WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Minnesota Lynx are no strangers to hoisting the WNBA championship trophy — when they defeated the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA Finals last fall, it was their fourth title in seven years.
But the commemoration of their latest title differed from the rest. In previous years, President Barack Obama invited the Lynx to the White House to celebrate their victory, like presidents usually do for the teams crowned champions in their sport. And then there’s Donald Trump, who didn’t even bother to invite the Lynx to the White House — not a huge surprise, considering the Lynx are a group of powerful women, who play in a predominately-black league, which is outspoken about issues of social justice. A cocktail of Trump’s least favorite things.
A few weeks ago, as the WNBA season kicked off, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Sylvia Fowles, and Maya Moore — the five Lynx captains and starters — approached head coach Cheryl Reeve with an idea: Since they wouldn’t be going to the White House this year, they wanted to travel to D.C. one day ahead of their scheduled June 7 game against the Washington Mystics, and celebrate their 2017 championship with a day of community service instead.
As it happens, that very same day, Reeve’s friend had connected her with Manny Ohonme, a best-selling author and motivational speaker who founded Samaritan’s Feet, a nonprofit organization working to ensure every child has a pair of shoes. She was incredibly moved my Ohonme’s story — he received his first pair of shoes in Nigeria when he was only nine years old and it changed his life, so he has dedicated his career trying to do the same for others.
Occasionally, the universe sends you a sign so clear, you’d have to be willfully obtuse to miss them. Four-time WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve is many things, but obtuse is not one of them. Within 24 hours, the Lynx had scheduled a joint event with Samaritan’s Feet for June 6.
Of course, at the time, the Lynx had no idea that the event would come just two days after Trump unceremoniously disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles to the White House — a move he falsely blamed on protests during the national anthem, but was clearly done because so few Eagles players were going to attend — and one day after he held a faux-patriotic ceremony where Republican staffers and interns pretended to be Eagles fans and watched on as Trump forgot the words to God Bless America.
Trump has turned everything into a referendum of patriotism, and on Wednesday, the Lynx tried their best to separate themselves from that news cycle.
“I think patriotism is subjective,” Reeve, who grew up in a military family, told ThinkProgress. “Service is a form of patriotism. This is what patriotism looks like.”
In fact, the biggest challenge for the Lynx on Wednesday was keeping the focus on the service they were there to perform, and not on Trump or his battle with the Eagles. The reporters there — and I include myself in this — didn’t make it easy for them.
“I think that this was just more-so about us. We’re always trying to use our platform to touch the moment,” Brunson said.
“I don’t know what Trump was doing, it doesn’t matter. We came up with a great idea, a great plan, to come out here and serve the community in DC, we wanted to commemorate our championship. As for everything else, it is what it is,” Augustus added.
Moore echoed that sentiment.
“We wanted to keep the focus on us, not on any negativity, anything discouraging. We want to keep this day, what we’re doing, super positive,” Moore said.
When pressed further about how she felt about Trump’s clear targeting of black athletes who are speaking out against systemic racism and police brutality, she stuck on message.
“Again, I just want to give attention to what we’re doing here today. We can’t control what we can’t control, but what we can control is the decision we make to empower the kids,” Moore said.
When asked whether she would have gone to the White House if invited, Moore smiled, but didn’t give an inch.
“I’m excited to be here right now,” she said.
Of course, it’s incredible when athletes use their considerable platform to directly address Trump’s actions or the systemic inequities they’re fighting against, like Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins did on Wednesday when he held up signs about incarceration statistics and killings by police when reporters approached him in the locker room.
But it’s equally understandable why the Lynx wanted to attempt to stay focused on their service, and not the latest Trump melodrama.
This day was about the children at Payne Elementary School and the organization they were working with, and it was clear the players were incredibly moved by Ohonme’s story, and completely invested in interacting with the kids at Payne — a Title 1 school in Southeast D.C. where 30 percent of the students are homeless and 100 percent are considered “low income.”
What makes Samaritan’s Feet unique is that volunteers with the organization go directly to the children receiving the shoes and individually wash their feet and talk with them before giving them their new shoes — in this case, brand new Jordans. The children in attendance were beyond ecstatic, not only to get the new Jordans (though trust me, that revelation during the assembly resulted in decibel-defying shrieks), but also to be directly served by such champions.
Fowles, Augustus, Whalen, Brunson, Moore, and the rest of their teammates all sat down in a line and personally washed the feet of child after child, sharing high-fives, hugs, and words of encouragement along the way. There was power in the intimacy of the action, in the directness of the service. There didn’t need to be any statements about Trump; the day spoke for itself.
Every single player was smiling the entire day — and each one reiterated that there was no place they’d rather be.
“Just to be able to sit with these kids, and talk to them face to face, and be humble, and show them, it doesn’t matter how you view us, it’s how we view you,” Brunson said. “We view you as people who are going to grow up and do amazing things. We’re just here for you.”
The Lynx aren’t strangers to service, nor are they afraid to raise their voices about political and social injustices. In fact, in many ways this was the team that kicked off the current wave of athlete activism, which led to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, the NFL changing its anthem policy, and the Eagles getting disinvited to the White House. In the summer of 2016, right after the high-profile police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the four Lynx captains (today’s starters, minus Fowles) held a rare pre-game press conference in Minneapolis and talked about police brutality, while wearing t-shirts that said, “Black Lives Matter.”
“If you stand idly by, change is not going to come,” Reeve said, adding that her players learned so much from that — both about the power and influence they have, and also about the backlash that comes with standing up for what you believe. At the time, some Minneapolis police officers were so upset with the players’ statements about police brutality that they refused to work security for the game.
The Lynx aren’t afraid of conflict. But, like true champions, they also like to focus on what they can control. On this Wednesday, that wasn’t Trump — it was, in the words of Augustus, “joy and Jordans.”