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- Joined ESPN in June 2003
- Winner: 2013 Peabody Award; 2011 Edward R. Murrow Award/Video Investigative Reporting
- Covers breaking news, investigative pieces and human interest features
- Sarah Spain (follow her on Twitter @SarahSpain) is the co-host of Spain & Fitz on ESPN Radio, host of the That’s What She Said podcast, a SportsCenter reporter and an espnW columnist since 2010. She was a heptathlete at Cornell and is a lifelong Chicago sports fan.
Reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne says a panel of physicians has denied her request to opt out of the 2020 season due to medical concerns, a decision she says is at odds with the advice she received from her own personal physician, the Washington Mystics star and her agent told ESPN on Monday.
“The independent panel of doctors the league appointed to review high-risk cases have advised that I’m not high risk, and should be permitted to play in the bubble,” Delle Donne said in a statement released to ESPN Monday.
“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. My personal physician who has treated me for Lyme disease for years advised me that I’m at high risk for contracting and having complications from COVID-19,” Delle Donne added in her statement.
“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.”
“When I talked to Elena, her initial reaction was disbelief,” Delle Donne’s agent, Erin Kane, said about her client’s response to the ruling by league doctors.
“I know doctors don’t always agree with each other and that there are different opinions on certain things within the medical community and now I have a player who is in an incredibly difficult situation because of the way things lined up,” Kane said.
Lyme disease is not included on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of underlying conditions that could put someone at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
The WNBA’s panel of doctors considers the CDC’s guidelines when evaluating high-risk cases, according to a draft of the league’s health and safety protocol obtained by ESPN.
Both Kane and an agent for another player seeking a medical exemption expressed concerns about what they feel is the poorly outlined process and unclear direction afforded to those seeking a ruling from the medical panel. Both also found league reps to be vague in explaining exactly what the panel would be ruling on and expressed their frustration with a required waiver absolving the panel of physicians from any responsibility.
A league spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Monday evening.
Delle Donne, 30, has yet to travel with her Mystics teammates to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where WNBA players, coaches and support personnel live under a series of strict medical and housing protocols.
The six-time All-Star has battled chronic Lyme disease since 2008 and spoken publicly for years about the need for a cure. She’s also recovering from back surgery in January to repair three herniated disks, Kane said.
“It’s still possible she’ll opt out,” Kane said. “Like a lot of people, she’s making a choice between what’s best for her from a health standpoint and what’s best for her from a financial standpoint for her and her family.”
A panel of three physicians was established to advise the WNBA on whether a player can be medically excused for the season, which is scheduled to start at the end of the month. Players deemed to be “high risk” or who have a medical reason to opt out will receive their full salary. Players who don’t meet that medical threshold in the opinion of the panel, can still opt out and skip the season if the panel does not grant them a medical waiver, but they won’t get paid their salary in that event.
Lyme disease isn’t mentioned by the CDC as something that would place an individual at “high risk,” but Kane told ESPN that the Mystics’ team physician, Dr. Anne Rettig, sent a letter to the medical panel advising it that Delle Donne was cleared to play but noting that she should be considered “higher risk.”
A Mystics spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Decisions by the medical panel are final and players have no ability to appeal, Kane said.
Delle Donne’s teammate Tina Charles, who was acquired from the New York Liberty in a trade during the offseason, was also waiting for a decision from the league’s medical panel. If Delle Donne and Charles miss the season, the Mystics would be down to 10 players on the roster.
“My heart has gone out to everyone who has had to choose between their health and having an income, and of course to anyone who has lost their job, their home, and anyone they love in this pandemic,” Delle Donne said.