In September of 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down — and, after receiving advice from former Green Beret Nate Boyer, took a knee — during the national anthem in protest of police shootings which cost Black men their lives that happened earlier that summer.
He was vilified for it, celebrated for it, cast out of the NFL, and catapulted to a different kind of fame, one built on the sacrifice of the sport he loved and his dogged commitment to the activism he knew would make a difference. It’s a moment that’s been etched into the tomes of sports’ rich, complicated history, one credited for sparking a movement, one that enjoyed all the benefits and challenges of its unforgiving spotlight.
But when Georgia made its own kind of history earlier this week, electing Reverend Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate, it wasn’t Kaepernick I was thinking of. It was Seimone Augustus … well, Augustus and the legions of players in the WNBA who, in many ways, have paved a path towards meaningful protest and change for the greater world of sports.
You see, in July of 2016, Augustus. along with fellow Minnesota Lynx team captains Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen, got together to game plan how they wanted to address the 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. Teams like the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Indiana Fever followed suit, even as police officers in charge of security for the upcoming Lynx home game walked off the job and the league issued fines for the players which were later rescinded. The protest didn’t capture the national spotlight like Kaepernick’s did, or like fellow basketball star LeBron James would.
What it did do, however, was lay the framework for what happened in Georgia’s tightly-contested run-off this week, a race that would prove to be the lynchpin for systemic change, a battle that would make all of us rethink the relationship between sports and politics.
And hopefully, give the women of the WNBA, particularly the Black women, their rightful due.
Late last summer, Warnock was comfortably trailing in the state’s “jungle primary” to challenge Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler — who had been appointed to the post by Georgia governor Brian Kemp — for her seat in the Senate. He was up against more well-known candidates, like Matt Lieberman, the son of the former vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, but he had the backing of key party veterans and a strong platform to run on, along with the pedigree of being the minister of the church once helmed by Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, he was trying to become not only the first Black senator to arise from the Deep South state, but the first Democratic senator to serve the red-leaning constituents of Georgia in 20 years.
Around that same time, the women of the WNBA were at a crossroads. League MVP Moore took a sabbatical from the sport to pursue justice reform — she’d later help secure the release of a wrongfully convicted Black man named Jonathan Irons. Others were worried about plans to play in the league’s bubble down in Florida. Female basketball players make a staggeringly low amount of money for the hard work they put out on the court, and during a year that saw a pandemic plague the country, protests against police brutality erupt in major cities, more needless killings, and questions of safety protocols for professional leagues trying to get back to playing their respective games, choosing whether or not to continue playing the sport they loved took on new weight.
For the athletes that did return, the question became, “How do we honor this league’s history of thoughtful activism?”
The league, as a whole, decided to forego playing games after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police. They also dedicated their season to Breanna Taylor, an innocent Black woman gunned down in her bed by Louisville police in March, sporting BLM shirts, warm-up gear that read “Say Her Name,” and jerseys with Taylor’s name stitched on the back.
Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, wrote a letter to commissioner Cathy Engelbert complaining about the league’s decision to support the Black Lives Matter movement and asking that Taylor’s name be removed from the jerseys. Instead, the Dream, along with help from Seattle Storm legend and player’s union vice president Sue Bird, decided to be one of several teams to protest Loeffler’s objection by wearing new shirts, ones that campaigned for her opponent: “Vote Warnock.”
Both the @AtlantaDream and @PhoenixMercury players arrived wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts to their game tonight. For more here is story from @ramonashelburne https://t.co/th5gtsfEtv pic.twitter.com/2oLdvn3kyJ
— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) August 4, 2020
This wasn’t the work of just one or two high-profile players. It certainly wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, an excuse to express their outrage and frustration through fashion. Instead, this was a carefully constructed silent attack, one that built on the hard work the league had been putting in for years.
Women in sports have always had an uphill battle, but the rocky road of the WNBA feels, in many ways, set apart from that. Not only is the league sponsored by the NBA — which means at least some of its autonomy must play by the rules that govern male athletes — it also receives paltry funding, practically non-existent air-time, and draws smaller crowds because of it. Without wading too far into the larger issue of sexism when it comes to female athletes, the WNBA just hasn’t been able to market itself to the right demo, or, perhaps more accurately, it hasn’t had the resources to do it right.
And so, while players like those on the Dream, or Augustus, or even Bird, arguably the biggest name in the sport right now, don’t lose million-dollar sponsorships and sneaker deals with Nike because of their social justice activism, they’re threatened with losing arguably more: their livelihood. Teams are few, money is tight, some don’t make enough to make playing even worth it — a stark contrast to the men’s side — so to jeopardize that, no matter how morally righteous the cause, is a tough decision to make.
Yet these women have been making it for a long time — before kneeling during anthems became a kind of symbolic wokeness, before BLM became a widely-used rallying cry. They were Black, Brown, and Queer in a sport that didn’t seem to value any of those things for a long time. That grit and drive and fearlessness in the face of prejudice and adversity shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Nor should their impact in this latest political face-off.
Warnock was polling low numbers, as low as nine percent, before the Dream decided to promote his campaign. In a meeting facilitated by voting rights activist Stacey Abrams and Bird, the team sat down with Warnock to discuss his values, his political motivations, and his stance on the issues that mattered to them. They didn’t throw their weight behind him because of his skin color, religious upbringing, or gender. They took the time, did the work, and decided to voice their constitutional freedom of speech by sporting their candidate on their pre-game tees.
And they weren’t alone.
Other teams — Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix, and more — backed the Dream. Those players didn’t have a stake in the Dream’s specific fight. They didn’t live in Georgia, their responsibilities and roots are in other communities. The politics there might not have affected them in any significant way, but they showed solidarity when it mattered, a solidarity that propelled the team’s message to new heights. Not only did Warnock gain significant numbers in the polls and a bigger following on social media, the Dream’s endorsement meant he enjoyed more funding, a crucial element in his underdog campaign.
This isn’t the first time female athletes, particularly Black women, have been the catalyst for change — not just in sports, but in our democracy as a whole — and while leaders like Abrams deserve effusive praise for their efforts to encourage higher voter turnout, it’s crucial we also remember women like the players of the WNBA. Athletes who risked their job security, their reputations, and more to openly defy the person who owns one of the league’s teams because they found it exponentially more important to stay true to their moral compass. They didn’t do it for clout or recognition, to prove a point or to satisfy their ego. They did it simply because they knew they must. They knew that having a platform, regardless of its size, means you have a responsibility to speak up and show up for the things that matter.
So when we celebrate Warnock’s victory, when we marvel at the history made in Georgia, when we bow down at the feet of Abrams and other political galvanizers, when we hype up players like James and the better-paid athletes who can comfortably stand to lose for their social justice values, let’s also remember the women of the WNBA who got us here and taught us the power of the collective when it comes to sports and activism. At the very least, we’ll have a constant reminder that the cause these women got behind was fruitful in United States Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock.