It was four days after a huckster of bootleg music and movie discs, a black father of five named Alton Sterling, was shot six times and killed by a Baton Rouge police officer outside a convenience store where he plied his trade.
Two days after a black veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Micah Xavier Johnson, enraged by those police killings of black men, ambushed a group of police in Dallas and shot and killed five.
All was more than Rebekkah Brunson and three of her teammates on the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx could take. So before a game July 9, 2016, Brunson, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen called a news conference. They donned black T-shirts with the names of Sterling and Castile, the Dallas police logo and the phrases “Black Lives Matter,” “Change Starts With Us” and “Justice & Accountability.”
“Racism and unjust, phobic fear of black males and disregard of black females is very real,” said Brunson, who before starring at Georgetown and with the Lynx grew up in the District and Oxon Hill, where she recounted police once confronting her and her friends with guns drawn. “When we look at the facts, it’s hard to deny that there’s a real problem in our society. I am scared for my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews, my future son or daughter.”
Then four Minneapolis police officers hired to provide security for the game walked off the job in protest.
The WNBA — in conjunction with its parent NBA, so often celebrated as a bastion of progressivism in pro sports — responded by fining the Lynx players for violating the league’s uniform policy. Days later, after players around the WNBA mocked that tone-deaf decision, the league reversed itself.
The Lynx quartet wasn’t the first group of athletes since the dawn of the 2000s to demonstrate against the extrajudicial killing of black men and boys in this country. In 2012, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade posted a photo of themselves with their Miami Heat teammates in black hoodies after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed while wearing a hoodie in South Florida by wannabe neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.
But the Lynx Four stood up publicly to unchecked police lethality against black men before Colin Kaepernick most famously knelt a few weeks later. They were as instrumental as the football player in trying to forestall what ignited the past two weeks into America’s Arab Spring. A few days after the Lynx players’ news conference, James and Wade hooked up with fellow NBA stars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul at ESPN’s ESPY Awards show and opened the program with a call to end racial profiling and police lethality against black men, all but reiterating the demand from Brunson and her teammates.
It isn’t unusual, unfortunately, for coverage of women to be overshadowed by coverage of men, and not just in sports.
It has happened on the front lines of struggle before. Women in the civil rights movement — Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Diane Nash, Kathleen Cleaver, Gloria Richardson, Myrlie Evers, Mabel Ola Robinson and more — suffered similar unequal regard. The women who birthed #BlackLivesMatter — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — seem less known than onetime #BlackLivesMatter organizer DeRay Mckesson, he of the blue Patagonia vest.
Fortunately, the women’s basketball players persisted. They weren’t dissuaded any more than women from any other background before them who could not stand idly by. By September 2016, after Kaepernick knelt, the entire Indiana Fever team dropped to a knee at the playing of the national anthem. And before tip-off of the first game of the 2017 WNBA Finals, the Los Angeles Sparks left the floor for the locker room as the national anthem began while the Lynx linked arms, heads bowed.
Like Vikings, Lynx link arms for National Anthem at the Barn. Sparks left arena, returned after anthem. Some boos. pic.twitter.com/KilDJwqBVa— Tim Nelson (@timnelson_mpr) September 24, 2017
The Lynx won that Finals, their fourth in seven seasons. They were invited by President Barack Obama to the White House after the first three championships, but in 2018, President Trump did not extend an invitation that the Lynx almost certainly would have declined.
Nonetheless, they came to Brunson’s hometown as champions again — for community service. They visited Payne Elementary School in Southeast, where D.C. public school demographics show all of the students are economically disadvantaged, and gave Jordan Brand and Nike gear to more than 300 kids to whom they spoke.
“We just saw an opportunity to go out in the community and do something that really had some meaning behind it,” Brunson told USA Today.
Brunson is a Minnesotan now. She married Bobbi Jo Lamar. In September 2018, the pair welcomed that baby son for whom Brunson said she would be frightened in the wake of the Sterling and Castile killings.
The couple own a Belgian waffle food truck, Sweet Gypsy Waffle, an homage to Brunson’s first professional season in Namur, Belgium. Its menu includes a Freedom Rider waffle “topped with homemade apple pie filling, caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream.”
“Profits from merchandise and special offers will go directly to local nonprofits and urban organizations,” Brunson and Lamar wrote in Sweet Gypsy Waffle’s mission statement. “It’s more than just food; it’s about uplifting the environment around us.”
In the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, which has so galvanized those concerned with human rights here and abroad, Brunson took to Twitter: “I try very hard not to generalize my anger but this hits different. It’s hard not to generalize when you see what happened yesterday to #GeorgeFloyd. Watching one officer kill a man while his ‘brothers’ sit and watch doing nothing. It was inhumanly sickening. I’m sick!”
I try very hard not to generalize my anger but this hits different. It’s hard not to generalize when you see what happened yesterday to #GeorgeFloyd Watching one officer kill a man while his “brothers” sit and watch doing nothing. It was inhumanly sickening. I’m sick!— rebekkah brunson (@twin1532) May 27, 2020
By Wednesday, Brunson’s longtime employer had partnered with the Minneapolis Foundation to fund its efforts “to champion the prevention of further violence, address systemic inequities, reform the criminal justice system and heal communities affected by this tragedy.”
The Lynx did so with the Timberwolves, Minnesota’s NBA team.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.