In the summer of 2016, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — two black men whose shootings by police officers were caught on cell-phone video and went viral within a two-day period in July — helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement.
Everywhere you looked, Americans were being forced to confront the realities of police brutality and racism, and debating the degrees to which both existed in today’s society. The sports world was no exception.
WNBA players were the first athletes to really make a statement. On July 9, just four days after Sterling was killed, the four captains for the Minnesota Lynx — Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, and Maya Moore — held a rare pre-game press conference to discuss the deaths of Sterling, Castile, and the five Dallas police officers who were murdered by a rogue shooter at a Black Lives Matter rally that same week.
Then, on August 14, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers took athlete protests up a notch when he remained seated for the national anthem before a pre-season game, later telling reporters that he refused to stand for an anthem.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told reporters.
The way both leagues reacted to activism by its athletes — and to the election of Donald Trump a few month later — has come to define them. This week, the NFL unveiled a controversial new national anthem policy — without input from the players — which requires players to stand during the anthem if they choose to take the field during its performance, or else their team will be issued a fine. The league is trying to do all it can to prevent Trump from publicly attacking its policies on Twitter or at a rally; its making decisions out of fear, and out of a desire to suppress the voices of its athletes.
Meanwhile, the WNBA officially baked social activism into its brand when it unveiled the “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” campaign that donates a portion of every ticket sold to a group of charities that support women, the LGBTQ community, and efforts to end sexual assault.
“We’ve been talking about civic engagement since 2016,” WNBA President Lisa Borders told ThinkProgress in a phone interview earlier this week. “This is an effort to move to another iteration — to deliberately, officially put our stake in the ground and say, we are here.”
A few days after the new campaign was launched, Borders issued a strong statement supporting Planned Parenthood — one of the partners in “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” — after Trump and his administration began, once again, taking steps to defund the health care provider.
— Lisa Borders (@WNBAPrez) May 18, 2018
Because its reproductive health care offerings include providing women with access to safe abortions, Planned Parenthood has long been a politically polarizing organization. It’s certainly not a “safe” choice among organizations to support if you are a business that is attempting to appeal equally to all sides of the ideological spectrum — it’s not Breast Cancer Awareness, for instance, an initiative equally marketed by the NFL and WNBA. It was a bold move, in other words, for Borders to take such a public stand.
“Let me start by saying I hold a masers in health administration, and I previously worked in the heath care arena,” Borders told ThinkProgress. “And let’s just say I have the privilege and pleasure of running a women’s league. Any time I see anyone directly or indirectly attacking women or women’s rights, I feel an obligation to speak up. Planned Parenthood offers incredible health care to women and communities, particularly in rural settings. Planned Parenthood does great work for women who don’t have access to basic, preventative care.”
While stopping short of uttering the phrase “pro-choice,” that’s still a strong endorsement from Borders.
Now, none of this is to say that the WNBA is a perfect league that has always embraced progressive social causes. In fact, back in the summer of 2016, the league’s knee-jerk reaction was to discourage its players from taking a stand.
After the Lynx held their press conference about police brutality on July 9, teams across the league followed suit, wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts during warm-ups and releasing statements on social media. Tensions within the league escalated quickly when the WNBA league offices sent a memo to players telling them they had to wear official gear during their warm-ups, and subsequently fined players for not doing so. But the players refused to step down. Teams began holding media blackouts. After games, players from the Seattle Storm, Liberty, and Washington Mystics, among others, wouldn’t discuss basketball; they’d only discuss police brutality. Eventually, the WNBA rescinded its fines. At the All-Star Game in 2017, Borders said she has “learned to listen better” after her missteps last year.
There’s still work to be done in that arena, too. Elizabeth Williams, a center for the Atlanta Dream, told ThinkProgress that there wasn’t a lot of communication between the league and the players before the “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” campaign was launched, and Borders said that no “Black Lives Matter” charities were considered as partners for the campaign — though she noted that each individual team is encouraged to pick local causes to support.
Still, the players see the campaign as a definite step in the right direction.
“I’m excited about it, it’s a good idea, it’s appropriate. We’ve made a name for ourselves as players who will take a stand, so it’s nice,” Williams said.
“Where sometimes leagues are afraid to take a stance, this league has been way ahead of the game in activism and equality, so we continue to take a leap,” said 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics.
The NBA has gotten a lot of credit for its social activism, and much of that is warranted — especially in a week like this one, where the Milwaukee Bucks issued such a strong statement condemning the abuse and intimidation its player Sterling Brown received at the hands of the Milwaukee Police Department.
But, thanks primarily to the relentless strength and vision of its players, the WNBA has been the league leading the way forward for everyone.
“Think about history in general,” Williams said. “It’s usually black women who are leading these marches and movements.”