‘She’s Being Discriminated Against’: League Says Two-Time MVP’s Health Issues Not Serious Enough For Opt-Out

The WNBA’s medical evaluators said Elena Delle Donne’s chronic Lyme disease was not sufficient cause for an opt-out of play in 2020.
The WNBA’s medical evaluators said Elena Delle Donne’s chronic Lyme disease was not sufficient cause for an opt-out of play in 2020.
Photo: Getty

While the WNBA might lag behind in TV money or notoriety, it proved last night it doesn’t lag behind when it comes to being a callous jackwagon (yes, I’m from Chicago. Why do you ask?) The league’s panel of doctors denied two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne’s request to be excused from the WNBA’s bubble season on medical grounds, and thus she’ll either have to play where she doesn’t want to or she’ll have to sit out without pay.


She is not allowed to appeal the decision.

Della Donne had Lyme disease, which the CDC does not list as an underlying condition that increases someone’s risk of catching COVID-19. But that shouldn’t really be the question. The point should be that if any player doesn’t feel safe, they should be allowed to opt out. Or not. Major League Baseball is not asking players to “qualify” for an opt-out. Neither is the NBA. Nor is the NHL. Neither did the WNBA’s soccer counterpart, the NWSL. The latter, which isn’t on nearly as stable ground as the WNBA in terms of financials, is also paying players who opt out for any reason.

Sure, some of those who opted out are US Internationals who are paid by US Soccer, but the point remains. Considering that MLS, which was the first league to attempt this bubble formula in Florida, has been an utter mess, it would seem that any WNBA’s player concern about playing in theirs would be completely valid.

It appears to just be cheapness. The WNBA doesn’t want to have to pay a raft of players to not play, so it’s going to make them jump through hoops (sorry). Delle Donne says that her personal physician, who wouldn’t seem to have a dog in the fight, had advised her to not play. The board of physicians appointed by the league says otherwise. That smells. And it smells bad.

And Delle Donne isn’t citing the Lyme disease you and I know, the one contracted from ticks. Della Donne says she has chronic Lyme disease. It’s possible that what she really has is Post-Treatment Lyme Disease (PTLDS) which is what can persist in up to 20 percent of Lyme disease victims after treatment of the original disease is completed.

“She’s being discriminated against,” said Pat Smith, President of the national non-profit Lyme Disease Association Inc.


“If you have chronic Lyme disease you are immune compromised as your system is busy battling the effects of Lyme and maybe other tick-borne diseases,” said Smith,.

Smith’s organization has been fighting the government for decades for failing to recognize Lyme disease as a chronic illness.


“What [the WNBA is] doing to [Delle Donne] is so wrong,” added Smith, who said she became angry when she saw Delle Donne’s request had been denied.

The group Project Lyme issued a statement to Deadspin from two of its board members, Jennifer Weis and Kim Dickstein, on the matter:

No one knows for sure the risk profile for developing more severe COVID-19 in someone who has chronic Lyme Disease. Studies have suggested lingering symptoms from Lyme Disease may be due to an immune system malfunction triggered by the original infection. By the CDC’s own admission, currently there are limited data and information about the impact of underlying medical conditions and whether they increase the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (the CDC includes immunocompromised states in their list of underlying diseases that may increase risk). In the absence of such knowledge, Elena Delle Donne and the WNBA would be best to follow the guidance of her personal physician, especially given there is not a Lyme expert sitting on the organization’s review panel.


It’s still not known what exactly causes PTLDS. Some have said it’s due to antibiotic treatments not completely eradicating the bacteria, though that has scant evidence. Others say it’s due to a weakening of the immune system, though again nothing conclusive. But if there’s even a hint that it could be the latter, as Smith argues, why would the WNBA ask Delle Donne to take the risk or go without her salary?

Some of the long-term effects of PTLDS look a lot like what little we know about COVID-19’s effects, such as joint inflammation and neurological symptoms. Even if it doesn’t make Delle Donne more susceptible to coronavirus, it’s pretty easy to understand her reluctance to chance doubling up on some of these things simply to play a basketball season in the Port of Hell known as Florida.


And also, it’s been pretty well documented that we know very little about the long-term effects of COVID-19. It was only last week, after the pandemic had been with us for over four months, that British researchers released a report linking the disease to brain damage. Why should anyone take a chance?

Perhaps what the WNBA’s board is using is Delle Donne’s choice of labels, as she says she has “chronic” Lyme disease. That condition is still not universally accepted in the medical community as being real, despite Smith and others’ protestations. Some believe it is just a catch-all for when no other diagnoses can be found.


But that is generally reserved for those who have never found to have been bitten by a tick or have had the customary bulls-eye rash or had an official test and diagnosis. Delle Donne was positively diagnosed with Lyme disease in high school after being bitten on her family’s property. Continuing symptoms after treatment for the disease have been documented.

It would appear that the WNBA, or its medical board, is purely going by the CDC guidelines for Lyme disease. Which again, probably isn’t the point. The point feels like saving on salary. And if Delle Donne’s $215K is so important, the WNBA has bigger problems.


Additional reporting by Eric Barrow