But WNBA players are among the first athletes to wear warm-up shirts with social justice messaging affirming Black Lives Matter, hold media blackouts and even kneel during the national anthem.
The collective, consistent and unified movement of WNBA players dates back to July 9, 2016, when the Minnesota Lynx — including Maya Moore who recently stepped away from basketball to help overturn the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Irons and bring awareness to prosecutorial misconduct — wore custom shirts that read “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability.” The backs of their shirts honored then-recently slain Minnesota native Philando Castile and Louisiana native Alton Sterling, and included the Dallas police force crest to honor five officers who were killed in a shooting.
The message was straightforward: The senseless deaths — particularly the deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement — in the United States were too big to ignore. The New York Liberty and the Phoenix Mercury followed suit and wore custom black shirts during warm-ups that read #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5.
But the shirts violated WNBA-approved warm-up attire and the league issued fines to teams and players in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement. That did not stop the players. It motivated them even more.
While accepting her Player of the Month award, then-New York Liberty forward Tina Charles turned her league-approved warm-up shirt inside out.
After the game, the Liberty and the visiting Indiana Fever organized a media blackout. No players from either team answered questions about the basketball game. Instead, the players expressed discontent with the fines and promised to continue amplifying issues important to them.
After 10 days, the fines were rescinded, but by then, the WNBA players we already all-in on using their platform for social justice.
The Fever upped the ante when its players took a knee before their playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury and two Mercury players joined them. By that time, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had already switched from sitting to kneeling during the national anthem.
The next season, the New York Liberty established an annual Unity Day game to support their players’ passion for social justice and community work. The fourth annual game would have been Thursday against the Dallas Wings. The team held a virtual panel discussion Wednesday night, just hours before players decided not to play.
These moments paved the way for the new WNBA Social Justice Council, a joint effort between the league and the players’ union, ahead of the 2020 season. The council is dedicated to holding conversations about voting, girls and women killed by police, and increasing support and awareness for Black-owned and female-owned businesses, among other things. The decision not to play Wednesday and Thursday was meant in part to refocus on these issues. It was also a much-needed break for players battling racism and sexism by day and each other on the basketball court by nightfall.
“Every day we have to perform through anything that’s going on in the world and so at this time it just was, we needed to pause,” Layshia Clarendon, Liberty guard and executive committee member of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), told ESPN on Thursday afternoon.
But the players, 80 percent of whom in the WNBA are Black, are being criticized by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner as athletes with the luxury of sitting out. He has called their acts unproductive.
There are very personal and individual reasons for athletes advocating to not play basketball as the tumult in the country continues to spiral, seemingly out of control.
But to call their actions meaningless is to ignore they have won results. As they entered the bubble amid the pandemic, they demanded focus to be placed on Black Lives Matter, Breonna Taylor and the #SayHerName campaign started by the African American Policy Forum.
The WNBPA and NBPA have coordinated video conferences with former first lady Michelle Obama to become better informed about voting rights.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) has criticized the WNBA’s promotion of Black Lives Matter and has made it part of her campaign, so players have campaigned for Rafael Warnock, who is running for Loeffler’s seat. Players participated in video conferences with the Democratic candidate and wore shirts that read “Vote Warnock” to amplify the candidate’s platform and send a message to Loeffler.
“When most of us go home, we still are Black and our families matter. We got this little guy with us that we see every day. His life matters,” Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins said on ESPN, flanked by her team and Emanuel, the 6-year-old son of Mystics forward Tiana Hawkins.
As both leagues announced they would not play Wednesday night, the Mystics appeared on national television with hand-designed white shirts, each one with a single letter on the front to spell out Jacob Blake, with the backs portraying seven bullet holes to symbolize the number of times Blake was shot by police.
Advocacy in the bubble hasn’t gone the way the players have hoped. Yet another police shooting happening has provided additional motivation to double-down on their earlier calls to action. Since Wednesday, all 12 WNBA teams have focused on making sure all players eligible to vote are registered. The players also completed the 2020 U.S. Census and are encouraging others to do the same. Additionally, the players continue to demand that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron arrest the officers who killed Taylor and now also demand that Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul investigate the officers involved in the shooting of Blake.
“I think that will be more of the focus going forward, trying to make sure that we are all in these conversations, literally everyone, and finding out ways that we can get to the law part of the problem,” said Atkins.
For the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs, the WNBA is prepared to resume play and advocacy at full speed, once again showing why they are the too-often unsung heroines of modern-day athlete activists.
Outraged by the shooting of Blake, WNBA players are prepared to ramp up their demand for justice. It makes you wonder if enough Americans can do the same.