One league, however, nails its message every time: the WNBA. While most of our sports dip their toes in social justice, the player-driven messages emanating from American professional women’s basketball are not watered down and cannot be misconstrued. The strength of their platform lies in that clarity. Although these women may not be able to reach millions as easily as their male counterparts in the NBA and other leagues, their points resonate with greater intensity because they are as precise as a surgical incision.
Such clarity cannot be contaminated. WNBA players are no strangers to activism, and it is impossible to deny what they seek in this moment of three-headed crisis, with the pandemic, racial unrest and economic despair combining to erase American comfort and indifference. They want accountability for police lethality, and they want systemic justice reform. And to appeal to whatever humanity we still possess, they want all of us to know more about the Black women who have lost their lives because of these disturbing inequities. They might reference other tangential issues on occasion but only within the framework of three pillars established by the league’s social justice council: education, action, amplification.
Unlike their brothers in the NBA, the WNBA does not have 29 “approved” messages that players can wear on the back of their jerseys. When watching WNBA players compete, the audience just sees “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name.” Throughout the season, the league will keep telling the stories of women of color who lost their lives tragically and violently, at the hands of officers who vow to serve and protect.
Unlike other leagues, the WNBA didn’t merely staple social justice to their terms of playing during a pandemic. This opportunity to compete and leverage the attention was the priority. The players are so committed to the cause that they’re willing to tussle with Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), a part-owner of the Atlanta Dream, over her political stance against their efforts. They took that feud to another level this week by wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts in support of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, one of many competing against Loeffler for the U.S. Senate seat to which she was appointed in December.
No one was going to be allowed to distort the players’ message and divert from their cry for accountability. Two days after the players first wore those shirts, Warnock reported receiving more than $183,000 in donations from 3,500 new donors.
The so-called Big Four of pro sports — the NBA, the NFL, MLB and the NHL — are considered to possess an inordinate amount of power because they consume so much attention. But in terms of the ability to use power effectively, the WNBA and other women’s leagues and teams manage to wield more powerful influence.
That’s because they know what to do with what they have.
“It was really important to have a lens on women,” said Bethany Donaphin, the head of WNBA league operations. “When you think about it, there’s no other league that has the intersectionality that we have with 80 percent [women of color] and also many who identify as LGBTQ. I think it’s really important that we’re having open and honest conversations about what that means.
“The power of the WNBA is in its players. That’s what’s different about this league is who’s in it.”
We shouldn’t skip the opportunity to explore why, in this heavy time, the WNBA seems to hit the hardest. It involves the lived experience of Black women. Not just the Black athlete. Not just the female athlete. Black female athletes. The WNBA is the preeminent league dominated by such women, and their stories, their struggles, create the galvanizing force that allows the league to cut through all urges to play it safe and generic and make a point that matters.
Of course, this is a collective and diverse effort that includes the voices of other superstars, such as Sue Bird (the “Vote Warnock” organizer), Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart. But the fire and focus start with the WNBA’s predominantly Black workforce and its emotional attachment to a heartbreaking and undervalued facet of this American tragedy: Black women get killed, too. And few even notice.
“This is a time, this is a moment, this is a possibility that Black women can be at the center of the discourse rather than being erased from it,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, the executive director of the African American Policy Forum and law professor at Columbia University and UCLA who is also the #SayHerName founder. “Every movement has to have a story. There has to be narratives about what the problem is. If the movement doesn’t hold your story, if it can’t tell your narrative, then it can’t demand justice on your behalf.”
The WNBA is focused on the people and the framing of the issue. There are few worries about what it has to lose because it is still fighting for respect.
During an emotional Zoom conversation with Crenshaw, #SayHerName and WNBA representatives, a woman named Gina Best turned the league’s name into an acronym. “Women Need to Be Acknowledged,” said Best, connecting basketball to #SayHerName.
Best is the mother of India Kager, a Navy veteran who was shot and killed by Virginia Beach police five years ago. Targeting her boyfriend, Angelo Perry, as a person of interest in a homicide, a Virginia Beach SWAT team fired 30 rounds at Kager’s car, killing Perry and Kager, without knowing her 4-month-old son, Roman, was in the back seat. The SWAT team reportedly used a flash-bang grenade before rushing the vehicle. Perry fired in response, and four officers shot into the car.
Best still cries about it with ease. She says Roman is disabled. And his older brother, who was not in the car, has autism. She doubts the family will end up seeing much of that $800,000. But for a mother, there is no compensation for this kind of grief. If Black men are left feeling disdain from society, Black women have to deal with blatant disregard.
“They sent me a bill to dispose of the car that they murdered my daughter in,” Best said. “That’s how they really see us. They want us wiped away, not even acknowledged.
“We’re functioning and living every day with amputated hearts, where our psyches have been shattered. We had to write our daughters’ obituaries, pick out their caskets, and now also, gratefully, we have our grandchildren, and our grandchildren want to know about their mothers. We even struggle with talking about that. What do we tell their children? What about our daughters? What about us?”
“This is forever pain,” said Rhanda Dormeus, the mother of Korryn Gaines, who was killed by police four years ago in Baltimore.
The WNBA — not a single player or group of players but a league — challenges you to consider these people and resist caring. And it will continue challenging you for an entire season, understanding the moment better than any of its peers. The WNBA knows its moment is fleeting because it fights for appreciation daily.
Other sports may consider it a moment. In women’s basketball, this is the moment. Urgency and clarity exist in every action the league takes, actions that pierce through all other attempts at sports activism during this unprecedented time.