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Skylar Diggins-Smith on the pay gap in women’s sports and the Mercury’s WNBA Finals run

Diggins-Smith enjoyed the best season of her professional career and is now continuing to address pay equity in sports.

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Chicago Sky v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s been a banner year for Skylar Diggins-Smith: an Olympic gold medal, her third all-WNBA first-team selection, and the deepest postseason run of her career in year two with the Phoenix Mercury. And now, like all WNBA players, she’s getting back to work during her offseason, working with to help spotlight conversations about women’s pay equity and investing.

Diggins-Smith has long been vocal about the wage gap between female and male athletes, making this new venture to help promote financial literacy a natural fit. She spoke with SB Nation about this new role with along with her Olympics experience and the Mercury’s 2021 WNBA playoff run, which ended in a Finals loss to the Chicago Sky.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

SB Nation: Let’s get started talking about this partnership with Public. I was actually hoping you could help me out and just explain what your role is?

Skylar Diggins-Smith: Oh yeah, that’s a good question. So with Public, the opportunity just kind of learning more about investments and investing. Obviously, I have a son, I’m a mom now, and so I definitely have been looking for more opportunities to just gain financial literacy, learning more about investments. And I’ve always been really passionate about speaking out on the pay gap, especially in the WNBA, but also just trying to curate spaces for people to have those conversations about investing, money, and you know, not be so taboo about it, if you will.

But yeah, just learning more about wanting to invest personally and then also trying to curate spaces for us to talk about these things, especially amongst women, you know, etc, etc. So really, I guess my role: first, I’ll be joining the million other users on the app just sharing insight about my journey with investing, and all of the lessons that I learned along the way. And then I’ll be joining Public Live, which is a feature inside the app where I can share my story with the community, to share some stories about my early days in the league and how we in the WNBA fought for the CBA, fought to reduce the wage gap between our leagues, and kind of how that passion about investing comes in some of those stories, so on so forth.

And then finally, I’ll be an advisor to their program called One Team... I’m sure you have (heard about) the NCAA athletes now being able to get those NIL deals and endorsements. First off, wish we had that when I was in school, but I think it’s a great opportunity for student-athletes to learn, and have opportunities to gain financial literacy at that moment with this new opportunity. I was dead broke in college, I didn’t have any money to manage to even learn about these things. But now with these unique opportunities, and the situation these student-athletes are in, just trying to teach them about investing. And so hopefully, my role will just be kind of providing my perspective as a student-athlete, and now as a professional athlete.

And then finally, just trying to create some generational wealth for my son. That’s pretty much one of my main goals, obviously, being a mom and just wearing so many hats. I’m excited about the partnership with Public. I really loved to hear how diverse the app was, you know, 40% women, 45% people of color and just having these spaces where these diverse opinions can live. And like I said, to curate more spaces where we can talk about money and investing and pay equity more transparently.

SBN: I was not a college athlete, but I am a woman of color, so that part really interests me. I’m curious what sort of lessons you hope to share with women and people of color who probably don’t think about investing all that often. What are you hoping to get through to them?

SDS: Just trying to have these spaces where people can come and we can just talk. For me, it’s really just going to be my journey as I’m navigating through investments and becoming more passionate about learning, about being a long-term investor, etc, etc. Hopefully I can share some of my lessons and things that I’m learning along the way and also get some advice from other people who know the ins and outs of the app as I continue to navigate through it. I’m looking forward to, just trying to personally and selfishly first, build my own portfolio and continue to do that. And then, spread my story, my blueprint, and see if my story can help somebody else.

SBN: How did you get started on this journey of yours wanting to build your portfolio and invest?

SDS: I mean, I play in the WNBA, so I’ve just come into this network of women who understand the importance. We obviously don’t make millions and millions up front. So it’s a lot of other women that I’ve been inspired by, that I learned from in the past about saving money, just other ways, and we have a lot of entrepreneurs and small business owners in the WNBA, a lot of investors. So a lot of my advice came straight from that community, if you will. And then obviously, like I said, coming from being dead broke in college to actually having money to manage, it’s just something that I had to learn. And you think you’re alone, sometimes, personally, I was kind of embarrassed to ask for help and things that you feel like you should already know that you just don’t, and so there’s real world things that I had to learn in that journey and everything to come with that. So yeah, just that whole experience and for me, like I said, just trying to — it’s a bit redundant — but that generational wealth part is so important to me, just trying to solve some problems for my son that hopefully he won’t have to deal with when he gets older.

Dallas Wings v Phoenix Mercury - Game One
Diggins-Smith became all too familiar with the gaps in the CBA relating to motherhood after she played the 2018 WNBA season pregnant and then dealt with postpartum depression.
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

SBN: You mentioned that you’re a part of this network of WNBA players who have helped you answer some of your original questions. We talk a lot about the compensation for WNBA players, but I’m curious what kind of job the league does in terms of giving you that financial education. Is that something that’s prioritized or some something that the PA talks about?

SDS: I mean, we definitely have as I’ve been in the league, this will be my 10th year next summer. We definitely have evolved as a league and it’s been from the legwork of a lot of players, former players having these conversations about things that we need. You just think about it, when I had my son in 2019, it wasn’t even talked about in our CBA about motherhood, or postpartum, or anything like that. In 2019.

So we’ve definitely made strides in our league to make sure we bring forth the resources that we need, not only just on the court, as the athlete, but just embodying in us with all those hats that I talked about earlier: moms, wives, sisters, daughters, etc, etc. Everything that that embodies, just having those resources available. So I definitely have to say we’re doing a better job of that, just listening to the players. The league listening to us, telling us what we need, especially last year in the bubble, you know, a lot of people, a lot of conversations around mental health that we weren’t having, we had to address head on. And so I think our league is one that definitely leads by example, we have a unified message, and we definitely have been getting responses about what we need through that.

SBN: On that note, what other financial education resources do you think you would like to see the league be able to help you out with?

SDS: I guess I don’t know how to really answer that question, because I’m only 1/144 piece of the pie. But we always can find ways to get better, you know, and provide more resources to the players...especially to a lot of the younger players and the rookies, just kind of explaining some of these things, because like I said, a lot of them are doing for the first time. So definitely at the entry level position. I’m sure there’s other things that we could be doing. But like I said, I’m excited about this partnership, and educating other people about what this app can bring to the table, how they can get involved. And yeah, just spreading the word.

SBN: I’ve heard about the NBA Rookie transition program, and I wonder how hard it must be for WNBA rookies because you play in the tournament, like three days later, you’re drafted, then you go to camp. When is the time to learn about all of these things?

SDS: Yeah, and it’s the timing of the seasons too, right? Because a lot of the WNBA players play overseas, like my teammates that played in the championship with me two weeks ago, they’re already playing overseas.,

SBN: Right, I was watching Brittney (Griner) on Wednesday.

SDS: Right exactly, BG’s over there, Shey Peddy is. I see my team playing already, and I’m still tired. The motor that these women have to have, which is why, you know, you play, you play, and you play, and it’s really important to have the other side of things after sports stops and have these conversations about how to build financial literacy, because it’s hard to play year-round with it. And then to come into a system where you don’t have the summer league like the men have, you don’t have all this time to prepare your rookies for the WNBA, for the league, what that can mean, and so on and so forth. So, like you said, I’m sure there’s ideas of other things that we could bring to the table, and that’s what I hope to bring are some of these conversations that we have. How can we get better not just only in my industry, but in every industry where this pay gap exists?

SBN: I’m just thinking about having to file taxes in separate countries too, that just sounds really complicated.

SDS: Yes! And in separate states, you know, we have to file in like 11 different states or 12, however many states we play in, and it’s a lot. So I think we definitely can continue to, obviously, I’m sure it’s evolved since I’ve been in the league, and I can’t say I totally know what they offer now, but I wish I would have went more in depth, and people would have encouraged me to kind of go more in depth with some of those questions, instead of being kind of embarrassed.

SBN: This was also an incredible season for you on the court. And I wanted to know, what accomplishment are you most proud of from 2021?

SDS: Oh, wow. Well, I have to say, it was a special year for sure. And I knew gearing up for it, preparing for it earlier this year. I didn’t know if I would be on the Olympic team or not. I felt good about my audition, but you just never know how the committee is going to pick, and so I was preparing myself for that, and preparing myself to win a championship with this team, felt like it was special and we finally had all the pieces to make our run. But I say the Olympic gold medal was probably the moment for me, even though I may have not played as much as I wanted to. That moment, just really it was a lifelong dream, to just think about, you know, all the moments — not to sound all corny and cheesy — but back when I was a kid, watching on TV and watching the Olympics before the WNBA started, I always had gold medal aspirations. And so that was a big goal off of my list. And just to go there, that unique experience of everything that was going on in Tokyo, and the pandemic, and I was away from my son and husband, and it was really a character-building time, if you will, for me. But just to get through that experience, and to come out with a gold medal, it was definitely gratifying for me.

Women’s Basketball Medal Ceremony - Olympics: Day 16 Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

SBN: Not being able to play as much as I’m sure you would have liked on the gold medal team, what sort of motivation did that give you for the rest of the year and even looking ahead?

SDS: Yeah, I mean, definitely, you know you have roles on the team, and it is what it is. And like I said, I don’t feel like anybody shouldn’t have been playing, it was no Delilah spirit on me. I was happy for everybody that was playing, and I was happy for our team to win. That was the ultimate goal was to win. So I really just tried to keep the main thing the main thing, and that kept kept me through. The hardest part actually was being away from my baby. My two year old. It was really hard. That was the longest obviously, you know, I’ve been spoiled with time in the pandemic, to just be with him and be in the house more than I’m used to, and traveling way less. So I got used to that and just being away from him for three weeks, almost a month, it was just unnatural for me, if you will. You have your routines that you try to create for your children, I really am hands on, like we don’t have a nanny, we don’t do daycare. That was pretty much the hardest part of getting through that experience.

When I really wasn’t playing, it was like, dang, I don’t have like my baby here. But yeah, as a competitor, I’m a competitor, so I want to play in the damn game. I want to compete. I want to be out there in that experience, and so what I took away was much more than like on the court, if you will, is what I’m saying. And I really felt like it was a big part of my maturation process, just like as a vet and just having to take it all in. It’s just kind of a humbling experience. Like, okay, when I get back, I want to step my game up. I want us to make a run, and I want to, you know, not really show to anybody else what I could do, but just continue to prove to myself what I know I could bring to the table.

SBN: Even in those practices, I’m sure you learned a lot just from being able to go against that caliber competition on a regular basis.

SDS: Sure, that’s every night though in the WNBA. Those women I knew very well because you know, it’s only 11 other teams that you have to face. So like I said, it was the best of the best though, and like you said, just even some of those runs that we had in practice, those got intense. But I kind of used those practices as games for myself and to push my team and you know, if I was on the scout team, I was going hard trying to get the starters ready. And I’m sitting behind two five-time Olympians, so I definitely just took the experience in as a whole and it really wasn’t about how much I played. It was the fact that I was one of 12 that had that opportunity, and capitalize on it.

SBN: So you come back, you and Diana (Taurasi) and Brittney, and you have this really great second half of the season with Phoenix. Obviously a lot of talent on that team, but you’ve been on teams with a lot of talent before. What was it about this Mercury group that was able to come together like it did and make that run to the Finals?

SDS: Yeah, I think some people think it’s just about talent. And obviously, it’s important to have talented teams, but everybody can play basketball and really, it’s just about finding out which players fit with each other. Because I’ve been on teams that are as talented, but it’s just all about fit. And I really felt like personality-wise, on the court, off the court, we just fit each other and really got a lot of time with this long season to learn about each other. Obviously, I played with BG and Diana in the Olympics, so we got to spend a lot of time together and talk, and going through that experience with them, that just does even more when we got back. And I think we all were motivated because we hadn’t spent a lot of time on the court because of D’s injuries and people being out. So this really was our first opportunity we felt like for a stretch of games where we could all play together and you know, at that point, we were still fighting for playoffs position.

And yeah, it just kind of came down to that with everybody fitting, and then players stepping up like Sophie Cunningham and Shey Peddy and Bri Turner. And, you know, obviously, we lost Nurse which was a big blow for us when Kia Nurse went down with her ACL, that was just emotionally devastating on top of we had played the most games out of anybody in the whole tournament. And so we were already exhausted. But much respect to Chicago, obviously. That’s the taste in my mouth, still, I’m not overseas playing, so you know, I’ll just use it as motivation. But it was their moment and it was a tough fought series. The whole WNBA playoffs, we had one-point games, we had overtime games, we had blowout wins, blowout losses. The matchups were intense, we got to see kind of that East Coast/West Coast old school matchups. It was fun. Obviously, it didn’t turn out how we wanted to but it’s no doubt in my mind that with the group that we have, it should be on our minds to run it back next year.

Phoenix Mercury v Las Vegas Aces - Game Five
Diggins-Smith had 14 points and 8 assists as the Mercury defeated Las Vegas on the road to advance to the Finals.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

SBN: You kind of hit on this already, but this is your first time having played in a series in the WNBA playoffs. So what did you learn about the level of play and about your own game? What do you have to improve in order to get a better result next time?

SDS: I mean, it’s really stamina in the series and really settling in. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, as I sit here and Monday morning quarterback, I could tell you all the things that we should have would have, could have, but it just comes down to settling into the series. You really can’t get too high or too low because it could change like that. You up 1-0 and you feel great. And then they tie it, and then maybe not! And so it’s really a lot of emotions, but you have to be able to stay in the moment, and that’s what I really learned. You could be down, you could be up, you could be on the road. But you have to just stay locked into the moment and stay present.

I don’t know if would change too much. I mean, obviously, we wish we had a possession or two back, losing close games and in Game 4, particularly. But if I could change anything, I would change us winning two more games. But yeah, I mean, I felt like we did all the things that we could to prepare, to prepare for the moment. And I just feel like they executed better than us. Sometimes it’s just like that. Sometimes it’s Lemony Snicket, it’s a series of unfortunate events, things that happened, you know they had the momentum and they really capitalized off of it. So, like I said, I think that was just their moment.

For me personally, whatever I did in the last offseason, I want to do that times two. And, you know, the best teacher is experience. So me now having gone through that, knowing what to expect, I think I’ll come back with a more sense of calmness, not like I’m walking into a haunted house or just not knowing what to expect. You know what I’m saying? Now I kind of know what to expect. I have that experience under my belt. And hopefully I can approach that with a level, like I’ve been here before mentality. And it’s no doubt that I didn’t play like I wanted to play in that series, and in those series, but it’s just a learning lesson for me and like I said, that’s the taste in my mouth this whole offseason. Just using it as motivation, coming from a 5-seed, going all the way to the championship, you know we’re overcomers. So I don’t want to be negative about what we accomplished this year, but we understand what we have to do now. And hopefully, we can keep this group together for another chance to make a run.

SBN: I’m interested by the fact that so many of you guys on Phoenix played in the Olympics, and then it seemed like you ran out of gas by the end of the season. Whereas Chicago, only Stefanie Dolson and Astou Ndour-Fall from their rotation were in the Olympics. Do you think that sort of had an impact on just your ability to keep up with the Sky?

SDS: Well, I’d say outside of that third game. Obviously we played a fifth game (in the semifinals) and they didn’t in the series, and so they beat Connecticut in four, we went to Vegas, played at Vegas at five, came back. And so yeah, I see fatigue coming in. And then like I told you, we lost Nurse. We lost Nurse, and they had six All-Stars they played. They had two All-Stars coming off the bench and some experience. James (Wade) went pretty deep in his bench, and so he went probably like a 10 rotation. And so every time I looked, somebody else coming in, somebody else coming in, and they had a lot of fresh bodies.

And unfortunately, just the way that our season went, with Bria Hartley coming back from an injury, she was limited, and then not a lot of our bench players, other bench players, played big minutes, and then with Kia Nurse going down, that was another 30 minutes per game for us going down, so we didn’t have a huge bench to really go to at the end of the game, like we had one or two. And for them, it seemed like nobody even skinned their knee. But that’s what it’s about. That’s what it’s about at the end of the season. I mean, if you look at it, the healthiest team always wins. And then the ones that have injuries always talk about what they would have done. So I think they definitely had a deep bench, a lot of veterans coming off of it, and their rotation was fluid. And obviously, like you said, not using that as an excuse. They beat us. But we definitely saw that I think fatigue could have played a factor, but I just feel like, they were a 6-seed, so they were as tired as us, they were tired, too. They just had a very deep rotation. They had a few blowout games where they got to rest their players. And yeah, I mean, they obviously did it the right way.

SBN: I have one more question about the relationship between the Mercury and the Suns. Thinking about WNBA expansion, like what sustainable franchise models look like in this league. You’ve been on a team where it was just the WNBA team in Dallas and then in Phoenix, you guys have this co-ownership with the Suns. How do you feel like that’s beneficial for you with the Mercury, and do you think that’s the model that all W teams need to have?

SDS: I mean, all W teams with an NBA team in their city. But this organization definitely established a culture around itself and obviously, the success that the Mercury have had has curated them a huge fan base. I remember playing on the other side, it’s always been 10,000, 12,000 people ever since I came in the league. And it’s definitely from the standard that they set on the court from the beginning, the legends that have came through here: Cheryl Miller and Bridget Pettis, obviously Penny (Taylor), Diana, DeWanna Bonner, you know, they’ve had a lot of stars. I know I’m missing some, too. They had a lot of stars that have came through Phoenix. Cappie Pondexter, a lot of exciting basketball and players that have really drawn. So the basketball first, it’s a great product, and people care about basketball here. They love watching and supporting their sports.

And then on the Suns, yeah, they lean in. It’s a lot of cross marketing. And why wouldn’t it be? And obviously, with consistent ownership, you’re able to do some of those things, right, when you have ownership of both the NBA and the WNBA teams. But even the practice facilities, it’s amazing how we respond to just equality. You walk in and you’re like, damn, we got the same things as the Suns have, it’s no different. And not even more than — just equal to. And I actually feel that those resources that we had this year, accessibility to a private chef, the practice facility and having multiple courts to practice on, multiple rims and stuff, little stuff like that matters. Obviously the state-of-the-art facility with the weight rooms, cold tubs, like everything that the Suns had access to, we did. And like I said, it shows you how much they care about their players, not just the product on the floor, but holistically, with these resources that are being provided, and it’s something I had never seen before. I didn’t see any of the organizations that I’ve been a part of in Dallas, Tulsa. In Tulsa, we didn’t even have a weight room in Tulsa.

And so to come here, you get to see what a culture does, what success does, and what good, like you said, cross promotions. And the players, too, you don’t have to ask them, you know, they get it. They want to come to the game, Chris Paul, D Book, Deandre Ayton, they do things unprovoked just because these guys get it. They understand. Chris Paul has a daughter, Devin Booker has sisters, and all of them get it, the importance of our league, what we’re trying to do, and they really respect us as hoopers. You heard the term, like real recognize real. Well, we never had to do that with the true hoopers. They get it, they understand. So I think it’s a combination of all those things, just like the culture that’s been built around here, how important cross marketing is around the city, and they put marketing dollars into this team.

And then finally, with me being able to be on the Suns broadcast, that just opened up another opportunity for me to dabble and see what I want to do after and try different things. And obviously being close and in market while I’m working out, it’s just the first time I had this unique opportunity to do something like this.

SBN: Yeah, I think I saw you diagramming some of Chris Paul’s pick-and-roll reads during the season.

SDS: Yeah, also this year, just planning on more opportunities, more videos that look like that. More content. And, you know, just more ways to continue to build off this momentum of this season, keeping us fresh in the eyes of people in the area, and to continue to to be around here in the community.