WNBA Players Are Not New to Activism - They’ve Been Standing for What’s Right for Years
Updated: Sep 8
Last week, athletes across the country went on strike for racial justice after another horrendous act of police violence against a Black man in Kenosha, WI. On August 23, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by a police officer seven times (1). By some miracle, he is still alive and in stable condition (2). However, this attempted murder serves as one more instance of Black lives being targeted by police officers who know they will not get in serious trouble for harming Black people in America. This comes at the end of a summer full of protests and stands for racial justice and against police violence by everyday Americans, musicians, actors, politicians, and professional athletes.
Professional athletes have huge fan bases and followings. They have the power to make statements and they have often done just that. So it is not surprising that many athletes spoke out against what had happened. What is more surprising was the fact that it was a wide scale coordinated strike across sports leagues: members of the WNBA, NBA, MLB, MLS, and other pro sports refused to play playoff and regular season games (3).
Most of the coverage of last week’s strikes focused on the NBA; however, I’d like to look at the WNBA and its tradition of activism. This tradition derives from the fact that female athletes are often overlooked in society. Most basketball fans can barely name one WNBA team or player. That being said, the WNBA have been standing up for racial and social justice long before this strike.
In July 2016, four Minnesota Lynx players showed up to a game wearing black shirts that said “Change Starts with Us: Justice and Accountability” and they spoke about police violence at the pre-game press conference. The next day, several players on New York Liberty wore black shirts that said “#BlackLivesMatter” (4). This was the same week Colin Kaepernick famously started to kneel during the National Anthem, but the country seems to remember his acts of protest only (5). The media reports very little on WNBA players’ activism despite the frequency of it.
This year, the WNBA entered the season considering the dual crises happening in the country: COVID-19 and systemic racism. Bethany Donaphin, the WNBA’s head of league operations noted that “there is no other league that has the intersectionality we have… with 80% Black women and also many who identify as LGTBQ” (6).
Even before the season started, individual players were taking stands at protests and speaking out. The players of the WNBA, across the league, committed their season to raising awareness of police violence against Black and Brown women. Specifically, they chose to honor Breonna Taylor - her name is on every jersey and players have been sporting this shirt from Meena Harris’ company, Phenomenal (7). WNBA player Breanna Stewart also had the idea for the WNBA to paint “Black Lives Matter” or “Say Their Names” on every court, which they did (8).
Skylar Diggins-Smith, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, posted her feelings about why they were striking in an Instagram post last week. I recommend clicking here to read her entire caption. These women are simultaneously playing professional basketball, taking a stand for what they believe in, and acting as role models and resources for so many Americans. They are also a stellar example of how it’s possible to fuse career athletics with political activism without detracting from the sport - something that is usually raised as a concern.
“Tonight, we won’t play. Find a way to understand why and find a way to be alongside us seeking a solution. Because ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Because BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
Female activism is crucial to the Black Lives Matter Movement and to every social and civil rights movement. When you are deciding who to vote for this November, pay attention to candidates who are activists. An incredible leader who is a community activist and a huge Black Lives matter activist is Cori Bush. She won her primary in an upset after losing massively in her first attempt in 2018. Now, is running to represent MO-01 in the House of Representatives (9). Candidates who have real-life activism experience are in a unique position to bring those issues to the forefront of American politics and to the rooms where decisions are made. Definitely keep that in mind when you are researching candidates! Click here to see all the Democratic women running in your state.