In recent months, catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter's acceptance into the mainstream has turned sports into full-blown political arenas with the NBA at the forefront. In the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, players took their social justice advocacy to new heights with an NBA strike – and it's working. While many are praising the NBA's activism as a much-needed change in sports, for the WNBA it's always been bigger than the game.
The political ground gained by the NBA could only be won through the long and difficult road paved by the WNBA. While the media gave prominence to the NBA's protests and strikes playing out in the Florida bubble, the women of the WNBA have worked for years to stake their place as the moral center of basketball, and the league at large.
On Wednesday night, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics pulled out of their scheduled game and arrived on the court wearing shirts spelling the name of Jacob Blake. On the reverse side of the shirts were seven red bullet holes, marking where Blake was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The WNBA’s league office accommodated the protest and officially postponed the scheduled games.
For the women of basketball, these statements aren't new. In 2016, in response to the deaths of Philado Castile and Alton Sterling – both killed by police – players of the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, and Phoenix Mercury wore unsanctioned warmup shirts featuring the victims' names and "Black Lives Matter." At the time, it set a new precedent for sports activism, one that didn't go down well.
Their demonstration then was met with $500 fines per player. A league statement read: “We are proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league’s uniform guidelines.”
For years, WNBA players have spoken cohesively for an array of social justice issues, extending their platforms on and off the court to discussions on systemic racism, abortion rights, gun violence, and many more. Many players opted out of playing this season, choosing instead to focus on advocacy work. For WNBA players, whose salaries are worlds removed from those of their male colleagues, the choice and dignity to sit out a season is heavy.
“When we talk about playing and not playing, the implications that has on a female basketball player [relative to] a male basketball player are dire,” Nneka Ogwumike, an All-Star forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBA’s players union, told ESPN.
The power of the WNBA's tireless advocacy is that these players, mostly Black women, haven't been afforded the luxury of staying silent and ignorant on issues of social justice. While the NBA and corporate America have now come to appreciate the commercial value of Black Lives Matter, the players of the WNBA were using their voices long before the season even started.