It was a bold move when NBA stars opened the 2016 ESPYs by challenging fellow athletes to "do better" on issues relating to social justice. But the sports seasons were over for many of the men in the room. Before they even said a word, however, the women of the WNBA, whose season is in full swing, were taking a stand and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement — even though it's coming at a cost.
The WNBA fined the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury $5,000. Each player who was found in violation of the league's uniform policy by wearing black warm-up shirts was fined $500. Consider that the average salary for male professional basketball players is about $5 million, while the average for women is $75,000. Half of the teams in the WNBA don't even post a profit. You can see then, that fining the WNBA, collectively and individually, is a harsh punishment. But it's not just money at stake — on July 9 officers walked off the job when Minnesota Lynx players denounced racial profiling in their press conference and wore black shirts that read, "Change Starts With Us."
Let's go back to 2014, after Eric Garner's death, when stars like Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Derrick Rose wore pregame warmup T-shirts with the Staten Island man's dying words, "I Can't Breathe." The men wore the shirts for several games. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wasn't happy, of course, but he did not issue fines or ban the shirts. In fact, he issued a statement that said in part, “I respect Derrick Rose and all of our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules.”
The WNBA, however, is saying they support the players' advocacy, but the uniform policy is more important. Although the women did wear Adidas brand shirts — the WNBA's official outfitter — rules state that uniforms may not be altered in any way. Here's the statement WNBA president Lisa Borders issued to the Associated Press on Wednesday: "We are proud of WNBA players' engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league's uniform guidelines," she said.
So here we get to the first double standard. As Carmelo Anthony told ESPN (because women's claims must be validated by men), "I don't see no reason to fine them. If anything you should want to support them. I don't know details, but don't see a reason to fine them. A bunch of teams did it and individuals did it. Everybody has their own freedom of speech. If they decide to use the platforms to do that, I don't see any reasons for anybody to get fined. We did it. The NBA did it two years ago. The NBA was very supportive. I don't see why it would be different this time."
The second issue is that the WNBA is selectively supportive. After a mass shooting targeting a gay club in Orlando, the league issued T-shirts to every team, which all the players wore in solidarity. That wasn't squarely in the uniform policy, either. So why is it that some social justice matters are league sanctioned, but others are not?
"We were OK with that, we wanted to support that, but also they can't pick and choose what initiatives to support and what not to support just because it doesn't push their agenda," Liberty guard Tanisha Wright said. "This is important to us."
New York Liberty center Tina Charles, the 2010 no. 1 overall draft pick, drove the matter home on Instagram, writing, "Today, I decided to not be silent in the wake of the WNBA fines against @nyliberty, @indianafever & @phoenixmercury due to our support in the BlackLivesMatter movement. Seventy percent of the WNBA players are African-American women and as a league collectively impacted. My teammates and I will continue to use our platform and raise awareness for the BlackLivesMatter movement until the WNBA gives its support as it does for Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters."
In the face of such glaring inequality, the women refuse to back down. After Thursday's match-up against the Indiana Fever, Liberty players held a "media blackout" during their post-game presser where they only answered questions surrounding the BlackLivesMatter movement, and the WNBA's lack of support.
Your move, Lisa Borders.