“Sometimes our safety [is] really a question mark”: A WNBA agent explains how coronavirus and wildfires are affecting basketball players overseas

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For basketball players looking to play overseas, China has “a good league” that pays well, sports agent and four-time WNBA All-Star Ticha Penicheiro says. “If you’re serious about your job and you want to be a pro and you really want to play overseas, China is one of the best places to be.”

However, a new coronavirus that originated in China has agents such as Penicheiro singing a different tune this offseason.

Coronavirus is a category of disease that includes both the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The latest strain, which has reportedly been traced to wild animals sold at a market in Wuhan, China, produces symptoms similar to pneumonia. It has spread rapidly since mid-December: on January 28, the day I spoke with Penicheiro, there were approximately 6,000 cases in China and 87 in other countries, up from 332 total cases a week prior.

Visualization by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

In the past ten days, many airlines have suspended their flights to China; the Chinese government has restricted travel within the country; and the U.S. government issued its most severe warning, a Level 4 advisory, against traveling to China. Companies including Morgan Stanley and Facebook have shut down operations in China or ordered employees to work from home temporarily if they had recently traveled to China. In the sports world, Miami (Ohio) postponed two basketball games while two students underwent tests for the virus, and the Chinese national women’s soccer team was quarantined in Australia ahead of an Olympic qualifying tournament there.

This winter, two of Penicheiro’s players, and 13 Americans in total, were slated to play in China. A fortuitously timed break in the Chinese season for the Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, which begin on February 6, meant that most foreign players were not in China when the coronavirus broke out. One exception was Penicheiro’s client and former Penn State star Maggie Lucas, who had to report to China a few days early and ended up being quarantined in a hotel. Lucas was not available for comment for this story, but according to Penicheiro, “I had to, I'm not gonna say fight with the club, but pretty much say, ‘Listen, I don’t feel comfortable with her being there. I need her out of there as soon as possible.’ And it took a couple days, but they finally agreed to let her leave.”

Penicheiro had previously negotiated exits for players because their foreign team breached its contract, but never because of a virus or a natural disaster. “This is something that has never happened before … at least since I've been an agent,” Penicheiro said.

The outbreak has left many questions in its wake, chief among them whether the Chinese season will resume at some point or be canceled. Penicheiro’s other player who had a contract to play in China was scheduled to arrive on February 1, but Penicheiro told the team in advance that the player would not report until the virus was under control. No one knows when that will be, so everyone is waiting and watching. “What I tell all the players,” Penicheiro said, “is like, ‘Listen, don't worry about it. You’re not gonna go anywhere that you don't feel safe, and we just take it one day at a time.’ We keep watching the news, keep talking to the people over there, [and] are in touch with the Chinese Federation and the club.”

If the Chinese season is canceled, Penicheiro expects to have to negotiate with teams about the money that her clients are owed. “I'm sure the club is not willingly going to be like, ‘Oh, great, the season was canceled, but here's all your money,’” she said. If the season does resume, there will be no contractual dispute, but the season will likely finish later than its typical March end date. With WNBA training camps starting on April 26, Penicheiro does not currently anticipate that players would have to report late, but that could change depending on how quickly and effectively the virus can be contained.

When I spoke with Penicheiro on January 28, she was not concerned about the coronavirus for clients outside of China. Although news outlets have seemingly reported cases in new countries every day lately, medical experts in the United States still say that Americans should be much more worried about the regular flu, which has infected up to 26 million people in the United States alone in the past four months.

Penicheiro is also not panicking about what the wildfires in Australia might mean for her four clients playing there The wildfires have burned over 27 million acres of land and killed at least 33 people since September, but Penicheiro does not think it’s necessary to pull her players out. “What we see here in the news is very devastating,” Penicheiro said, “… but [my players] were not ever in a critical situation [where] they were in danger.” Importantly, her players also did not feel unsafe—and if they had, Penicheiro said, she would have immediately helped them leave.

Instead, players in Australia have brought attention to and raised money to fight the fires. New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse, a client of Penicheiro’s, was playing in Australia until recently, when she left to join the Canadian national team for Olympic qualifying. On January 2, she pledged to donate $5 for every point her team, the Canberra Capitals, scored in its next five games, which added up to a $1,875 contribution. Kelsey Griffin, a Canberra teammate of Nurse’s, and her wife Erin matched the donation. Meanwhile, Las Vegas Aces center and Australia native Liz Cambage started a GoFundMe for wildfire relief, and Phoenix Mercury and Australian national team head coach Sandy Brondello has also donated $4,000.

The key distinction for Penicheiro between the wildfires and the coronavirus is the ability to monitor and stay ahead of the situation. Australian officials are “aware of where the fires are and if you are [at] risk,” Penicheiro said, whereas the unknowns regarding how coronavirus can be transmitted and how quickly symptoms appear make the virus “completely unpredictable.”

Other recent unpredictable events include an earthquake in Turkey on January 24 that killed at least 36 people and a series of bombings in Turkey in 2015 and 2016. These tragedies can make a player feel unsafe and want to leave, and Penicheiro said there is only so much she can do to help a player feel safe. “I can say, ‘The Turkish embassy here in America says that you’re safe,’” Penicheiro said, “but how can I promise that to a player because it doesn't depend on me? … I tell them sometimes, ‘I can’t promise that you're safe here in America, either.’ … I mean, how many mass shootings have we had in churches, in schools, in movie theaters? So sometimes our safety, it's really a question mark.”

Ultimately, if a player is uncomfortable or doesn’t feel safe, Penicheiro believes it is her job as an agent to get the player out of the situation. She explained, “If we are aware of a situation where we feel like a player is in danger, we have to act on the player's behalf and always, always, always have their back and fight for their safety and fight for their well-being.”

Penicheiro also said that, whether it’s the coronavirus or wildfires abroad or tragedies closer to home, such events can prompt players to reflect on the sacrifices they make for their professional careers. “A lot of things that happen in the world just make you think, is this really worth it?” Penicheiro said. “I mean, you talk about Kobe [Bryant] and him passing with his daughter, and sometimes these players are overseas and you rob time from their families … because they're playing overseas and trying to earn a paycheck. And sometimes … you think, is this really worth it for me to be so many miles away from home?” She added that while agents can advise a player on her options, playing overseas is ultimately a personal decision and every player weighs the factors that go into it differently.

In that sense, the coronavirus and the wildfires are just two of the newest factors that could influence the career decisions that basketball players sometimes make multiple times per year. Scientists predict that climate change will make wildfires, epidemics, and other disasters increasingly common, which could expand agents’ job descriptions to include more risk management and/or reduce players’ willingness to play in certain countries. It is worth watching how basketball leagues in China and worldwide respond to the coronavirus—not just to figure out what the effects will be this season, but also to game plan for epidemics and other disasters in the future.


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