To be sure, the very existence of the WNBA could be considered a social justice initiative.
It was launched in 1997, with the prodding of NBA commissioner David Stern and the financial backup of his league, on the idea that this country’s best women’s basketball players deserved a big-time league on these shores.
It’s still not close to perfect, because under normal (i.e., non-pandemic) circumstances most players still have to go overseas to make the bulk of what their skills are worth. The WNBA remains behind in pay, in travel arrangements, in exposure and in penetrating the generic sports fan’s consciousness.
But it would be futile to demand that these women shut up and dribble, or stick to sports. That moment passed long ago, if indeed it ever existed. When you have proud, accomplished athletes representing as many as three marginalized groups – women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community – they’re going to express themselves, period.
And so it was that as the league opened its pandemic-delayed and shortened season Saturday in the Wubble – the WNBA’s version of the bubble, get it? – at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., it was in memory of Breonna Taylor.
Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician, was killed in March, shot eight times by Louisville police who had entered her apartment with a battering ram and a no-knock warrant. One of the officers on the scene was fired and none have been arrested or charged with murder, but any outrage over her death did not reach critical mass nationally until after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25.
Every player on each of the teams that played on the WNBA’s opening day wore a jersey with “Breonna Taylor” printed on a black strip underneath the player’s name. Coaches and support personnel wore shirts with “Black Lives Matter” on the front and “Say her name” on the back.
A 26-second moment of silence was observed before each game, and before the Sparks’ 99-76 victory over Phoenix, as well as Seattle’s 87-71 victory over New York earlier in the day, both teams left the floor before the national anthem was played.
In other sports or among other fan bases, there is pushback after anthem protests or recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement. The nature of the WNBA and its fan base would seem to largely preclude that. The biggest objection has come from Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream and the appointed Republican senator from Georgia, but she in turn has received pushback from players, and even to a degree from WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
“I’m committed to making sure that this season is dedicated to the players’ platform to vigorously advocate for social justice, to make sure Black lives matter,” Engelbert said during a midweek conference call. “We’re so proud of our players for speaking out on these issues. They’ve always led. We’ll continue to do so. There’s nothing political about that. It’s a statement of their values.”
It is a particularly important platform for the Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike, whose plate has been not just full but heaping the past few months. She is a key player on a team expected to contend for a championship. She is the president of the WNBA Players Association, so she was involved in the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement completed in January, and was then involved in putting together the mechanics of salvaging the season amid a global pandemic.
She was among WNBA representatives who had what she called a “very powerful” conversation with Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, and she told ESPN’s Holly Rowe in a postgame interview: “I think that the reason why you hear so many people talking about it is just like women are so often forgotten in this world. And in a league when we have 70 percent-plus Black women, this is our reality. And I’m just really happy to be able to be in a position to represent the players as we band together.”
With all of that going on, just playing might have been a wonderfully emotional release. Ogwumike made all eight of her field-goal attempts and finished with a team-high 21 points and seven rebounds in 23:50 of playing time in Saturday’s victory, which the Sparks turned into a rout with a 30-8 third quarter.
Afterward, on the postgame Zoom conference, I asked her about the idea that given the WNBA’s roots and the people involved, standing up and speaking out comes with the territory.
“We are women so our life is political, unfortunately, because of how this country has evolved,” she said. “It shouldn’t be. But, you know, we press on. These are human issues. And so because it’s in our DNA, we can’t do anything but speak on it and represent our communities, use our platforms to bring awareness. And it’s not the first time you’ve seen the WNBA players do that.
” … This is certainly an evolution for many. And for us, I feel as though our evolution has more to do with the eyes and the ears that are on us and the prominent figures that can really help us be progressive and affect change while we express ourselves as powerful women on the court.”
Shut up and dribble? Are you kidding?
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter