It wasn’t a surprise that the Washington Mystics didn’t want to talk about basketball after falling 95–75 to the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday night. After all, it was their seventh loss in a row.
But what was surprising were the topics they chose to broach instead.
Sitting in the locker room at the Verizon Center decked out in “Black Lives Matter: Enough Is Enough” T-shirts, the players talked to the media about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two black men who were killed by police officers earlier this month. They talked about the slain cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and Charles Kinsey, the behavioral therapist who was shot by a cop while trying to assist an autistic patient.
For the players in the WNBA, 70 percent of whom are African American, this is far more than a hashtag. This is personal.
‘My cousin was killed by a cop, so this whole situation has just been something close to my heart.’
“My cousin was killed by a cop, so this whole situation has just been something close to my heart,” Mystics guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who made the team’s Black Lives Matter T-shirts, told ThinkProgress. “So being part of the change is something that I want to do,”
The Mystics were the fourth WNBA team in two days to hold a post-game media blackout, a reaction to the WNBA fining three teams for violating league uniform policies by wearing all-black Adidas warm-ups to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. The fines were surprising, especially considering NBA players were not fined for similar actions in 2014.
“We definitely wanted to show our support for those teams that did get fined for wearing plain black Adidas shirts,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said. “We all saw the [New York Liberty] and [the Indiana Fever’s] media blackout, and in support of them we wanted to do it as well. Like I said, Our voice has been taken from us, so if we can use the media to be our voice for now that’s what it will be.”
Tensions have been high throughout the WNBA in the past few weeks. Following the deaths of Sterling and Castile and the murder of five police officers in Dallas, players through the league reached out to officials in the league’s front office, eager for a league-wide initiative to address the Black Lives Matter movement and gun violence. In June, after 49 people were murdered in a mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the players arrived to their locker rooms just days later to find “Orlando Strong” T-shirts. They happily wore them, and sent out condolences to those who were impacted by the tragedy.
But beyond issuing a joint statement with the NBA, no actions were taken to honor the victims of the violence in early July. “We would like a little support,” Cloud said. “The league was quick to jump on the Orlando thing, and we fully supported that, but we’re kind of frustrated that we’re picking and choosing which events we want to support and which we don’t.”
On Saturday, July 9, the defending WNBA champions Minnesota Lynx took matters into their own hands. The team wore shirts that read, “Change Starts With Us — Justice and Accountability” on the front. On the back were the names of Castile, Sterling, the shield of the Dallas Police Department, and the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.”
This was personal for them. Castile was killed in a nearby suburb in Minnesota, while Baton Rouge native Seimone Augustus was familiar with the gas station where Sterling died. Lynx co-captain Rebekkah Brunson told her teammates a story about police drawing weapons on her and friends when they were only eight years old, and spoke passionately to the media about how scared she was for her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and future son or daughter to grow up in a world still so filled with racism.
“I’m scared I can’t teach them to stand up for themselves, to be young, proud, strong people,” Brunson said.
"This is a human issue & we need to speak up for change, together." -Maya pic.twitter.com/tyfl65Ag81
— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 9, 2016
While their actions weren’t a unanimous hit — off-duty police officers working security for the game actually walked out because of their shirts and statements — they inspired similar acts across the league.
On July 10, the New York Liberty made a statement of their own, wearing shirts that read #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5 on the front. On the back, there was an “#_______________,” representing the tragic deaths that are yet to come.
The following day, during a previously scheduled call between the league and the player’s union representatives, the players talked to the league about their desire to make a stand and have a official merchandise supporting the cause.
“They were really reluctant,” Mistie Bass of the Phoenix Mercury told espnW. “They said, ‘We have already made a statement and released something with the NBA.’ But they said they were open to having a conversation about maybe doing something more. But that was the end of it.”
Soon thereafter, the WNBA released a memo reminding players about the dress code. According to Michelle Voepel of espnW, this was a big mistake by the league.
‘I’m scared I can’t teach them to stand up for themselves, to be young, proud, strong people.’
“It seems the league viewed it as potentially controversial and thus worrisome. That’s where better communication and dialogue were needed,” Voepel wrote. “Sending out a memo in corporate speak in regard to an issue that many WNBA players see as a matter of life and death for their own families and loved ones was a classic case of turning something negotiable into something almost hostile.”
While the Lynx didn’t take any other actions, the Mercury, Liberty, and Indiana Fever all decided to make a compromise with the league. Instead of shirts with #BlackLivesMatter on them, they wore all-black, Adidas-branded warm-up T-shirts to their games to draw attention to the movement.
This clearly was not enough of a compromise for the league. Last Wednesday, the league decided to fine the Mercury, Liberty, and Fever $5,000 as a team and $500 per player for the uniform violations. This response sent shockwaves throughout the league.
“I didn’t know they were coming, when I woke up I had to text someone on those teams and say, ‘Are you serious? This has to be a joke.’ You didn’t think it was real,” Mystics’ guard Ivory Latta said. “We’re getting fined for you telling us to step up, take a stand, speak how you feel, and then you fine us. It might not have been our team, but we’re a sisterhood. We have to see each other overseas. After games we go out to eat, it’s a sisterhood. We have to stand together at all times.”
The fines led to the media blackouts by the Liberty, Fever, Storm, and, eventually, the Mystics.
— Sue Bird (@S10Bird) July 22, 2016
Although the WNBA did eventually decide to rescind the fines on Sunday — a definite step in the right direction — it’s likely not going to be the end of this issue, in society-at-large or in the WNBA. The league is taking a one-month break now for the Olympics, and while WNBA president Lisa Borders wants to use that time talking to the union and figuring out a plan of action, the players are also going to use it to get more organized and figure out the best way to get out their message of solidarity and support.
“We definitely want to stand behind our WNBA players and the statement they made,” Sparks’ star Candace Parker said. The Sparks are one of the teams that have not yet taken any actions, but Parker did not rule out doing so in the future.
“I think for sure [further protests and actions are] something we will communicate and talk about as a group across the board in the WNBA,” she said. “Every two, three days you hear something else in the media, the news. We’re not worried about it going away.”
According to Cloud, this is only the beginning. The WNBA might not be the biggest sports league out there, but it is full of fearless athletes who seem to have only just began to discover the power their voices truly carry.
“We will not be silenced,” Cloud said. “The fines will not deter us from the issues at hand. We’ll get more organized over the break. This isn’t going anywhere, we’re not going anywhere.”