WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike stands on a basketball count holding a basketball while wearing a purple Los Angeles Sparks shirt
With much of her team stranded overnight in an airport, Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks issued a statement calling for a resolution to the WNBA’s ongoing travel issues. (photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via CNN)

Nneka Ogwumike, President of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, released a statement on August 8 asking for a resolution to the league’s ongoing travel issues. The seven-time league All-Star wrote the statement at 4 a.m. in an airport terminal.

Following a 79-76 win over the Washington Mystics the previous evening, Ogwumike and her teammates had arrived at the airport, learning at 1 a.m. that their flight back home had been rescheduled to 9 a.m. the next morning. Local hotels had limited capacity and could only accommodate about half of the team, leaving the other half stranded at the airport.

The idea of professional athletes sleeping overnight at an airport would be almost unthinkable in men’s major league sports, which, unlike the WNBA, use chartered private flights. This gendered disparity represents a serious health and safety issue, as scientific evidence suggests that sleep loss negatively impacts athletic performance and increases the likelihood of injury and illness.

In a moment when good sleep is increasingly recognized as a vital component of athlete health and performance, being denied full access to the conditions and resources that support this form of recovery is an injustice that should be challenged. While the WNBA has embraced sleep technology, as evidenced by an ongoing league-wide partnership first signed in 2020 with Oura, a digital health company that specializes in sleep and activity monitoring, such technologies cannot remedy the systemic imbalances that drive exhaustion in the WNBA and may even camouflage unsafe and exploitative working conditions.

The myth of load management

Debates about “load management,” or how to balance rest and labor for optimal performance, have raged for years in the men’s National Basketball Association, but these same concerns have rarely been extended to the WNBA—a workforce predominantly comprised of African American women.

This omission is remarkable given the travel and performance demands of the league. Twelve franchises compete in a compact 34-game summer season, with teams averaging two games a week. Headlines regularly report on dysfunctional travel, high rates of fatigue-induced injuries, relatively low salaries, and off-season overseas contracts that mean most players compete year round, including superstars like Brittney Griner, who is currently imprisoned in Russia.

In essence, the WNBA attempts to approximate the performance and profit models of men’s professional sport but with fewer economic and material resources. And as for WNBA players, they are under no illusions about their situation. As league All-Star Chelsea Gray explains, “for [WNBA players], there is no load management…it’s a myth.”

Monitoring athlete sleep

The WNBA’s grueling travel and competition schedule may make sleep technologies look enticing. A growing number of tech and mattress companies and sleep advocacy organizations market sleep as if it is the easiest and most effective way to offset the harms of elite sport.

But sleep technologies focus on fixing athletes, not their working conditions. Such technologies encourage individual players to become more aware and responsible for being well-rested, helping them find new ways of optimizing their “off” hours. Some may decide to go to bed earlier or adopt new sleep and wake routines, while others may be mindful of what they consume through the day.

These small personal adjustments are an effort to “fix” athletes while leaving their exhausting working conditions in place. Sleep has too often been devalued in American society, but when sleep becomes a way to cope with excessive workplace demands, it can mask exploitative and unsafe conditions and leave underlying capitalist expectations of endless performance and profits hidden.

Sleep monitoring also subjects WNBA players to invasive forms of corporate surveillance. A growing body of social science research shows that within and beyond sport, devices that record daily activities represent a more significant burden in the lives of African Americans, sexual and gender minorities, and poor communities.

Growing concerns about the sleep habits of WNBA players may create a climate of suspicion and renew sexist, anti-Black racism that has long shaped African American women’s experiences in sport and physical activity. Athletes who deviate from the norms associated with good sleep may elicit extra layers surveillance from coaches, medical staff, sports writers, and audiences.

Rest, recovery, labor

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert continues to rule out chartered flights in the regular season, citing financial strain and the need for parity within the league. However, several team owners have requested to have their teams travel on private planes. In fact, Joe and Clara Tsai, billionaire owners of the New York Liberty, were even fined $50,000 after they personally paid for their team to avoid commercial flights last year. Players and their union have made their position clear against the requirement to travel via commercial flights, especially during a global pandemic.

Of course, canceled flights and sleep loss represent but one aspect of a larger and more complicated struggle to improve working conditions in the WNBA, a setting that remains proximate but unequal to the NBA. To improve the working conditions of the WNBA is to protect and value the athletic labor of African American women. It means countering long histories of exclusion and marginalization in sport. It means challenging mythologies about strong and resilient Black women that have sustained their exploitation in American society. At the very least, pay gaps need to be closed, year-around contracts offered, and chartered flights booked.

The WNBA reminds us that vulnerabilities to exhaustion are not evenly or fairly distributed in sport or society. Rest-related disparities often run along unequal racial, gender, and economic lines. The structural nature of exhaustion means that it cannot be remedied through individualized, market-based solutions. While sleep technologies are one way to approach to the problem of athlete fatigue, they are not sufficient to fully address the complexities of inequitable and exhausting sport settings. Collective bargaining and the voices of WNBA players are also necessary in the push for structural changes and protections related to pay, travel, and the collection of biodata that will ultimately create safer and more equitable working conditions in the league.

Author biographical note

Sarah Barnes is an Assistant Professor at Cape Breton University. Her research interests focus on sport and wellbeing in a rapidly changing society. The full version of Barnes’ recent study on sleep in the WNBA was published online ahead of print in Sociology of Sport Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @barnesarah