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How The WNBA Became The World’s Most Community Focused Sports League

To be a woman and a professional athlete is to be a walking protest.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged by the female icons that populate every major sport right now. And yet, it’s something the stars of the WNBA embrace, unreservedly. The league made headlines in 2020 for using the insular and isolating experience of playing in a pandemic-triggered “bubble” to regroup off the court with athletes and entire teams connecting on the issues that mattered to their communities. They earned praise for championing social justice issues and enjoyed a spike in both ratings and media attention paid to their in-season play thanks to the hashtags and warm-up tees, the hoodies they sported, and town halls they hosted during a year that challenged us on a societal level with lockdowns and contested political elections and a widening divide of our shared ideals.

But to truly appreciate the work names like Maya Moore and Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike have been doing, we need to look much further back than just one year. Laying the blueprint for intersectional activism on the court has been a decades-long movement, one that’s made this particular moment possible. After all, affecting real change is more of a marathon than a sprint, and the WNBA has been running the game for a long time.

From The Beginning

The “96 Effect” calls back to the year the Olympic Games put women’s sports on a pedestal. Watching American women achieve podium-level success in their respective sports — from soccer to softball, and yes, basketball — fueled a desire to see those same athletes spearheading league play. The gold-medal-earning performance of the women’s national team translated in the regular season with the creation of two female-fronted associations: the WNBA and the ABL, or the American Basketball League.

It’s the latter that set the stage for the kind of activism we’re seeing in today’s players. The ABL — which folded after two seasons of failing to compete with the marketing power and sizable funding from the WNBA’s main backer, the NBA — managed to infuse its players with a sustainable passion for advocacy. The ABL was built on the radical idea that, in order to attract talent, teams would have to pay players what they were worth.

“The ABL was so far ahead of its time as far as what the players are talking about now: equal pay, health benefits, being treated with respect and more,” Valerie Still, who started with the ABL’s Columbus Quest before moving to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, told Sports Illustrated.

The ABL offered higher salaries, better healthcare, maternity leave, and more necessities that the NBA didn’t deem their sister league worthy of, at the time. But even more importantly, the ABL gave players a voice, consulting with them on everything from how teams were marketed to what their uniforms looked like, schedules, stock options, and more. When these players eventually joined the WNBA, that sense of autonomy over their athletic career couldn’t help but evolve into a desire for control over how they used the platforms afforded to them by the game to affect real change.

Taking A Knee

Before Colin Kapernick sacrificed his professional football career to draw attention to police violence against Black and Brown bodies, the WNBA was forming their own protest courtside and weathering the backlash for it. In July of 2016, Minnesota Lynx team captains Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen got together to discuss how their team would respond to the recent shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. They decided to wear t-shirts, ones that read “Change Starts With Us” on the front and “Black Lives Matter” along with Castile and Sterling’s names on the back during their next warm-up. Four police officers involved in security at the game walked out. Later, teams like The New York Liberty, Indiana Fever, and Phoenix Mercury would sport similar t-shirts, drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. The teams were slapped with financial penalties, each player was fined hundreds of dollars, the WNBA’s official stance was one of passive censure. And yet, the players persisted. More importantly, they banded together, challenging the league with their collective commitment most sports federations have little experience in managing.

While big-name athletes like Kapernick and LeBron James bravely stood up to champion social justice movements, they did so largely on their own. Few of Kapernick’s fellow NFL stars knelt in solidarity with him, just a handful of major NBA icons donned shirts emblazoned with Eric Gardner’s final words, “I Can’t Breathe.” Their solitary protests were easier to dismiss, excuse, and attack because they were simply a target of one: one “bad apple,” one disgruntled player, one overpaid athlete who just needed to “shut up and dribble.” But the women of the WNBA, who were used to working as a team in everything, from forming their own league to fighting for better pay, knew that linking arms and kneeling together was an optic the federation had no excuse to ignore. So that’s what they did.

Teams playing against one another on the court, like the Liberty and the Indiana Fever, presented a united front away from the paint, staging media blackouts and holding press conferences where they refused to talk about basketball in lieu of discussing social justice initiatives. In 2017, the Los Angeles Sparks walked off the court in support of BLM. Eventually, the league rescinded its fines, caving to the pressure, and sparking a new era in sports activism, one that saw executives, managers, and owners working with players to reshape their sport’s relationship with values-driven movements.

Championing PRIDE

The WNBA is one of the world’s most diverse sports leagues and that sense of responsibility to inclusion runs deep, especially when it comes to the causes teams decide to champion. In the early 2000s, the LA Sparks became the first team in any pro sports league to market to the LGBTQ+ community. Around that same time, Sue Wicks decided to publicly come out and used the media interest in her relationship status to condemn the league for only promoting the personal lives of straight players. Her courage led to other stars, names like the legendary Sheryl Swoopes, to also come out, forcing the WNBA to start paying attention to its large and dedicated queer fan base. It took a long time for the association to listen, but eventually, every team in the league began hosting Pride events and supporting nonprofit initiatives supporting the LGBTQ+ community.

When the Pulse nightclub shooting happened, teams once again wore warm-up shirts addressing gun violence while players like Breanna Stewart auctioned off her game-worn shoes, with the proceeds benefiting victims of the shooting. Now, with stars like Layshia Clarendon, the league’s first out nonbinary athlete, leading the charge, the WNBA is using events like this year’s Pride month to focus on inclusivity when it comes to transgender and nonbinary athletes, partnering with Athlete Ally to host league-wide educational sessions on allyship and selling Pride-based merch with profits going to GLSEN, an organization that works to end discrimination, harassment and bullying based on gender expression, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Bubble and Beyond

That long history of speaking up and speaking out for their communities culminated with a historic 2020 season that earned the WNBA an unexpected amount of press that focused on the feats its players were performing off the court. The WNBA Bubble brought 144 players from 12 teams to Florida to quarantine together, to play ball, but to also recommit to their shared ancestry of activism and influence. Before the season began, the league launched its own Social Justice Council made up of players and WNBA leaders, whose sole purpose is to find ways for the association to address issues ranging from gender inequity to racial bias, systemic injustice, and LGBTQ+ discrimination.

The council dedicated the league’s 2020 season to the “Say Her Name” campaign, a movement meant to draw attention to the unjust killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by Louisville police officers in March of that year. Players on every team wore warm-up shirts and donned Taylor’s name on their jerseys. The league had the phrase “Black Lives Matter” etched onto the court. Some athletes who skipped the season, names like Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery, and Natasha Cloud, did so in order to continue serving in their own communities, fighting to free those who had been wrongfully convicted and remain on the front lines of social justice reform.

When Atlanta Dream owner and then-US Senator Kelly Loeffler spoke against the movement, her team worked with political advocates to endorse her opponent.

“We don’t do it because it’s trendy,” LA Sparks power forward and WNBA Players Association president Nneka Ogwumike said of the Bubble’s activism. “We educate ourselves and we try our best to do what we can to push the dial, to be on the right side of history and to make progress, so all we ask is for everyone else to do the same.”

That progress continues despite the uncertainty brought on by a lingering pandemic that continues to devastate the communities of some of the league’s top players. For their most recent season, the WNBA laid out a series of social justice initiatives that include tackling anti-transgender legislation, the fight for voting rights, and public health. In April, the league donated $25,000 to the Black Women’s Health Imperative, supporting their mission to help protect and advance the health and wellness of Black women and girls. When vaccine hesitancy amongst Black and Brown communities became a threat to public health initiatives, the WNBA stepped up once again, becoming the first pro sports league to reach a 99 percent vaccination rate amongst its players as stars like A’ja Wilson and Layshia Clarendon appeared in public service announcements encouraging Black women to get their shot.

And the league itself has committed to systemic change, particularly when it comes to partnerships with prospective sponsors. The WNBA Changemakers is a first-of-its-kind collective aimed at redefining the relationship between investors and the athletes they sponsor. They’re making a commitment to working with values-driven businesses whose messages align with the league’s history of activism in the hopes that athletes will no longer feel they have to choose between making a living and standing up for their personal beliefs.

These initiatives and policy changes aren’t just positive press fodder. They’re not praise-seeking charitable efforts or a way to pit female athletes against their male counterparts. They’re just the continuation of a progressive foundation that was laid decades ago, a legacy the women of the WNBA honor every time they step out on the court and step up for what matters.

They’re proof these icons, like the ones that came before them, are on the right side of history … and it’s time other leagues took note.

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