Alyssa Thomas Is Carrying The Sun Through The WNBA Playoffs — But She Shouldn’t Have To

There is no way to write about anything other than the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas today.

Thomas, of the “run me over Daddy” energy on the court, is a player we like to call “a difference maker.” When she’s out there, she’s just constantly making things happen. She’s setting screens so hard that players literally take themselves out running into them; she is plowing through entire teams of defenders to find the basket; she is implausibly making free throws while shooting them like a shot put. It’s that last point that becomes significant in the context of what she did Thursday night. Thomas is playing basketball with two torn labrums. Yes, that’s right, the labrums in both of her shoulders are torn. And she’s playing basketball and absolutely dominating.

People like to make a big deal out of the torn labrums. You’ll hear about them every game from the broadcasters. Media members are obsessed with tweeting about them every time Thomas does something impressive on the court. Considering that Thomas is not a very outspoken player about things other than her game, the fact that she has two torn labrums is like the only thing anyone seems to know about her. And oh yeah, the swagger of it all. There’s that.

On Tuesday night’s semifinals game against the number 1 seeded Las Vegas Aces, Thomas went down just a few minutes into play. The Sun had won the first game on Sunday in rather embarrassing fashion for the Aces, with a final score of 87-62 (reminder that the Sun come in seeded 7). She appeared to be in a lot of pain and left the game, only to return to the bench in the final minutes with her arm in a sling. Her team lost that game in the final minutes, tying the series 1-1, and no one expected Thomas to return to play this postseason. Her team called it a shoulder dislocation.

Except shortly before gametime Thursday, Thomas was announced in the starting lineup for Game 3. An MRI reportedly showed no further damage and so Thomas, improbably, played basketball. And she didn’t just play basketball. She absolutely wrecked. She ran over Aces players like she was a mac truck (call me, Alyssa). She made ridiculous shots. She had THREE STEALS. SHE HAD A DOUBLE-DOUBLE. Her stat line was 23 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists. After the game, she could barely put her jacket on. She showed up to the postgame presser like this:

And the entire narrative is going to be about how gutsy she is (she is), how superhuman she is (no one is superhuman), how she is the reason her team got the win to put them up two games to one in the series (she is). But here’s the thing: Alyssa Thomas should not be playing with two torn labrums and if she were not, this injury likely wouldn’t have happened at all. The fact that she is playing through pain and we are glorifying it is gross, and it is indicative of two problems: 1) the fact that WNBA players do not make enough money, and 2) sports culture has a problem with encouraging players to be martyrs who sacrifice themselves and their bodies for the greater good of the team.

Let’s talk for a minute about Thomas’ shoulder injuries: the first, her right, happened in 2015 during her second WNBA season. She injured her second shoulder before the 2017 WNBA season while she was playing overseas. She had to change her entire shooting motion because of the pain (hence those funky free throws). So why hasn’t she had surgery? Because the recovery time is seven months, which would mean Thomas would have to give up a season playing overseas. And a thing you should know about women’s basketball if you’re new to following it is that overseas, in the WNBA offseason, is where the players make most of their money.

If the WNBA paid players enough money that they didn’t have to play professional basketball year-round, Thomas likely could have had surgery by now. She could have taken care of her body, which she needs in order to have a career playing basketball. This became a talking point before the 2019 season, when reigning WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart ruptured her Achilles tendon in her last overseas game, putting her out for the 2019 WNBA season. It became a bargaining chip as the players went to negotiate their new Collective Bargaining Agreement following that season. Salaries did go way up (though they’re still way below what the men make), but the money overseas is often something the players feel they need to take advantage of while they can still play, recognizing it as a limited time offer.

Thomas is so used to playing through pain that taking the court Thursday night was a no-brainer for her, she said. This is sports culture—do anything to win. Last year, MVP Elena Delle Donne played with three herniated discs in her back. The NHL came under fire just this week for airing a Stanley Cup promo that said playing through pain was what it took to win championships. An NFL team doctor this week punctured a player’s lung while trying to give him pain-killing injectables to allow him to play through cracked ribs.

As a sports fan, I’m conflicted. I want to watch Thomas do improbable things. The games are better and more exciting with her in them—I’m fairly convinced that had she been able to stay in Tuesday, the Sun would have swept the Aces in this series and done it handily. She is hands down my favorite player to watch play basketball. And yet I want her to be able to take care of herself, to rest, to get the surgery she needs so she can be even better and so that she doesn’t have to be in pain.

I will continue to marvel at what Thomas can do on the court while wishing that it didn’t have to be this way.

The Other Important Things From This Week

The Seattle Storm are up 2-0 in their semifinal series against the Minnesota Lynx. Playoff play resumes Sunday for both series.

The WNBA has been playing for Breonna Taylor and other women who have been victims of police violence all season. They released a statement following the announcement that no officers would be facing charges for Taylor’s murder before Thursday night’s games.

Pro-Trump Senator Kelly Loeffler is also a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream. She came out against Black Lives Matter and then the WNBA players came out against her, openly campaigning for her opponent in November. Well, this week she did another horrible thing, introducing a transphobic bill that could require girls to undergo genital exams in order to compete in high school sports. The fact that someone who owns a women’s sports team is trying to pass legislation that will harm and traumatize girls who want to play sports is horrific. The WNBA has said they would not force Loeffler to sell her shares, but I have to hope this might change their minds (it probably won’t).

Here is Courtney Williams enjoying life outside the Wubble:

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Britni is a freelance writer whose work sits at the intersection of sports, gender, & queerness. Their writing has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Vogue, The Atlantic, Vox, and many more.

Britni has written 12 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. shameless plug for this weekend’s final games of the AU softball season on TV or online:

    Saturday, Sept. 26 (ET)
    1:00 p.m. – Team Ocasio (purple) vs. Team Warren (orange) ESPN3
    3:30 p.m. – Team Piancastelli (blue) vs. Team Osterman (gold) ESPN3

    Sunday, Sept. 27 (ET)
    1:00 p.m. – Team Piancastelli vs. Team Warren ESPN2
    4:00 p.m. – Team Osterman vs. Team Ocasio ESPN2

    Monday, Sept. 28
    4 p.m. – Team Ocasio vs. Team Piancastelli ESPN3 (? might be CBS Sports)
    8 p.m. – Team Warren vs. Team Osterman CBS Sports

    now i gotta catch up on yesterday’s basketball… so much hardcore lady type sports!!!

  2. I have similar feelings about Alyssa Thomas. Definitely agree that the economics of being a WNBA player are a factor – but I also wonder what it is about her psychology that makes her play through the pain (and play in the forceful, game-changing way she plays). Clearly she’s got a competitive spirit and commitment to excellence, which is commendable, but it worries me that it is coming at the expense of her health.

    Alyssa, girl, you deserve to take care of yourself!!

  3. It is so frustrating to listen to the announcers and media glorify “playing through the pain” when it’s obviously at the expense of a player’s health, both short and long term. It’s ingrained in athletes from childhood, and it is not okay. Thank you for bringing this up—it was all I could think about while watching AT grimacing in pain as she dominated the court.

    • Agreed. I was taught “no pain no gain” and “push through your exhaustion” by coaches as youth soccer player, by directors in children’s theatre, by teachers in school & professors in college, and by culture more generally. And this deeply affected me to the point that I now have several chronic illnesses I would not have had if I was taught to value rest & slowness instead. The Nap Ministry’s teachings have illuminated a lot on this topic for me. It is frankly abusive to teach people to ignore their bodies and their pain, and it needs to stop, especially when being enforced on children who are vulnerable to internalizing it as truth.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree that Alyssa Thomas should not have to carry this team but athletes often go to extremes to play and WNBA players are no different. It should not be this way but that’s what makes these folks so admired.

    Michael Jordan’s flu game, Kerri Strug’s broken ankle, Tiger Woods’ broken leg, and Jack Youngblood’s broken leg are some of the most memorable moments in all of sports. Although I do marvel at the dedication and determination, Kevin Durant’s injury made me embarrassed that I ever cheered for anyone to play through the pain.

    Just because they’re built like g*ds doesn’t mean they’re invincible.

  5. The income difference between what a player can make in the WNBA and what a player can make in the overseas leagues is just so enraging. What the actual fuck.

    If you are looking for more article ideas, Britni, a deep dive on why this situation exists would be amazing. (Or maybe an article like that exists out there and I just haven’t found it.)

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