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Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne hopes denial of medical exemption for Lyme disease not based on her status in WNBA
2:24 PM ET
  • Mechelle VoepelESPN.com

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      Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

On the day Washington’s Elena Delle Donne questioned whether her status as reigning WNBA MVP impacted her being denied a medical exemption this season, the Mystics announced that she is on the roster and will be paid her salary even if she does not play.

Because of the effects of Lyme disease on her immune system, Delle Donne, 30, was anticipating receiving a medical exemption that guarantees players their full salaries if they are deemed high-risk regarding the potential impact of the coronavirus.

Delle Donne spoke on SportsCenter on Wednesday after writing about her situation for The Players’ Tribune. She was asked whether she thought her status as one of the most prominent players in the league had any effect on the panel of physicians — appointed by the league and players’ union — and the decision to deny her the exemption.

“I’m not sure, and I really hope it didn’t,” Delle Donne said. “I hope they would treat me as ‘Player X,’ and they see that I’ve been treated for something for nine years. They’ve seen my bloodwork. I’ve submitted everything.

“So I really hope that wasn’t the reason why this happened. I hope it’s doctors just still being unaware of Lyme disease and not having Lyme-literate doctors on that panel because I don’t want to believe that’s what happened. Unfortunately, it might be what happened.”

Delle Donne said she is on a regimen in which she takes 64 pills per day.

“I know taking that much medication every day probably doesn’t have a great effect on my long-term health, but I love the game of basketball,” Delle Donne said. “I found a protocol that sometimes works for me and enables me to play. But I think I’m just going to have to be way more open about my treatment, which I’ve been private about. Because medical things are not always open. But I think people deserve my honesty and deserve to see the fight that I go through just to have a normal life, let alone be on a basketball court.”

Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault said in a video call Wednesday that Delle Donne is on the team’s roster and is being paid. He said she will be paid throughout the WNBA season, even if she is doing only rehab for the back surgery she underwent in January and doesn’t play.

Thibault seemed somewhat perplexed as to why Delle Donne gave the impression that she had to choose between playing this season and not being paid. He said that is not the case. Thibault added that Delle Donne shared with the team that she was denied the exemption.

“But we weren’t able to make an announcement regarding the decision unless the player makes a public statement first,” Thibault said. “Elena and her agent, Erin Kane, picked a time to share it publicly.

“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. As in the past, 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.

“If at some point, later in the season, we are all comfortable enough with both her physical progress and the safety of joining the team in Florida, then we will make those arrangements. 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.”

Kane, however, told ESPN that Delle Donne wasn’t entirely clear on the parameters of being paid by the Mystics, and she had two major concerns with the situation. First, she thought the Mystics would require her to rehab at their training facility in Washington, D.C. — instead of at her home — which could increase the possibility that she contracts the coronavirus.

“That’s still a risk she’s not sure she’s willing to take,” Kane said, adding that Delle Donne has been doing rehab at home. “And for her, the decision has never been about her back. It’s about her Lyme disease and what’s safe.”

Further, even if it could be agreed that Delle Donne will not go to the Mystics’ facility for rehab, eventually she would be faced with the decision of whether to go to the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, if the Mystics thought she was healthy enough to play. Kane said Delle Donne believes that would also be a major risk.

Kane said Delle Donne is thankful that Thibault and Ted Leonsis — the CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Mystics — are trying to do the right thing, and she thinks they want what’s best for her. However, figuring out the details while dealing with the disappointment of the medical panel’s ruling has been challenging.

“She really appreciates their support and that they’re trying to find a happy medium, a way to kind of resolve this situation,” Kane said. “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 WNBA is playing a shortened 22-game regular season that begins July 25 at IMG Academy. Some players have opted out because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, and others have done so to focus on social justice concerns. Players had the option of applying for medical exemptions based on their risk factors if they were to contract the coronavirus. If players are deemed medically exempt, they will receive their full salaries for the season.

“I considered her a high-risk player,” Seattle’s Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP, said when asked Wednesday about Delle Donne’s situation. “I hope the league and Elena can figure out something where she doesn’t have to be in an uncomfortable situation.”

Phoenix forward Jessica Breland is one player who received an exemption because she had Hodgkin lymphoma a decade ago while in college at North Carolina. Delle Donne’s Mystics teammate Tina Charles also is seeking a medical exemption, but it hasn’t been announced whether she received it.

Delle Donne’s back surgery was for three herniated disks that she dealt with last season while leading the Mystics to the WNBA title. She said her concerns about the coronavirus are a major factor in how she has been living her life the past several months.

Thibault said he thought Delle Donne also saw the refusal of a medical exemption as an opportunity to make a stronger statement about how Lyme disease is perceived. Kane agreed, and Delle Donne made that clear in her comments to SportsCenter.

“For nine years now, I’ve been dealing with Lyme disease and other coinfections that have destroyed my immune system, and I’ve been immune-compromised for years,” Delle Donne said. “When COVID has come around, and I saw that if you’re immune-compromised you have to be super careful, I’ve been that.

“I went through the process with the league of submitting all my information. My doctor, who has been treating me for nine years, submitted a letter basically saying: This isn’t safe for her. So when I got the call that I was denied, I was completely shocked. I didn’t really understand, and now it’s almost like I’m asked to ignore the one doctor that heard me and has been treating me and is enabling me to kind of live a normal life with the protocol and the treatment he’s had me on for years.”

Delle Donne said she will continue to discuss the situation with her wife, Amanda, and won’t take long to make a decision about her next steps.

“Luckily, I’m privileged enough to be able to make a decision, and I know there are so many people through COVID who have lost jobs, who are going hungry, who don’t have an option to make a choice whether to go to their job or not,” Delle Donne said. “But I’m in a position where we can figure it out. We’ll find a way to push through if my decision is to not go play. So we’ll see what happens. Maybe this is good. Maybe this is an awakening for me to speak out more about Lyme disease, to fight for the people who have been ignored for years, just like myself.”

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