From LGBTQ rights to racial justice, WNBA players have been vocal for years, since the league’s inaugural season in 1997.
Though Colin Kaepernick became the face of police brutality demonstrations in 2016, WNBA players actually began protesting before he did.
At the news conference, Rebekkah Brunson, then a captain for the Lynx, spoke about the police shootings.
“What is happening now is not new. Racism and unjust phobic fear of Black males and disregard of Black females is very real. When we look at the facts, it’s hard to deny there’s a real problem in our society,” said Brunson, now a coach for the Lynx. “If we take this time to see that this is a human issue, and speak out together, we can greatly decrease fear and create change.”
Elizabeth Williams, a player for the Atlanta Dream, was drafted into the league in 2015. She told CNN that it’s easy to forget how unimaginable it was back then for athletes to say things like “Black Lives Matter” or to kneel, especially on national television.
“For us to do that in 2016 — to kneel, to walk out before the anthem before a Finals game — that level of activism was kind of unheard of in sports in 2016,” Williams said.
She continued, “We’ve been doing this work, regardless of how much visibility we’ve had.”
And they haven’t stopped at racial justice. Many teams have also spoken out collectively for LGBTQ issues. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016, teams donated money to local funds and wore warm-up shirts in support of Orlando and the LGBTQ community.
“(Their activism) very player generated. And it has been from the beginning. That’s how they get to be so creative with the work that they’ve been doing,” Johnson said.
She pointed to the recent shirts worn by the Mystics, with the gun shots in the back.
“That was provocative,” she said. “It’s creative, and I think it goes with their brand, where they know that sports are important for social justice.”
By protesting, WNBA players risk more
“Somebody like LeBron James does not have to worry about his livelihood being threatened by his activism,” Haines pointed out. “As opposed to, you know, a WNBA player who we already know was being paid significantly less, who may be marginalized for taking a stand around these issues, and whose career could frankly be threatened by speaking up around these issues.”
Without a WNBA season, the teams lose a significant amount of publicity and visibility, Johnson said. And yet, when NBA players announced their stop-in-play this week, the WNBA followed suit.
“Instead of just dropping the social justice thing, you can tell they’re committed because they’re still doing it,” Johnson said.
Take the Atlanta Dream, Williams’ team. The owner of the team is US Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who has been outspoken against the BLM movement and the WNBA’s activist work.
Despite her position of power, Dream players have not only continued their social justice work, but have spoken out against her — starting a campaign encouraging Georgians to vote for her opponent Raphael Warnock, a Democrat running for her seat.
Women athletes have a history of activism
Gibson forced an unwilling world to create space for her, thus pushing for equality and helping women who came after.
It’s a trend that has continued — particularly among those with the biggest platforms. Pro tennis player Naomi Osaka, one of the highest paid female athletes in the world, gave a statement following the shooting of Jacob Blake, writing “Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach.”
Across sports, though, women’s activism doesn’t receive the same amount of attention as men’s, Haines said. In the case of the WNBA, they don’t have the same star power. And yet the WNBA’s role in the social justice movement “cannot be ignored.”
“What they are doing in this moment is tied to a continuum of activism from women in sports that we have not recognized and appreciated nearly enough,” Haines said.
Williams pointed to the obvious — many women in the WNBA are minorities in the real world. They’re gay, or they’re women of color, or they’re both. They can empathize with the Jacob Blakes, the Breonna Taylors, she said.
“For us,” she said, “it’s like a constant fight for equality.”
Though the league’s regular season ends in mid-September, its commitment to activism and civic engagement will continue.