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SNYDER: Aces deserve benefit of a doubt

August 8, 2018

To play or not to play. That was the question.

Was it nobler for the Las Vegas Aces to suffer the effects of 25-plus hours of travel before facing the Washington Mystics Friday night? Or was the road-weary WNBA team right to oppose the uncompromising, show-up-and-play notion?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Each of us can say what we’d do in a given situation. But the Aces were on the clock, weighing real-life circumstances, not a hypothetical situation. They neither played nor showed up at Capital One Arena, and on Tuesday were slapped with the WNBA’s first-ever forfeiture.

“Our entire organization has the utmost respect for the very difficult decision our players made, and we stand with them,” Las Vegas president of basketball operations and coach Bill Laimbeer said in a statement before Tuesday’s loss in Atlanta. “We are disappointed with the league’s decision, but our focus is now on winning as many games as we can in our drive for our first playoff appearance.”

Losing two games in one day first in the league office, then on the court put postseason hopes in jeopardy. They realized that risk in refusing to play.

But they figured it beat the health risks of tipping off against Washington after a cross-country night of travel misery.

Scheduled to depart Las Vegas early Thursday afternoon on a direct flight, the team waited at the airport through an eight-hour delay that turned into a cancellation. Next was a red-eye to Dallas, where they connected to another delay-besieged flight that didn’t depart until Friday at 11:20 a.m. Eastern.

The Aces arrived at their D.C. hotel around 4 p.m., about four hours before the game’s start time (which the league had pushed back an hour to give Vegas as much time as possible). But they made their decision around 6:30 p.m., concluding that fatigue might have a negative effect on their health and wellness.

“The players identified and confirmed the real risks of playing under these conditions; the consequences all became secondary,” union official Terri Jackson told the New York Times. “The hardest part of this decision was the impact on the fans.”

Fans also are the easiest reason to rip the decision.

They spend their hard-earned money on tickets. They have bigger concerns than inconvenient travel and how sleep-deprived bodies adjust on the fly after changing time zones. Fans expect to be entertained, as scheduled, by pro athletes who might as well be machines instead of humans.

Besides, men would’ve sucked it up.

For that matter, other WNBA teams, too.

“We would have played,” Connecticut Sun general manager and coach Curt Miller told The New York Times. “You have to go with the flow with travel in this league. We’ve all had travel challenges. There is no perfect scenario. To me, it was a surprising decision.”

Surprising because athletes are conditioned to sacrifice themselves for the good of the crowd and the team and the city.

No matter what athletes are experiencing physically, emotionally or mentally, the game must go on. Their performance might be sloppy, choppy, ugly and uneven, but perform they will. That’s what it means to be a professional and it’s a fair expectation 95 percent of the time.

But if I had purchased tickets to Friday’s Mystics-Aces game, I think I’d understand and appreciate Vegas’ decision. I think I’d prefer a refund and tickets to a future game, as opposed to watching a team that spent 25 of the past 30 hours at airports or on a plane.

I wonder if Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault would be as adamant about the Aces’ decision if he paid to attend games instead of being paid to be there.

“I’m really disappointed that the Las Vegas players and organization didn’t come to compete,” he told reporters. “Every team I’ve been around in the WNBA or the NBA or the old CBA goes through this. College teams go through it, and you have an obligation to the fans who paid money to come to watch you play. If you’re there and in the city and can play, you should show up and play.”

College teams have an obligation to fans? What, are student-athletes like professionals? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.).

Anyway, the forfeit cost fans nothing more than a night’s diversion. They can get their money back.

Conversely, competing could’ve cost a Vegas player several months of recovery from injury. She might’ve never gotten her full ability back.

Don’t ask me for a formula on which travel delays are severe enough to make not playing acceptable. But don’t ask me to condemn the Aces for their decision, either, considering this specific set of circumstances.

They put their best interests ahead of the crowd.

That’s perfectly understandable ... if you view players as humans and not merely athletes.

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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