Wizards’ assistant coach Kristi Toliver only making $10,000 thanks to restrictive WNBA rules

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The controversy about how WNBA players are underpaid — most have no off-season, needing to play in Europe during the WNBA’s offseason because they make more money overseas — is getting more fuel for the fire.

Thanks to the story of Kristi Toliver.

She plays for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, but rather than head to Europe this summer the Wizards’ Scott Brooks asked her to join the team’s coaching staff for the season. She took the chance, following in the steps of other former WNBA stars turned NBA coaches such as Becky Hammon in San Antonio. It’s a big break.

Except the pay was also a big break. Howard Megdal told Toliver’s story in the New York Times.

Because Toliver is a player with the Mystics, owned by Ted Leonsis, under the same corporate umbrella as the Wizards, the league determined that any pay Toliver was to get from the gig would have to come out of the $50,000 total each team has allocated to pay W.N.B.A. players for off-season work. Moreover, much of that had already been promised to Toliver’s teammate, Elena Delle Donne, who typically stays home in the off-season and promotes the Mystics.

N.B.A. assistants routinely make $100,000 or more, with some earning over $1 million, so how much would the job pay Toliver?

The answer was $10,000. Or, to put it in perspective, $5,000 less than the fine the N.B.A. recently handed down to Coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors for “public criticism of the officiating.”

Leonsis is in her corner.

He’s right, the rules do need to change — and they likely will after the 2019 season, the WNBA players have announced they are opting out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement after next season. (That has the potential to be a nasty negotiation, by the way.)

The concern is a level playing field for the dozen NBA teams. The Mystics — or the Indiana Fever, the Minnesota Lynx, the Phoenix Mercury, teams with direct ties to an NBA owner — could use coaching as a way to circumvent the salary cap in a way non-NBA tied teams could not. Never underestimate the willingness of a franchise to ignore the spirit of a rule to gain a competitive advantage.

That said, the reality is there are women in the WNBA who can be good NBA coaches, who know the game and will earn the respect of players. The WNBA can’t cut off this path to success for these women. Instead, the league needs to encourage it. The question that needs to be figured out is how, so that future Toliver’s can be compensated fairly.