Chiney Ogwumike On Athletes Joining Protests: ‘I’ve Been Really Proud To See Them Stand Up And Speak Up’

Following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers last Monday, people around the U.S. have taken to the streets to protest yet another act of police brutality against a black American. And, as is often the case when glaring acts of injustice and racism take place, many NBA and WNBA players took to social media to speak out about police violence against black Americans, and some even attended or led protests.

On Monday morning’s episode of Get Up, forward for the LA Sparks and WNBPA vice president Chiney Ogwumike spoke fervently about why athletes should use their platforms for social change and she praised her fellow basketball stars for speaking up.

“Seeing all the images of athletes has been tremendously inspiring, and I think the reason why you see athletes leading the charge when it comes to social change is because at the root of it all, it’s in our DNA,” Ogwumike said. “We are team players; we are wired to care for the last player on the bench as much as we care about ourselves. We’ve been athletes almost our entire lives. We cannot turn this on or off.”

The NBA and WNBA are widely viewed as two of the most progressive American sports leagues and they are also comprised mostly of black athletes and athletes of color, making this issue one that so many players have personally been affected by. Back in 2014, NBA players wore black t-shirts with the words, “I Can’t Breathe,” printed on them to protest Eric Garner’s death at the hands of an NYPD officer. In 2016, following the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, four players on the Minnesota Lynx held a pre-game press conference to address police violence. In the days that followed, players from the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever all wore black t-shirts during warmups. Maya Moore, one of the Lynx players who organized the press conference and one of the greatest to ever play in the WNBA, took the unprecedented decision to sit out the 2019 and 2020 WNBA seasons to fight for criminal justice reform.

Last week’s events saw many players go out and protest right alongside people for an end to police violence, an end to racism and a recognition from those in power that black lives matter. Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown drove from Boston to Atlanta on Saturday to lead a peaceful protest where Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon joined him and delivered an impassioned message to the crowd. Several other Celtics players including Marcus Smart, Vincent Poirier, and Enes Kanter, who has faced threats from his own government in Turkey, attended Sunday’s protests in Boston. Former NBA champion Stephen Jackson led a press conference on Friday commemorating Floyd’s death with Karl-Anthony Towns, who recently lost his mother to COVID-19, Josh Okogie, Gary Trent Jr. and Royce White in attendance.

“This is why you see Jaylen Brown driving 15 hours to lead a peaceful protest in his hometown,” Ogwumike said. “This is why you see Maya Moore forgoing WNBA season in her prime in order to fight for the wrongfully convicted. This is why you see Karl-Anthony Towns, star of the Minnesota Timberwolves, still show strength in the midst of his grief after losing his mom due to the pandemic.”

On Monday, Ogwumike went on to talk about how black athletes can reach the highest pinnacles of success in their respective sports, but still be reduced to nothing based on the color of their skin. In April 2015, NYPD officers broke then-Milwaukee Bucks player Thabo Sefalosha’s leg while arresting him outside a Chelsea nightclub. However, Ogwumike also acknowledged the privileges that athletes of color do have compared to other people in the U.S. who may not have the same level of financial security, power or fame.

“I guess, overall as athletes, I’ve been really proud to see them stand up and speak up because ⁠— I mean we all know this ⁠— we’re not comfortable staying on the sidelines in the middle of a battle, in the middle of a struggle, when it’s crunch time,” she said. “So, we want to be in the game, we want to win and more importantly, share that feeling. That is what moves us. That is our standard and it’s bigger than sports.”