Why is Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver being paid just $10,000 to do a six-figure job?

It’s been hard for women to break into the coaching ranks of the NBA, but they’ve been making slow and steady progress. Kristi Toliver is proof of that. The Washington Wizards hired Toliver as an assistant coach in October, and she’s received rave reviews from Wizards players and head coach Scott Brooks.

But while NBA assistant coaches typically make upward of $100,000, Howard Megdal of the New York Times reported that Toliver is paid a fraction of that. Toliver is being paid just $10,000 to work as an NBA assistant coach, 1/10 of the typical assistant coach’s salary.

Why is Toliver being paid so little to do a highly coveted, highly skilled job in the NBA? It’s because she’s a WNBA player who takes the floor for the Washington Mystics. Toliver has played in the WNBA for nearly a decade, and joined the Mystics in 2017.

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According to Megdal, the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement puts a cap on what every team can pay their players for offseason work. And because the Wizards and the Mystics are both owned by Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the NBA and WNBA decided that Toliver would have to be paid from the pool of $50,000 each team gets to pay players for offseason work. Most of that money has already been allocated to Elena Delle Donne, who does promotional work for the Mystics during the offseason. Toliver’s getting what’s left.

Washington Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver is paid significantly less than other NBA assistant coaches, thanks to the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver is paid significantly less than other NBA assistant coaches, thanks to the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

It’s easy to see the thought process behind the decision, since the Wizards and Mystics are owned by the same guy. But that doesn’t mean the decision makes sense. Toliver isn’t doing promotional work for the Mystics, like Elena Delle Donne. She’s doing work in her chosen field that’s completely unrelated to the Mystics. Toliver was brought in by the Wizards because of her talent and experience, not because of any relationship to the greater Leonsis sports empire. She was brought in as a professional, and she deserves to be paid like one.

The Wizards agreed. They fought the league’s decision with Toliver, arguing that she should be paid more than the $10,000 the Mystics could allocate for her. The league ruled against them, but Toliver decided to take the job anyway, though it wasn’t an easy decision. She could have done what many of her colleagues do and make big money playing overseas. Taking the position with the Wizards meant that she would get a chance to rest her body, but she’d have to forgo the big paycheck and get paid like an intern to do a job that everyone else is paid six figures to do. In the end, she chose to fulfill her long-held dream of coaching in the NBA, a decision made much harder by the NBA and WNBA’s ruling.

Things are changing in the WNBA. The cap for offseason pay was part of a previous collective bargaining agreement, which WNBA players opted out of last year. A player like Toliver, a well-respected competitor who has been immensely successful in her career, speaking out about this publicly could lead to a change when a new CBA is negotiated. Megdal said in the Times that it’s “expected that the league will be open to changes in the new CBA that allow for WNBA players to receive more than they currently do for NBA work.”

If that’s true, that’s good news for Toliver — and for the many women who will undoubtedly follow in her footsteps.

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