The Aces are under the microscope, and now the WNBA is too

Jul 26, 2022; Chicago, IL, USA; Las Vegas Aces owner Mark Davis and president Nikki Fargas talk before the team's game against the Chicago Sky during the Commissioners Cup-Championships at Wintrust Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 26, 2022; Chicago, IL, USA; Las Vegas Aces owner Mark Davis and president Nikki Fargas talk before the team's game against the Chicago Sky during the Commissioners Cup-Championships at Wintrust Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /

According to a report from The Next, the Las Vegas Aces are under investigation by the WNBA for making under-the-table payments to players. This comes the day after the organization came under fire for avoiding comment on the ongoing investigation involving Dearica Hamby.

The Aces have had one of the craziest off-seasons in recent memory.

They made huge moves in free agency, signing Candace Parker and Alysha Clark. To create space to sign the two, the Aces traded Dearica Hamby to the Sparks. Hamby released a statement accusing the Aces of discriminating against her due to her pregnancy.

The WNBPA released a statement shortly after Hamby and the matter is currently under investigation. The Aces have not commented on the matter, and ducked the subject when it came up during Parker’s introductory press conference:

The question asked was directed toward Aces president Nikki Fargas, who was still present on the call at the time. She quickly disappeared as Aces Director of Media Relations, John Maxwell, scrambled to say she had a “12:30 call.”

The Aces could very easily release a statement clarifying that they cannot speak on the matter during the investigation if that is the case. That is what Hamby did when she was asked about it. Instead, they continue to look cowardly and corrupt by simply avoiding the subject publicly.

Fargas, GM Natalie Williams, and head coach Becky Hammon all fumbled their opportunity to clear the air on that call, their first since Hamby’s statement. Owner Mark Davis’ silence is deafening, too.

For a franchise that has placed such emphasis on player empowerment and a family-focused environment (which Parker referenced in her signing announcement), their handling of this situation has left much to be desired.

Less than 24 hours after they avoided questions, news broke that the Aces are under investigation for circumventing the salary cap

According to Howard Megdal of The Next, the Aces are under investigation for making “under-the-table payment offers to both current players and free agents the team has pursued.” Megdal’s report details how the Aces would instruct the agent of a potential signee that a phone call would come with a monetary offer from a “particular, pre-selected company” and the “work involved would be negligible.”

This action circumvents the hard salary cap in a way that is explicitly detailed in the current CBA. Article XV of the CBA states:

"“It shall constitute a violation of Section 1(a) above for a Team (or Team Affiliate) to enter into an agreement or understanding with any sponsor or business partner or third party under which such sponsor, business partner or third party pays or agrees to pay compensation for basketball services (even if such compensation is ostensibly designated as being for non-basketball services) to a player under Contract to the Team. Such an agreement with a sponsor or business partner or third party may be inferred where: (i) such compensation from the sponsor or business partner or third party is substantially in excess of the fair market value of any services to be rendered by the player for such sponsor or business partner or third party; and (ii) the Compensation in the Player Contract between the player and the Team is substantially below the fair market value of such Contract.”"

These violations could explain exactly how the Aces were able to lure Parker and Clark in, despite both taking significant pay cuts to join the team. Parker signed a one-year, $100,000 deal, which is $95,000 less than her 2022 salary and likely far from what other teams could have offered her. Clark signed for two years at $110,000 per year after making $183,000 last year. Taking a pay cut to compete, especially later in a player’s career, is a common occurrence, but rarely to that extent.

The violations also add context to part of Hamby’s statement, in which she stated: “I was promised things to entice me to sign my contract extension that were not followed through on.” With all of that in mind, it makes sense for the league to investigate both situations.

Soon, the league will have some tough decisions to make, about the Aces and itself

While both of these situations are big deals, it’s hard to be upset with the Aces for finding extra incentives for players to join them.

Yes, the franchise violated the rules explicitly outlined in the CBA. Yes, the WNBA has historically valued maintaining “competitive balance.” The league threatened to terminate the New York Liberty franchise as a whole after discovering the team chartered flights.

The Aces are in a similar position now, with multiple allegations being investigated. The league may choose to punish them in unprecedented ways if the investigations find any significant violations. If it does, it would be a complete 180 from how it punished the Liberty, when WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert “cut a deal with Joe [Tsai]” to reduce the fine from $1 million to $500,000. Still, the punishment received a lot of backlash from fans and players.

The Aces and Liberty broke the rules, but were they wrong?

The Aces and Liberty ownership groups have been very active and vocal about improving conditions for the players, and they have put their money where their mouths are. Unfortunately, they are in the minority in the league, and many owners often sit back and maintain the status quo.

When teams are unafraid to break the rules so explicitly outlined in the CBA, maybe it’s time to take a look at the rules and the archaic system instead of punishing those trying to push the league forward. The WNBA will have an opportunity to do that soon but have done little to inspire confidence that they will change much.

After it is through investigating and punishing the Aces for investing in its players (exactly what the WNBA begs owners, fans, and corporations to do), the league should take a hard look in the mirror. When the majority of your fans, analysts, and players side with the organizations that are breaking your “rules,” something has to change.