The WNBA was supposed to avoid all the mishaps that have befallen men’s professional sports leagues. In an age when professional athletes are overpaid, undereducated and aloof, the average WNBA player makes roughly $50,000 during the four-month season, holds a college degree and happily signs autographs. Now, however, it seems the league has compressed all the issues that have plagued men’s sports into its short, six-year history.

Monday, WNBA officials canceled Wednesday’s draft and set Friday as a deadline for the league and the players’ union to reach a collective bargaining agreement. If not, there probably won’t be a 2003 season. At all.

Last summer, when Major League Baseball was in danger of another work stoppage, pundits questioned whether the sport could survive another strike. If a temporary work stoppage could threaten the existence of the national pastime, what would canceling an entire season do to a league with an average game attendance of 9,228 in 2002?

To say now is not the time to cancel the season is putting it mildly. Canceling the season should not be an option, even as a last resort. The WNBA, however, does not make a profit. It makes little sense, therefore, for owners to hold a strike-shortened season if no agreement is reached. Unfortunately, that means the onus is on the players’ union to facilitate a deal. It’s the athletes’ bank accounts that are in jeopardy, not the owners’.

Since the WNBA’s inception in 1997, there have been many doubts about whether a women’s professional basketball league could survive. For every supporter of the women’s game, there was a naysayer who pointed to a lack of a true fan base and the low quality of play. But it’s safe to say that few could ever have imagined that the downfall of the league would be over labor issues. Discussions about salary caps and free agency would come years down the road when the WNBA’s finances were out of the red.

Players and league officials, however, seem to have forgotten that it’s already been a tumultuous off-season and the WNBA’s revenues are by no means stable. The franchises in Miami and Portland folded and the Orlando Miracle and Utah Starzz moved to Connecticut and San Antonio respectively.

In addition, compared to those of their male counterparts, the lives of the WNBA players are not easy. There are no fancy hotels, sold-out arenas or extravagant playoff bonuses. Most players have to supplement their in-season income by playing overseas or holding off-season jobs. The life of a WNBA player, therefore, is more akin to that of a minor league baseball player than to that of an NBA athlete.

But if these women thought that was going to change after just six years, they were sorely mistaken. Granted, the union is not looking for teams to start signing players to multi-million dollar contracts. In the last round of negotiations, league officials offered a $616,000 salary cap, restricted free agency after 10 years and unrestricted free agency after 12 years. The NBA Players Association, which also represents WNBA athletes, countered with a cap of $750,000 per team and restricted and unrestricted free agency after four and five years, respectively. NBA Commissioner David Stern, however, had to recently allocate a $12 million subsidy to the WNBA to spur on negotiations, showing just how strapped the league is for money.

WNBA players are quick to point out that they are playing for the sake of all the little girls in the stands who now can dream of becoming professional athletes. They are pioneers and, indeed, they should be applauded for all that they’ve done for women’s basketball. But these athletes need to realize that the struggle to make their sport popular is far from over. And if they allow Friday’s deadline to pass without a collective bargaining agreement, then they will be letting down the very girls whose admiration they so cherish.