The WNBA has increasingly become known for its players organizing and advocating for social issues they believe in. That work would not exist if not for a powerful and united union that stands behind the players when they take a stand. The league has gained notoriety in recent years for its ability to sway political races or set the standard for athlete activism, but its focus has long been at the community level.
Around the league, players are attuned to the needs and struggles of the cities where they reside. As the players’ association, led by president Nneka Ogwumike and executive director Terri Jackson, built a reputation as a group that could negotiate better working conditions and compensation for its athletes in addition to providing them support in their off-court work, it did so by going local.
This is not something sports unions typically do. The word “community” is only found once on the NFLPA website. It is not found until the last paragraph of the NBPA’s “About” page. The MLBPA page makes no mention of local initiatives in its mission. Even in an era in which athlete activism is common and players are increasingly empowered to stand for something outside of sports, the WNBPA is unique in the way it seeks out ways to identify and invest in issues and movements that its players care about.
One of the early moments that put the WNBPA on the map as a force for social change alongside its players was in 2016, when the players of the Minnesota Lynx staged a protest at their home arena following the death of Philando Castile in the Twin Cities area and others around the country. The team’s four stars donned matching shirts with the phrases “Change Starts With US” and “Black Lives Matter.” In response, four off-duty officers providing security for the game left the premises and quit working Lynx games.
Other teams around the league followed Minnesota’s lead and all were eventually fined by the WNBA league office. That’s when the union got involved. They negotiated behind the scenes with the league and then-president Lisa Borders to protect the players and get the fines rescinded.
“The players’ desire to express themselves will continue to be supported,” Jackson said at the time.
Just like that, the local became national and led to change for all WNBA players. The same process played out last year as Atlanta Dream players waged a behind-the-scenes battle with former owner Kelly Loeffler, who also was in the middle of a re-election campaign for the U.S. Senate. While the country spun during a summer of social uprising, Loeffler turned the efforts of the team she owned into a political wedge issue, publicly decrying their support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
When it came time for organizing and strategizing how to take the fight to Loeffler more publicly, the WNBPA again helped its players be successful in its local community. As the league was gathered in its south Florida Bubble last summer, Dream center and WNBPA secretary Elizabeth Williams, along with WNBPA vice president Sue Bird, helped vet Loeffler’s opponent, Rev. Rafael Warnock, and made plans to support him. Then, union leadership presented their thoughts to Dream players and formulated a plan to have the league wear “Vote Warnock” shirts on nationally televised games and throw their support behind Warnock in the Georgia Senate race. It worked, big time.
Last year proved the might of the WNBPA and what is possible when the union meets its players where they are. It was a condition of the players that the league support their social justice efforts if the 2020 season were to happen, and by negotiating hard on those details, the union was able to affirm that any demonstrations, statements, or actions would not be punished by the league. No other union has ever negotiated such parameters with its league.
“That did not have to happen,” Jackson told Sports Illustrated last year. “That’s not a typical negotiated term.”
As the 2021 season enters the stretch run, the WNBPA is doing even more. The union recently partnered with Amalgamated Bank, making it the players’ Official Social Responsibility Partner. As part of the agreement, Bird, Williams, and Natasha Cloud created a video series called “Shoutouts” in which each player is able to highlight the local organizations they partner with for social change. The deal also included the formation of the WNBA Social Impact Fund, and the initial slate of donation recipients featured a nod to the role Georgia — and the Dream — played in the league’s achievements in 2020 with a donation to the New Georgia Project.
Throughout the year, the union has done community outreach on vaccination, seeking out Black communities in team cities to inform and educate people about the COVID-19 vaccine. The union proudly announced earlier this summer that 99 percent of players have been vaccinated, proving that what the players do, they do together.
Last year, Ogwumike told SI “our movement has found its moment, and we’ve capitalized on that moment.” Seemingly small gestures of support to teams’ and players’ work in their smaller communities is a quieter part of what the WNBPA does, but it is integral to generating support around the union’s efforts and getting the players to move as one.