The Coronavirus pandemic has already delayed the start of the 2020 WNBA season. When or if it returns and what it will look like are both matters of complete speculation at this time. One of the ways that COVID-19, (and the United States government’s response to it), has further complicated things is by spurring temporary restrictions on immigration and reentry.
This is a significant issue for the WNBA not only because of the number of players born outside the US who play in the league but also the volume of players who are US citizens and play in Asian or Europe during the WNBA offseason.
And the restrictions keep growing tighter.
In mid-March, the U.S. banned entry for people who had been in China and Iran over the previous 14 days. A few days later, it banned entry for returning citizens and residents from 26 European countries. The federal government then added Ireland and UK to the list.
The Department of Homeland Security clarified travel bans to not include U.S. citizens and their families, but that clarification hasn’t resulted in easy and quick reentry into the country for citizens. That’s partially because U.S. citizens are also at the mercy of travel restrictions set by the governments of the nations they currently inhabit.
The U.S. State Dept. says it has received over 50,000 requests for aid in returning U.S. from citizens abroad. For most, it’s simply a waiting game until they can successfully go through the required protocols, which could involve self-quarantine and testing. If there are any WNBA players who are U.S. citizens still abroad, the league’s delay to starting the season may actually work in their favor because of this factor.
For foreign-born players looking to play in the WNBA this season, the situation looks very different based upon where they are currently residing. If they are already in the US, it’s a much more favorable outlook. Getting legal authorization to enter and work in the US may prove highly difficult right now.
The biggest issue—outside of the travel bans for foreign-born players who aren’t legal U.S. residents trying to enter the country right now—is that the State Dept. has suspended visa services due to the pandemic.
For applicants who didn’t get their initial filings in before March 20, there’s no clear timeline for when they might be able to start the process. Potential WNBA players who are part of that group might miss out on the 2020 season, should there be one, because of an inability to obtain a visa.
Unfortunately, there is little that WNBA teams can do to help right now.
Under normal circumstances, a WNBA franchise could be part of applying for one of a few kinds of work-related visas, such as H-1B and H-2B. With visa services suspended, the teams’ hands are tied.
For foreign-born players who are already in the U.S., the process of applying for a green card or extending a temporary visa appears much more optimistic. The White House’s latest executive order delaying green card processing only applies to people applying for green cards from outside the U.S., for example.
That order was nothing more than a political ploy as it had little real effect: It does not pertain to those applying for temporary visas, and green card services had already been suspended.
In theory, WNBA teams and the athletes they wish to employ should be able to apply for H-1B visas and the like from within the country, but there’s no guarantee that will happen expeditiously. It’s possible that an athlete’s visa could expire before they are able to renew it.
It’s possible to file an extension, but once again, processing times are uncertain right now. Fortunately, the process of extradition is also facing a log jam and, in theory, those who entered the country on visas like an H-1B are good to stay while their extension requests are processing. Like everything else, the situation remains fluid.
Not only is the current situation uncertain but there are doubts about how this will shape the future for professional athletes.
The White House is already trying to extend its latest immigration limits, although at some point that will require Congressional action. If some of these changes become more permanent, it could affect the future of women’s basketball around the world in several ways.
First, the number of U.S. citizens who play in Asia and Europe during the WNBA offseason may decrease. While the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement aims to curtail that with increased compensation and opportunities for players anyway, it’s too early to tell how effective those measures will be toward that end.
Many players may still seek opportunities beyond North America for a variety of reasons.
Doubt about the ability to reenter the US. in a timely fashion could make such athletes curtail their playing abroad or skip it altogether. The long-term ramifications for both athletes and WNBA franchises in securing the best talent around the globe might take an even greater hit.
Gone may be the days of spending draft picks and other resources on players like Han Xu, Leonie Fiebich and Luisa Geiselsöder. Teams may still opt to sign such players on free-agent contracts, but foreign talent then faces as much of an uphill climb as it may in securing a work visa.
On the free-agent market, they have to compete with all the other available talent around the world for a small number of open roster spots.
Players like Maria Vadeeva—who left the Los Angeles Sparks to join the Eurobasket team representing her native Russia early last season—might find it more difficult to rejoin their WNBA franchises in such circumstances. That may lead them to skip playing in the WNBA altogether if such flexibility isn’t an option for them.
A WNBA without the talents of players like 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseeman will be an inferior product.
While the current COVID-19 pandemic has played a larger part in the uncertainty around immigration, the political climate after the pandemic eases will determine the long-term fate of such relationships between athletes and WNBA franchises.
Hopefully, WNBA teams can easily employ Fiebich, Geiselsöder, Meesseeman, Vadeeva, Xu and many others for years to come.