest basketball players in the world, the reigning MVP, one of the most popular players in the WNBA. We are talking about someone who works tirelessly to maintain her body in the face of a chronic illness so she can continue competing at the top level. This is a player who, in her words, “played in the Finals last year with THREE HERNIATED DISKS IN MY BACK.” 

Elena Delle Donne has proved her love of basketball over and over again. If it was safe for her to be playing, she would be in a heartbeat. Delle Donne is coming off one of the greatest seasons in league history–her team won a title, and she won the MVP while becoming the first WNBA player to average 50/40/90 shooting splits.

Does the WNBA really think their best player just…wants to give up a year of her prime, just because?

The Mystics are in position to repeat as champions, and Delle Donne would certainly be in contention to win her third MVP award if she played this year. If she feels the need to sit out in spite of all of that, then it’s clear that Delle Donne has legitimate concerns about her Lyme disease. 

Instead of listening to these concerns, the WNBA bafflingly chooses to antagonize the face of the league; to disregard her health and comfort and try to compel her into performing in an environment where she does not feel safe or taken care of. It is disappointing to see a league that is supposed to embody values of progress use ableist preconceptions around Lyme disease for their own gain. Instead of protecting Elena Delle Donne’s health, the league has chosen to exploit the ‘invisibility’ of her condition to protect their financial interests. 

“The best we can do is listen to each other and learn from each other – with as much humility as possible,” Delle Donne ends her letter, “I hope in the future the WNBA can aspire to do the same.”

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Image Source: AP Images

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