TORONTO — Just five weeks after the WNBA held its virtual draft, the league was forced to release players on Tuesday — before ever seeing them step foot on a pro women's court.
As leagues take their first tentative steps back to a sports world brought to its knees by COVID-19, Allison Sandmeyer-Graves hopes women don't get forgotten.
"We're trying to draw people's attention to it," said Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women & Sport," so that as (sports organizations) are making countless decisions that are going to be really shaping probably not just the near-term sport and physical activity, but frankly, also the longer-term, that they're not forgetting about women and girls.
"We just can't take our eye off the ball on this."
The WNBA held its online draft on April 17, and the regular season was supposed to have started on May 17. Tip-off was postponed, and the league is in discussions over potential scenarios for a start.
Meanwhile, the league and its players' union determined that teams would need to get their rosters under the salary cap by Tuesday so the players could get paid as of June 1, meaning the release of numerous players before they had a chance to earn a spot.
Women's sports seemed to have been gaining some momentum before everything was halted by the pandemic. Canada enjoys a wealth of talented women on the Olympic stage. Professional women's hockey is returning to Canada, with the National Women's Hockey League announcing an expansion team — the Toronto Six. The Toronto Raptors have 14 women on their front-office staff, including Brittni Donaldson, who at 27 is the youngest assistant coach in the NBA.
Sandmeyer-Graves believes gender equity is still a "high priority" for both Canada's Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault and the Canadian Olympic Committee despite the pandemic upheaval.
"And so we're hopeful," she said. "But we also know that sports are faced with some impossible choices right now and are really struggling. And that's at the national level, you can imagine at the grassroots what's happening. There's so much uncertainty. So, it remains to be see exactly what the sports system looks like when the dust settles here."
Guilbeault announced recently that Canada's amateur sport system would get $72 million in pandemic release funding from the federal government.
But as organizations have had to slice jobs or reshuffle staff, what will the makeup of organizations look like when everything resumes? If the new normal means less players on the ice or field at a time for physical distance, will girls and women have equal access to facilities?
"You would want to know that as they're rebuilding their sports team, because once people are moved around, there's no guarantees that it comes back the way that it was," Sandmeyer-Graves said. "So, as they're rebuilding, let's make sure that there's diversity. . . we're really encouraging people to bring that kind of intentionality to their decision-making. This isn't necessarily how people always tend to think, we're trying to be that voice to encourage it."
She's also concerned that any ground gained by underrepresented groups such as Paralympic athletes might be lost as well.
Erica Gavel, a member of Canada's wheelchair basketball team, said re-opening on the Paralympic side presents even more challenges. Paralympic athletes have a wide range of disabilities, so she hopes precautionary measures are taken on a case-by-case basis.
"Just because you're a Para athlete doesn't mean you're at high risk of acquiring COVID," she said. "In a team sport that has a variety of disabilities within the same group, yes, it's a group, yes, it's a basketball team, but among that team the risk assessment could be different from player to player.
Michele O'Keefe, the associate director of athletics and recreation at Niagara College, has found positives amid the pandemic lockout, saying it's fostered valuable communication among some of the most powerful women in sport.
O'Keefe said FIBA Americas — a zone within FIBA, the world governing body for basketball — had been planning a women in basketball leadership summit, but it was shelved due to the pandemic. Instead, O'Keefe, who's a member of FIBA's central board, and FIBA Americas is offering a weekly FIBA virtual speakers panel.
Participants so far include Jenny Shipley, New Zealand's first female prime minister and Cynthia Marshall, the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, among others. Topics have included everything from building at the grassroots level, to how to lobby government for funding, to life after being an athlete.
"All the speakers are designed to give (participants) another tool for their tool belt sort of thing," O'Keefe said. "And during the pandemic, because we're doing it online, it's way easier to get people to speak."
Canadian Women & Sport will release a report next month on the state of girls and women in Canadian sport, "to really help to shine another spotlight on the conversation."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2020.