NEW YORK, NEW YORK — During this particular moment of heightened racial and political tension across the country, the New York Liberty of the WNBA are hoping to find some common ground. The organization partnered with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) for a town hall meeting prior to Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Lynx. The panel discussion included athletes, law enforcement advocates, and educators with a shared goal of improving race relations and effecting positive change within our collective communities.
“In talking with our players and understanding how educated our players were, how passionate they were about making social changes in society … we then wanted to share their story,” said Liberty president Isaiah Thomas to open the panel. Six others joined Thomas to discuss community solutions to combat racism.
The panel was moderated by author and professor Michael Eric Dyson and featured Kristen Clarke, President & Executive Director of the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; author & motivational speaker A. Shabazz; Police Chief Juanita Holmes of the NYPD; William Rhoden, a New York-based sports journalist and writer-at-large for The Undefeated; Sue Wicks, a New York Liberty legend; and Tanisha Wright, a veteran on this year’s New York Liberty roster.
The event was held a week after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one day after a series of dueling rallies by white supremacists and counter-protesters in cities throughout the country. But these conversations, while perhaps more pertinent now, are nothing new for the New York Liberty or the WNBA.
The beginning of a partnership
Sunday’s event was a continuation of the protests and on-court activism that players initiated last season. After the murder of Philando Castille and the violence in Dallas where five police officers were killed, the women of the WNBA found multiple ways to use their platform to encourage civil but frank discussions on race. Teams like the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty wore pregame warmup shirts honoring the victims of violence while also calling attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Four teams held media blackouts where they refused to answer questions about basketball and would only talk about race relations. One such blackout took place after now retired WNBA All-Star Tamika Catchings played the last game of her professional career against New York. Other players opted to take a knee during the national anthem, in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The Liberty’s Tanisha Wright, who is sitting out this WNBA season to rest and recover, was among those heavily involved in last year’s activism, and was a panelist on Sunday. She called the timing of Sunday’s panel and Unity Day divine.
“Because of everything going on, it lined up perfectly. Everything that’s going on with Charlottesville…it couldn’t have been more on time,” Wright told ThinkProgress after the panel. “There were many different questions being asked of many people on the panel and different perspectives. [This] gives us another opportunity to push the meter forward.”
RISE believes that the same leadership skills demonstrated by athletes of all ages on the playing field can also be leveraged into advancing tough conversations. RISE CEO Jocelyn Benson believes Wright is the type of role model society needs. “Players telling their personal stories is in some ways the most impactful way they can raise awareness about their experiences,” said Benson in an interview with ThinkProgress after the panel and on-court Unity Day celebration. Athletes often give a voice to others experiencing similar situations that lack a platform to share and be heard, she added.
The New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx were two teams RISE was eager to work with after witnessing their stand on race issues from last season. “What we noticed at RISE as we’ve been working with athletes across the field in various different leagues is how these women were so courageously – more courageously often than their male counterparts – taking a stand in a high profile way,” said Benson.
Panelist Kristen Clarke was brought in to consult with RISE and the Liberty on ways both teams could build upon the momentum started last summer From there, the Unity Day was set. In addition to the panel, local law enforcement and youth groups locked arms with both teams for a short act of solidarity prior to the game.
A short video was played just before tip-off, and Liberty center Kia Vaughn shared brief remarks with the crowd of 10,007 at the end of the presentation. “With all that’s going on in this world today, no matter what, what we’re representing today is unity and equality,” she said. “At the end of the day, I just want to send one message out. Let love win. Just let it win. Enjoy the game, thank you for coming out.”
Talking it out
At the town hall held before the game, panelists urged the audience to reflect on history and make daily commitments to justice. Clarke, of the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, was critical of the Trump Administration. “It is shocking that in 2017 we have the KKK marching hoodless,” she said. The Committee is active in the fight for workers rights and housing issues, as well as in the monitoring and reporting of hate crimes, among other things. She urged citizens to register to vote and support advocacy organizations.
Ambassador Shabazz, the eldest daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, had a similar message, although she was less interested in President Trump and more focused on community-level change. “When I was a child, there was nobody in the White House that you assumed was going to help your black house,” she said. Instead, she called on people to identify their skills and put them to use in the service of important advocacy work already being done. “There’s endless organizations, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said.
Reinventing the wheel may not be necessary, but rethinking the voices we invite to the table might be. “I think people of privilege have to grapple with the fact that they are part and parcel of a system that will not stigmatize them or hurt them in the same way it will people of color,” Professor Dyson told ThinkProgress. He called on white athletes to find ways to support their teammates in their actions to highlight race inequality. Several WNBA players, soccer star Megan Rapinoe of the U.S Women’s National Team, and most recently Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles are recent examples of white athletes using their platform to offer support.
The law enforcement community is also inexorably tied to any conversation about race. “I’m very privileged to be here and to represent the police department,” said Chief Holmes after the panel. She is one of two African-American female chiefs in the NYPD, and was candid about her limitations to speak freely while representing the department, though she did share that the same fight for race equity happens within the NYPD as well. “I share a lot of the concerns that have been mentioned here on the panel, but I’m actually representing the Police Commissioner of the New York City Police Department today,” she said. Her fight, both as a black woman and a law enforcement officer, is in breaking down the barriers for candidates of color and regaining the trust of the community.
Her work is an uphill climb on both counts. Brittany Boyd of the New York Liberty — who is out this season as she recovers from an achilles injury — addressed Chief Holmes directly about finding it difficult to trust law enforcement. “I hear you saying ‘bring your kids to the free [community events].’ If I had a kid I wouldn’t bring my child to [a police event] if it was free,” shared Boyd.
In much the same way Dyson challenged the panel to offer actions steps for the audience, Boyd challenged Chief Holmes to commit to bringing the messages of the audience and the panelist to Police Commissioner James O’Neill, and Holmes urged the audience — and panelists — to be open-minded with how they perceive police in return.
This tendency to talk in circles is precisely what wears many people down when discussing race and racism. Fittingly, journalist Bill Rhoden turned to a sports analogy to urge the audience not to grow discouraged in those moments. There are times when a struggling team will have to play a superior opponent, he reminded them. A rivalry may begin one sided, but after hard practice and careful, deliberate, and repeated analysis of game film, the playing field levels over time, “Athletes spend 90% of their time watching game film. Well, why is that?,” asked Rhoden.
The answer is simple: so one does not repeat the same mistakes. RISE and the New York Liberty brought community leaders together to review game film and coach their community through difficult conversations. It is unknown how many sessions are needed to yield positive results.
As in life, few things in sports are guaranteed, but one is that refusing to change a game plan that isn’t working will continue to result in failure. When it comes to our national conversation on race, the stakes of a broken game plan aren’t championship rings, but human lives.
Erica Ayala is a New York-based sports writer and child advocate.