Earlier this month, in the wake of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police and the murder of five police officers in Dallas, three WNBA teams wore T-shirts honoring the Black Lives Matter movement and the slain officers during warm-ups.
This week, the WNBA decided to fine them for their statement.
The Phoenix Mercury, Indiana Fever, and New York Liberty will be fined $5,000, while the participating players will be fined $500 each.
“We are proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league’s uniform guidelines,” WNBA president Lisa Borders said in a statement to the Associated Press.
As Liberty star Kiah Stokes pointed out, the players purposefully used Adidas shirts to deliver their messages so as to align with WNBA sponsorships, but that wasn’t taken into account.
it's just unfortunate because we tried to compromise by wearing an adidas shirt, but it obviously didn't matter
— Kiah Stokes (@kstokes41) July 21, 2016
The Minnesota Lynx also wore similar shirts on Saturday, July 10, but only for one game. After the league sent out a memo reminding the players of the uniform policy, the Lynx didn’t wear the warm-up shirts anymore, and therefore did not receive any fines. The Mercury, Fever, and Liberty all wore the warm-up shirts before multiple games.
Prior to the announcement of the fine on Wednesday night, there was no indication that the league was displeased with the actions. In fact, just last week there was an Associated Press story with the headline, “With league support, WNBA players make voices heard.”
In the article, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said she consulted with Borders before her team wore the shirts. NBA president Adam Silver also praised the players for taking a stand.
“We appreciate like crazy the support we’ve gotten, particularly from the league,” Reeve said. “For [Lynx star Rebekkah Brunson] to feel like when you’re going to work and the people around you support you and not just in things that benefit them, it makes you proud to go work for that organization.”
“I actually think it demonstrates that these are multidimensional people,” Silver said. “They live in this society, and they have strong views about how things should be. So I’m very encouraging of that.”
While Silver also noted that he would prefer if the players didn’t alter their warm-up shirts, it’s important to point out that Silver did not fine NBA players when they wore T-shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” two years ago, echoing Eric Garner’s final words before he died after a police chokehold.
WNBA players, particularly Mercury forward Mistie Bass, have been struck by the league’s hypocrisy in this situation.
— Mistie Bass (@A_Phoenix_Born) July 21, 2016
Although many around the country have supported the statements made by WNBA players, in the wake of the national tragedies over the past few weeks, this fine is not the first sign of backlash. Police officers providing security for the Minnesota Lynx actually walked off their posts after the players wore their T-shirts.
“In the wake of the tragedies that have continued to plague our society, we have decided it is important to take a stand and raise our voices,” Brunson told reporters at the time. “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.”
This post originally stated that the Minnesota Lynx had been fined, but has been corrected to reflect that while the Lynx did wear shirts honoring the Black Lives Matter movement and the five officers killed in Dallas, they stopped wearing the shirts after the league sent out a memo about the dress code. Therefore, they did not receive a fine.
The New York Liberty and Indiana Fever played a matinee game on Thursday, the morning after news broke of the fines. It was clear from their actions that neither team plans on backing down.
Tina Charles accepted her WNBA Player of the Month award after the game with her Liberty warm-up inside out, and posted a passionate Instagram post discussing the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and stressing the importance of the WNBA supporting the movement as much as it supports Breast Cancer Awareness and LGBT Pride Month.
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Afterwards, both teams staged media blackouts in the locker room, refusing to talk about anything other than their protests. Excelle Sports captured the Liberty’s post-match message to the media.
“We feel like America has a problem with the police brutality that’s going on with black lives around here, and we just want to use our voices and use our platform to advocate for that,” Tina Wright said. “Just because someone says ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter. People put out this imaginary ‘black lives only matter’ whenever people say, ‘Black lives matter.’ What we’re saying is, ‘Black lives matter, too.’ Period.”
WNBA President Lisa Borders released a statement on Saturday, saying that the WNBA is rescinding the fines:
“While we expect players to comply with league rules and uniform guidelines, we also understand their desire to use their platform to address important societal issues. Given that the league will now be suspending play until August 26th for the Olympics, we plan to use this time to work with our players and their union on ways for players to make their views known to fans and the public and we have informed the players that we are rescinding the recently-imposed fines,” Borders said.