SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — Thirty-five minutes before the Chicago Sky took on the Seattle Storm in a nationally televised WNBA game on Tuesday night, 6’7″ Sky center Imani Boyette wasn’t on the court warming up, nor was she in the locker room with her teammates getting her game face on.
Instead, she was the lone player on stage in front of hundreds of pink-clad Storm fans at Key Arena Plaza, listening to the Storm owners kick off a pre-game rally in support of Planned Parenthood.
It takes something very significant for a pro athlete to disrupt their typical pre-game routine — but for Boyette, the chance to be a part of the first official partnership between a pro sports team and Planned Parenthood was worth the detour.
“I think Planned Parenthood is just so much more influential and helpful than the media likes to portray,” Boyette told ThinkProgress before the rally. “I didn’t have health insurance growing up, so Planned Parenthood was my OBGYN. It was my birth control, anything and everything.”
Last month, the Storm’s all-female ownership group made national headlines when it announced a partnership with the reproductive health care provider, whose very existence has become a political lighting rod. Five dollars from every ticket sold to Tuesday night’s game was donated to Planned Parenthood — which, thanks to an attendance of 8,358 people, totaled $41,790. Further donations are pouring in as well, from a raffle, an online auction, and a Seattle-based app, Vermouth, which is donating a dollar to Planned Parenthood for every app download up to 50,000.
But the pre-game rally was truly the heart and soul of the event.
The 30-minute affair featured a speech by Storm co-founder Dawn Trudeau, who energized the crowd by invoking the power of strong women.
Then Christine Charbonneau, CEO of the Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands (PPGNHI), brought a joyful attitude to the mix, thanks to the developments on Capitol Hill on Tuesday — for the time being at least, it looks like the Affordable Care Act is safe.
“I don’t want to be premature, but I’m feeling celebratory today,” Charbonneau told ThinkProgress.
The most powerful moment of Tuesday’s event came when Planned Parenthood supporter and patient Alana Edmondson took to the stage to talk about her personal experiences with Planned Parenthood — including getting an abortion earlier that very day.
“I was so well taken care of,” she said. “Planned Parenthood, in offering choice, it’s more than just choice, it’s the agency to control my life and the path of my own happiness. That’s really important, and that’s something that Planned Parenthood offers all of us, even without insurance. It’s something I don’t take for granted and I hope none of you take for granted. It’s very, very fortunate to be a woman who is in control of her body, not necessarily with the full support of her country, but with the full support of Planned Parenthood.”
After her speech, Alana told ThinkProgress that she decided to share that story in hopes of breaking the taboo that surrounds abortion care.
“You know, we’re in 2017. This stuff should already be done. We shouldn’t still be fighting for it.”
“Doing the procedure is claiming ownership of your body, and claiming ownership of the word — kind of takes away its power and shifts it a little bit back into our hands,” she said.
Alana grew up going to Storm games, and she echoed a sentiment that was shared by many at the arena on Tuesday night, from Seattle natives who had never been to a WNBA game before, to die-hard Storm fans, to players in the locker room: pride that the Storm decided to take on this issue and fight for Planned Parenthood.
“First and foremost, our owners, our franchise, I just felt incredibly proud when they first told us about this night,” 10-time All-Star Sue Bird, the Storm’s most legendary player, said after the game. “I think as a woman you want to support one another, and to be a part of [this initiative] was something that was special, and some of us wanted to be included.”
The Storm owners were very clear that players and coaches did not have to be actively involved in the Planned Parenthood partnership if they didn’t want to be, and it was obvious on Tuesday night that some on the payroll weren’t very comfortable discussing the topic — most notably Storm head coach Jenny Boucek, who very carefully toed the line when asked about Planned Parenthood Night after the game.
“I’m in total support of our owners and their passions, and you know, they bought this team and poured a lot into it and it’s given them a platform to express things that they’re passionate about,” she said.
Others were much more comfortable stepping into the spotlight to tout the partnership. Though no Storm players joined Boyette at the rally, Bird was one of four Storm players — along with Breana Stewart, Noelle Quinn, and Sami Whitcomb — to take part in two Planned Parenthood PSAs, the second of which was released during the game on Tuesday. She knew she would get some partisan pushback, and be told to “stick to sports,” but for her, this transcended politics.
“In the grand scheme, I don’t feel political about it. I feel, I guess, like a feminist about it,” Bird said. “I feel that we’re promoting and supporting something that has to do with health care education. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Stewart, who was named to her first All-Star game before Tuesday’s tip-off, also wasn’t overly concerned about any backlash, noting that the negative responses she has received have been exponentially outnumbered by positive reactions. And ultimately, she said she joined the team’s PSA because she believes in what Planned Parenthood does, and because she believes in speaking up on behalf of people who don’t have the ability or the platform.
“Why shouldn’t you have [Planned Parenthood]? Why shouldn’t it be here? Why shouldn’t it be an option for people to have and to go to?” Stewart said after the game. “You know, we’re in 2017. This stuff should already be done. We shouldn’t still be fighting for it. The fact that our organization, and players from this team, and coaches… joined arms with Planned Parenthood, I think it shows what type of organization we are.”
Stewart, who has been finding her voice as an activist during her first two years in the league — taking stances to support Black Lives Matter, protest the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, and speak up for LGBTQ rights — thinks this is just the beginning. Considering that the Storm has received so much support, from senators to the WNBA and NBA to the player’s union, she expects other teams will soon follow in their footsteps.
“It kind of makes you think, who will be next?” she said.
But Boyette — whose altered pre-game routine didn’t stop her from helping the Sky to a 94–83 upset — doesn’t feel ready to look too far into the future just yet. She knows that this particular fight is far from over. After all, she went to college at the University of Texas, and saw firsthand the consequences of the state government’s attack on Planned Parenthood. After Texas lawmakers slashed family planning resources to target the reproductive health organization, Texas residents have seen the consequences: There’s been an increase in unplanned pregnancies and abortions among teens.
“As long as someone’s trying to shut it down, we’re going to keep being louder, and show how important it is to us,” she said.
Playing for the Sky, Boyette was technically the opponent on Tuesday night in Seattle. But from the moment she heard that the Storm were holding this event, she knew she wanted to go out of her way to be involved in any way possible. After all, when it comes to reproductive health care, we’re all on the same team — or at least we should be.
“We have to have access to health care,” she said. “We can’t let all these men make decisions about things that don’t affect them.”