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The WNBA has not shied away from speaking up and speaking out when it comes to social justice. They were on the frontlines back in August when games were postponed as players refused to take the court in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake. While Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Blake were certainly not the first casualties and examples of morally corrupt and systemically oppressive law enforcement, their cases captured the world’s attention during a time where a pandemic had everyone’s daily lives come to a screeching halt. With smartphone footage, the nation had a gripping visual to accompany the horror stories that we had grown numb to reading about. This was different. The time had come to take action beyond a few tweets and hashtags and on August 26, 2020; the professional athletes of the WNBA, NBA, MLB, MLS, and WTA did just that. To most, the Milwaukee Bucks got the ball rolling when they refused to take the court in their scheduled playoff game against the Orlando Magic. Truth is, the night the world stood still was already in the works as far as WNBA players were concerned.
Back in 2016, Colin Kaepernick became somewhat of a martyr when the NFL ostracized him for peacefully protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. However, the members of the WNBA’s then-defending champion Minnesota Lynx had actually made their own public statement in July of that year. Spurred on by the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police, four Lynx players held a pre-game press conference where they donned shirts with the phrase, “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability.” The actions of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, and Rebekkah Brunson led to Minneapolis police officers immediately abandoning their security posts at Lynx home games. The protests continued the next day as members of the New York Liberty wore black shirts with the phrases “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#Dallas5” during warmups. The Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever joined the movement over the next following days.
It was a move that came with consequences. Just four days after the Lynx press conference; the Liberty, Mercury, and Fever were each fined $5,000 for violating the league’s uniform policy. In addition, each player was fined $500 for not adhering to the mandate requiring players to only wear official league uniforms with no alterations. Then- WNBA president Lisa Borders, a Black woman herself, said in a statement, “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.” The players protested the fines causing the league to rescind them just days later. Borders came back with a statement committing to working with players during the offseason to find a solution that allowed the women to use their platforms while following league protocol.
About That Action
Sure, warm-up shirts were cool, but the ladies didn’t stop there. Later in that same season, several teams engaged in continued protest. Some locked arms and knelt during the anthem; others locked arms and stood during what became a league-wide show of solidarity. The WNBA continued to spear head efforts of advocating for social justice through sports as the years continued. Lynx forward Maya Moore, one of the game’s biggest stars, took things a step further when she elected to skip the 2019 season. Having already sat out of international competition in the fall and winter, she told The Players Tribune that her focus would “instead be on the people in my family, as well as investing my time in some ministry dreams that have been stirring in my heart for many years.” Although not explicitly stated in her Players Tribune letter, Moore set out to free Jonathan Irons who had been imprisoned since 1997 on what many felt was a wrongful burglary conviction. Irons, only 16 when convicted, was serving a 50-year sentence in the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Moore met Irons in 2007 through prison ministry and used her resources to assemble a more complete defense team. Ultimately, Missouri Judge Daniel Green threw out the conviction and Irons was freed July 1, 2020 after serving 22 years. His attorney Kent Gipson told ESPNW, “Until Maya Moore got involved, [Irons] just really didn’t have the resources to either hire counsel or hire investigators.”
Gipson acknowledged the huge sacrifice the WNBA star made during the prime of her career. The four-time WNBA champion and 2014 MVP also sat out the 2020 season as she continued her quest to free Irons while working on criminal justice reform as a whole. Joining Moore in sitting out the 2020 season were Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery and Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud. The latter, fresh off a WNBA championship, stated, “I have a responsibility to myself, to my community and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than myself and the game of basketball.”
While the league and its players have had some bumps in the road, the WNBA has been supportive for the most part. In an ESPN interview, LA Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike said that the league has told them, “You guys are at the wheel; whatever you want to do, we’re going to try to make it happen.” She also serves as the vice president of the WNBA Players’ Association.
Present and Accounted For
Some players elected to step away from the game to focus solely on social reform, but those who chose to play should not be regarded as less passionate. When league play resumed in the “Wubble” amid the Coronavirus pandemic, the women of the WNBA seized the opportunity to put the world on notice. For the duration of play – all three months – the league made sure that we all knew that “Black Lives Matter.” Never missing an opportunity to use their platform, players wore jerseys and t-shirts serving as a constant reminder that they demand change – and they demand it now. The WNBA partnered with “Say Her Name,” an initiative founded by Kimberle Crenshaw “committed to saying the names and fighting for justice for Black women.” The 2020 season was dedicated to Taylor, killed by Louisville police while sleeping in her bed. League commissioner Cathy Englebert acknowledged Taylor immediately at the trophy ceremony for the Seattle Storm.
“Say Her Name” was the motto for the season, but Taylor’s case was not the only one that ladies in the Wubble focused on. Teams joined the NBA in the stoppage of play on Aug. 26 and the Mystics players wore white t-shirts with seven bullet holes painted on the back to represent Blake who is now paralyzed as a result of his shooting by the police.
Everybody Ain’t League
To say that the entire league unanimously supported the social justice movement would be incorrect. A little over three weeks prior to the stoppage in play, Chicago Sky players sported “Vote Warnock” shirts as they got off the team bus. At the time, Reverend Raphael Warnock was running against Atlanta Dream co-owner, Senator Kelly Loeffler. Earlier in the summer, the then-senator opposed the Black Lives Matter movement and wrote a letter to Commissioner Englebert. Loeffler insisted that the league replace the slogan, along with “Say Her Name,” on the warmup jerseys with American flags instead. In the letter, she wrote that a “particular political agenda undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion.”
In other words, this was her version of “shut up and dribble.” Rightfully, this did not go over well with players who have called for her to be ousted, Donald Sterling-style. Instead, Loeffler has retained her ownership and faced little backlash from the league. So, the players decided to take matters into their own hands. The “Vote Warnock” movement swept through the league and continued long after the season concluded…and it worked. The move elevated Warnock’s visibility and profile, and undoubtedly aided in his victory on Jan. 5. His win not only made him Georgia’s first Black senator – it also flipped the Senate - with an assist from Jon Ossoff who also won his seat, giving Democrats control of Congress as they already held the House of Representatives.
Aren’t you glad they did more than dribble?