The WNBA has found its voice

The players are used to battling on and off the court, and they’re not going to stop any time soon.

Members of the New York Liberty basketball team enter the court for a game against the Atlanta Dream, Wednesday, July 13, 2016 in New York. Between the Black Lives Matter movement, the Orlando shooting and the LGBT community, more WNBA players have been taking active roles in expressing their views on social issues. In the midst of “Camp Day” at the New York Liberty’s mid-morning game Wednesday, Liberty players stood in solidarity as they donned all-black warmups in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Members of the New York Liberty basketball team enter the court for a game against the Atlanta Dream, Wednesday, July 13, 2016 in New York. Between the Black Lives Matter movement, the Orlando shooting and the LGBT community, more WNBA players have been taking active roles in expressing their views on social issues. In the midst of “Camp Day” at the New York Liberty’s mid-morning game Wednesday, Liberty players stood in solidarity as they donned all-black warmups in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Last summer, before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, and before NBA stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPYs to speak out against racism and gun violence, the four captains of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx — Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, and Maya Moore — stood at the podium to talk to the press before a July 9 game against the Dallas Wings.

It had been a week filled with police violence. On July 5, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot multiple times at close range by two Baton Rouge Police officers while he was restrained on the ground. His death was caught on cell phone cameras and went viral. Less than 48 hours later, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was shot and killed by an officer after being pulled over in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. His girlfriend and daughter were in the car when the shooting took place, and his girlfriend streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live. And on July 7, at an otherwise peaceful rally in Dallas to protest the killings of Castile and Sterling, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed and murdered five Dallas Police Officers.

“I advocate for them to use their voices, because we’re more than just basketball players, we’re a family first and foremost.”

Wearing shirts emblazoned with “Change Starts With Us — Justice and Accountability” on the front, and Castile’s name, Sterling’s name, the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and the Dallas Police Department shield on the back, the Lynx captains delivered a strong message: “Racial profiling is a problem. Senseless violence is a problem. The divide is way too big between our community and those who have vowed to protect and serve us.”

“That moment, I think, that was really a special thing, a special time for us,” Brunson told ThinkProgress at the WNBA All-Star game last weekend in Seattle.

But the moment quickly became about much more than just the Lynx. It spearheaded a wave of activism in the WNBA that included six teams wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts, four teams holding media blackouts, three teams kneeling during the national anthem in the playoffs, and more than 100 players taking a stand against racism.

It was a moment that turned into an unstoppable movement that put the 21-year-old WNBA on the front lines of the fight for social justice. It was a moment that made all the difference.

“I think it took us a while to find our voice,” WNBA President Lisa Borders said in her press conference before the All-Star game. “We have found our voice. We’re clear on who we are and what we stand for.”

The movement spreads

The day after the Lynx took a stand, the New York Liberty made a statement of their own. Team members all wore shirts that said #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5 on the front, and #_______________ on the back, representing the tragic deaths that are yet to come.

Former WNBA MVP Tina Charles told ThinkProgress that she was empowered by the activism around the league, and felt it was incredibly important for her to speak out against two topics she’s passionate about: African American oppression and police brutality.

“The WNBA is made up of 70 percent African Americans, so for me, personally, to spearhead what was going on, it was a no-brainer,” Charles, who was playing in her fifth All-Star game, said.

The league responded to the Lynx and Liberty’s statements by sending out out a not-so-subtle memo about the WNBA’s dress code. According to league guidelines, the players are not supposed to alter their uniforms in any way.

But that wasn’t the end of the protests. The Liberty and two other teams — the Indiana Fever and the Phoenix Mercury—responded to the memo by wearing all-black Adidas t-shirts during warm-ups, as a way to honor the WNBA’s sponsor and to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter Movement at the same time. The league fined the teams and players anyway.

The fine was later rescinded, but not until even more teams joined into the movement. The Liberty, Fever, Seattle Storm, and Washington Mystics responded to the league’s pushback by holding media blackouts — in other words, refusing to talk to the media about the game, and only responding to Black Lives Matter-related questions.

When the WNBA players think back to last summer, the thing that makes them most proud is the solidarity shown across the league.

“What made it special was that the entire league was on the same page,” Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, who was participating in her 10th All-Star game this past weekend, told ThinkProgress.

The Lynx didn’t know when they first took the podium last July that so many of their WNBA sisters would follow suit. They stood up because this was an issue that was personal to them. The black players on the team had experienced discrimination by the police firsthand. Augustus, who grew up in Baton Rouge, used to frequent the store where Sterling was shot and killed. Castile lived nearby the Lynx in St. Paul.

But it turned out this subject was extremely personal to players across the league. Tierra Ruffin Pratt, a starter for the Mystics, had a cousin who was murdered by a cop on the day she found out she’d made it to the WNBA.

“It was something that really affected and was really close to a lot of the players in this league’s hearts.”

“It was something that really affected and was really close to a lot of the players in this league’s hearts,” Phoneix Mercury guard and WNBA all-time leading scorer Diana Taurasi said. “And you know, I think that’s the one thing we’ve always done really well, is stay together. It’s a sisterhood in this league.”

It wasn’t just the players who had a personal connection to issues of police brutality who got involved, however. In the WNBA, white players and international players stood alongside African American players in protests. That’s something that hasn’t been seen in the NBA or the NFL.

Bird, who has been in the WNBA since 2002, wasn’t surprised that the players across the league so seamlessly were able to unite around activism. After all, although the league has now been around for more than two decades, they’re used to fighting for respect day in and day out.

“We’re still trying to prove ourselves and get things moving in the right direction. So I do think it’s innate within us to have that fighting mentality, to speak up on things that we see happening,” Bird said. “And then at the same time, the makeup of our league, it’s a melting point. You’re exposed to things, you see your things, and you bring in your own story to it, and it lends to a certain type of activism. It just naturally fits.”

The lessons learned

While the players who protested in the WNBA received a lot of support from fans and media, the support was far from universal.

In Minnesota, four off-duty police officers, who were working security for the game, actually walked off after the players showed up on court with the Black Lives Matter t-shirts during warm-ups.

The president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, Lt. Bob Kroll, commended the officers for their action. He also took a swipe at the popularity of the Lynx, who were the defending WNBA champions at the time.

“They only have four officers working the event because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw,” Kroll said. “If [the players] are going to keep their stance, all officers may refuse to work there.”

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, who was at Saturday’s All-Star game to coach the West team, told ThinkProgress that she warned her players before they took their stand that they would receive blowback.

“It’s not a risk, it’s a consequence. We talked about those things. That there are some people who were fans of you who might not be fans of you now, but that doesn’t matter,” Reeve said.

However, after hearing her team share stories about their personal connection to police brutality and racism, she encouraged them to speak out if that’s what they wanted to do, regardless of the reaction.

“I advocate for them to use their voices, because we’re more than just basketball players, we’re a family first and foremost. And for me it was very painful. I’m a white person, [and to know] how impacted their families are, and the fear that they have … I just wanted to give them a platform.”

“The fact that coach was open to allowing us to express our thoughts and feelings about the situation really helped us,” Augustus said.

“I’m learning to listen more and listen better to our players.”

WNBA President Lisa Borders is proud of the way the players in the league have recently spoken out, but she wasn’t always so supportive. The fines she levied last summer ended up further fueling the protests, and the reaction of the players forced her to take a step back and re-examine the situation.

“These are young women who are mature, who have very clear ideas about who they are and what they want to do, so I’ve learned to listen better,” she said after ThinkProgress asked in the All-Star press conference what she had learned from the controversy last summer.

“My grandfather, the pastor in Atlanta, who is now deceased, used to tell us, ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason, so you can listen twice as much as you talk.’ So I’m learning to listen more and listen better to our players.”

The next steps

There haven’t been any more coordinated Black Lives Matter protests in the WNBA since last season ended. But that doesn’t mean the players are quieting down.

Many WNBA players joined the fight over the last year to get FIBA, the governing body of basketball, to end its hijab ban. Last week, Bird, who has been notoriously private about her personal life, came out as gay, and opened up about her relationship with soccer star Megan Rapinoe.

Layshia Clarendon of the Atlanta Dream is a passionate advocate for LGBTQ rights who has been speaking out against the constraints of gender binaries.

“A big part of my fight is breaking down those binaries and showing people what is beautiful, what is female, what is woman can look different in so many ways. That is very threatening to a lot of people,” she told ThinkProgress last fall.

And last week, days before the All-Star game, the Seattle Storm held a fundraising night for Planned Parenthood.

The players and the league see social justice as the long game — the clock will never run out, the overtimes are endless. They just have to keep fighting.

“When the players play the game, they score. A W [win] or an L [loss] is a result at the end of the day,” Borders said. “When we speak up on social issues, it is not always as clear, but we do know that incremental progress is not to be understated. So we work at it every single day, our own maturity and our own positions, and then we take them and we move forward.”

In other words, they see the Black Lives Matter protests last summer were only the beginning. Now, the players who spearheaded the movement are watching and waiting for the next opportunity to take a stand.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily a plan, but I think if there is an opportunity then we’ll take it,” Brunson said. “We’re very in tune to what is going on around us, and we understand that using our voice at the right time is key and it’s important. If we’re called upon, I think we’ll be more than willing to step up.”