September 10, 2020 

How players are balancing basketball and school in the WNBA bubble

Sylvia Fowles, Megan Gustafson, and Satou Sabally are some of the players who have hit the books in Bradenton

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Katie Lou Samuelson #33, Bella Alarie #32, and Megan Gustafson #10 of the Dallas Wings celebrate during a game against the Washington Mystics on September 6, 2020. Samuelson and Gustafson are among the WNBA players taking online classes during the season. Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Players and coaches alike have said that the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, feels like being back in college, with players living together and plenty of opportunities for team bonding between games. But for a select few players, there is another reason the bubble feels like college: homework.

“I’ve got quite a few assignments due, so I’ve been spending a lot of time on them,” Seattle Storm rookie Ezi Magbegor told The Next. “I’d say maybe five, six hours a day at the moment.”

Magbegor is in her third year of a bachelor’s degree program at Deakin University in Australia and is taking three classes this trimester. She is used to the workload by now but said that one of the biggest challenges for her, as a newcomer to the WNBA, is balancing schoolwork with her desire to get to know her teammates off the court.

For other players, taking one course in the bubble is a better balance. Megan Gustafson of the Dallas Wings began an MBA program with a specialty in leadership in May, after she had completed her rookie season in the WNBA and her first season overseas. “I’ve been taking it one class at a time to kind of feel it out, and with my schedule, that works best right now,” she said.

The Next reached out to every WNBA team to determine how many players are hitting the books in Bradenton, which resulted in the list below. Six teams—Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and Washington—indicated that none of their players are currently enrolled in classes, and the Indiana Fever did not respond to multiple requests for comment. (Indiana’s Kelsey Mitchell made this list based on an Instagram post that stated that she received her master’s degree on August 7.)

Sources: Team PR staff, Sports Illustrated (Fowles), Girls Talk Sports TV (Mitchell), The Day (Mompremier), Satou Sabally’s Instagram, University of Oregon (Sabally).

Along with Gustafson and Magbegor, The Next spoke with Dallas’ Katie Lou Samuelson and Las Vegas’ Sugar Rodgers about their studies and their motivations for pursuing additional education. Samuelson, who is also Gustafson’s roommate in the bubble, has about a year and a half left in her master’s degree program in coaching and athletic administration. Rodgers began her program during the 2019 WNBA playoffs and will graduate next May with her master’s degree in sports industry management.

Like Gustafson, Samuelson and Rodgers are each enrolled in one class right now: research methods for Samuelson and sports communication and public relations for Rodgers. Rodgers said she intentionally took all of her core classes, which tend to be more demanding, during the offseason so she could take electives during the season.

All four players’ programs are fully online and were intended that way even before the COVID-19 pandemic required it. That was a big draw for Samuelson and her older sister Karlie, who has the same degree Katie Lou is pursuing from Concordia University Irvine. “We travel so much and aren’t able to be there in person,” Katie Lou told The Next. “So we had to find a place that worked with that, with us [playing] overseas and things like that.”

Samuelson said that taking classes in the WNBA bubble is actually good timing because there are relatively few distractions, though players are still fitting their studies around games, practices, team meetings, and COVID-19 testing. On days without games, evenings tend to be good times to study, and several players’ classes take place at night. However, Rodgers said that one of the most difficult aspects of studying in the bubble is that teams’ schedules are much less consistent and often not set until the night before, which makes it hard to plan her study schedule. That’s very different from a normal season, when Rodgers knows that if the team is at home and doesn’t have a game, she will be done with basketball obligations for the day by around 3pm.

The players’ schedules vary in terms of how frequently their courses meet and how many weeks they take to complete, but some players, including Gustafson and Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles, got a well-timed break in their coursework early in the WNBA season. Fowles and Gustafson each finished one course in July and began another in the last week of August, giving them a respite from homework for roughly the first four weeks of games.

Magbegor’s schedule is unique because her university is based in her home country of Australia, which is 14 hours ahead of Bradenton. But she said that the time change has been relatively manageable, as her classes generally start at 8pm or 10pm Eastern time (10am or 12pm Melbourne time). Although she prefers to watch them live, she can also watch them on video the next morning if she has an evening game.

However, some of the players did indicate that their basketball and academic schedules have clashed in the bubble. Gustafson had to miss her first management class on August 25 for a game against Las Vegas, and Rodgers emailed her professor when she first arrived in the bubble because of some schedule conflicts with COVID-19 testing and practice. The playoff schedule may create additional conflicts; in particular, Magbegor is already aware that the final exams for her three courses are scheduled for the same week as Game 5 of the WNBA Finals.

Katie Lou Samuelson of the Dallas Wings shoots the ball over Ezi Magbegor of the Seattle Storm on August 14, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Luckily, the players indicated that their teams have been supportive of their educational endeavors, and Samuelson and Magbegor both said that studying topics they’re passionate about has made the balancing act easier. For example, Magbegor is very interested in mental health, and her favorite class right now is psychopathology, in which she is currently researching post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Gustafson added that having something besides basketball to work on in the bubble has helped her “recharge mentally” from the demands of a taxing season. She also believes that her MBA courses will make her a better leader on the court.

“Leadership is universal. It’s used everywhere you can think of, and especially on the basketball court,’ Gustafson said. “… [Studying] it helps me grow as a leader, especially with my role on the team with Dallas—it’s my second year already and it goes by fast, and as the years go by, I’m going to need to keep on stepping up, being a leader. And so I’m excited to really strengthen those skills as well.”

While players such as Samuelson and Magbegor said they generally enjoyed school going up, Rodgers disliked school as a child and only began to realize the value of getting her education when she was a student-athlete at Georgetown.

“You probably grew up in a household where your mom made you go to school,” she said. “But once my mom passed [away, when Sugar was 14] … I had a choice whether I was gonna go or not. And I didn’t like school, so when I didn’t want to go, I didn’t go.

“When I got to college, it became a little bit different. College was an opportunity for me to get out of the situation that I was in. … It was gonna change my life for the better. So that’s when I started to really [understand that] knowledge is power, whether you’re book smart or street smart or both. And if I have both, then I can be successful in my own way. So [then] I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go back and get my master’s.’”

Samuelson, Gustafson, and Rodgers are all using their master’s degree programs to prepare them for careers in sports: Samuelson wants to coach, Gustafson wants to be the CEO of a professional sports team, and Rodgers is interested in coaching and front office roles in both men’s and women’s basketball.

“When it comes time for me to get a job, I want to have the resume,” Rodgers said. “I don’t want somebody to give me the job because somebody else says so. When you look down at my resume, you will see the work that I put in [and] the sacrifices that I had to make because people probably will ask, ‘Well, how have you been able to balance playing in the WNBA and going to school?’”

On the other hand, Magbegor hopes that her bachelor’s degree in psychology will be step one to becoming a clinical psychologist, and she plans to at least start the requisite graduate coursework during her professional basketball career. “I’m a bit ambitious at the moment, so we’ll see if that works out,” the 21-year-old said with a laugh.

While some people might consider this balancing act daunting, Gustafson and Samuelson said that it actually had particular appeal.

“Right now, I’m really focused on basketball, but I know that I can’t play that forever, and I want to keep my skills off the court just as fresh,” Gustafson said.

Samuelson said she never considered stepping away from the game to pursue additional education, and the fact that she could get her master’s degree while playing “made it more interesting to me.”

Their approach contrasts with that of former Dallas player Imani McGee-Stafford, who took “a two-year hiatus” from the WNBA in March to enroll in an accelerated J.D. program at Southwestern Law School. McGee-Stafford plans to return to the WNBA after graduating and become a human interest lawyer when she is done playing.

Rodgers briefly thought about stepping away from the sport to get her master’s degree, but she felt that there was no need. She recalled thinking to herself, “I know it’s gonna be challenging, it’s gonna require me to sacrifice some of the individual hobbies that I have, but … I can get it done. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

One entity that can help players with their educational pursuits is the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, or WNBPA. The league’s collective bargaining agreement specifies that the league must allocate at least $75,000 per year for tuition reimbursement for a variety of programs, including apprenticeship, financial management, and substance abuse programs in addition to traditional degree programs. The WNBPA has partnerships with certain education providers and offers reimbursement for expenses such as tuition and textbooks. Gustafson and Rodgers both mentioned their appreciation of the reimbursement program, and Rodgers added that the WNBPA also provides opportunities for players to get work experience in the offseason.

In addition to the eight players who are taking classes in the bubble, two players are balancing school and basketball in other ways. Las Vegas’ Kelsey Plum would likely be in the bubble if not for a torn Achilles she suffered in June, and she will get her master’s degree online from the University of Arkansas and serve as a graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team while she rehabs that injury.

Meanwhile, Washington’s Tianna Hawkins is not in school right now, but her son Emanuel, who is with her in the bubble, started kindergarten online last week. She told The Next’s Pepper Persley that it has been an adjustment for her to “take off my mommy hat and put on a teacher hat.” Days later, when I asked Hawkins how Emanuel’s first week of school went, Hawkins said with a smile, “We started kindergarten this week. Correction.”

“It’s going good,” she added. “It’s gonna be an adjustment for him because he’s so used to interacting with so many people and being able to come and go whenever he likes. So I think the biggest challenge is going to be for him to sit still for a whole school day … but he’s been doing pretty well. He’s good with introducing himself and following the rules and stuff; it’s just the fact of keeping him engaged.”

From Hawkins to Magbegor to Rodgers, these players’ stories show just how many WNBA players are pulling double shifts in the WNBA bubble to set themselves up for future success. (This doesn’t even count players like Los Angeles’ Candace Parker, who is also an NBA television analyst, or Washington’s Jacki Gemelos, an entrepreneur.) We often think of professional players as singularly focused on their sport, but in reality, most players are juggling multiple demands on their time, not unlike college players.

The biggest difference, though, between being a college student-athlete and getting another degree while playing professional basketball comes down to priorities. As Samuelson explained, “When you were in school, you had to make sure that your grades were good first, but when you’re playing in the professional world, basketball always comes first, so making sure you’re still able to be responsible enough when it comes to classes.”

So far, Samuelson and her potential study buddies in the bubble seem to be passing that test with flying colors.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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