How the WNBA ignited social activism in sports

The Women’s National Basketball Association led the charge in amplifying the Black Lives Matter message, taking a stand before Colin Kaepernick sat out the national anthem and then took the knee.

The murder of George Floyd by a law enforcement official in the United States sparked a new era in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It brought an unprecedented level of attention to race politics in the mainstream media. In sport, there was a collective effort from athletes in different codes who raised awareness about racial inequality.

On the local front, Cricket South Africa was forced to tackle its history of division while World Cup-winning Springbok captain Siya Kolisi gave his account of facing racism in rugby. This recent trend of athletes being vocal about social issues can be traced back to 2016, when the BLM movement began picking up steam.

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) led the charge in amplifying the BLM message. The Minnesota Lynx wore unauthorised warm-up T-shirts denouncing the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in 2016, a month before Colin Kaepernick would rock the sports world by sitting out the national anthem in protest against police brutality.

“As many WNBA players, past and present, have said and, more importantly, consistently demonstrated, the reason why you see us engaging and leading the charge when it comes to social advocacy is because it is in our DNA,” says Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike. 

“With 140-plus voices all together, we can be a powerful force connecting to our sisters across the country and in other parts of the world. And may we all recognise that the league’s stated commitment to us offers a pivotal moment in sports history.”

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And while the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback was ostracised from the National Football League, he became a beacon of the civil rights movement in sport. Kaepernick often gets referenced as an inspiration by other athletes when discussing their activism. The WNBA, who ignited the first spark, hardly gets mentioned.

“I think we’re used to being the league that is not always talked about in a positive way or at all. But that doesn’t stop us from being united and strong in the messages we want to send,” says Chicago Sky point guard Sydney Colson.

And it happens consistently. In a more recent instance, National Basketball Association (NBA) players from the Milwaukee Bucks walked off the arena before a game against Orlando Magic as a demonstration against police brutality after the shooting of Jacob Blake. Other teams and players from different disciplines followed suit. NBA players received major news coverage and praise from social media and major publications within the US and across the world.

The WNBA and their efforts were an afterthought, even though they have been more consistent in championing Black Lives Matter than the NBA. The league dedicated its season to #BlackLivesMatter and teams like New York Liberty and Seattle Storm would hold a moment of silence before games to honour Breonna Taylor and other victims of state-sanctioned violence. They also used their pre-game and post-game interviews to demand justice for racial violence.

A history of downplaying women’s role in the struggle 

This falls in line with how, historically, Black women – particularly those who also identify as LGBTQIA+ – have had their efforts in activism diminished in the name of highlighting the heroism of men. Feminist activist Jessica Horn says hegemony in civil protest is common. Despite different groups having a common goal, the power dynamics that exist in society manifest themselves in the civil protest action.

“Women’s movements, as social phenomena, inevitably have to confront hierarchies and inequalities among movement members that stem from mainstream norms and social practices,” she wrote in her dissertation. “Indeed, discrimination happens within movements by members representing social majorities.”

In her studies of social movements across the globe, the Ugandan-English writer notes how different factors such as political repression, social class, caste and race power relations can shape how visibility in movements occurs.

She adds, “Leadership and representation within social movements is both defining of social movement politics and an arena of vibrant debate in social movement practice. For social movements, committing to a holistic approach to inequality and recognising identities based on gender, ethnicity, caste, age, class, sexual orientation and (dis) ability is an important strategy, not least to avoid fragmentation and to allow strong alliances.”

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In the same way there is a disparity in visibility, there is also disparity in the consequences for speaking out. “There is more risk for us when we speak up. When WNBA players sit out and protest, we put more on the line than NBA players because of the difference in sponsorships, endorsements and chances to be on TV,” says Natasha Cloud.

The Washington Mystics guard opted out of playing in the WNBA “Disney Bubble” and decided to dedicate her time and resources to social activism. It was not an easy decision for the 28-year-old to make. She is in the prime of her career and was coming off a championship-winning campaign in 2019.

“There are a lot of factors that led to this decision, but the biggest one is that I am more than an athlete,” said Cloud on social media. “I have a responsibility to myself, to my community and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than me. I will instead continue the fight for social reform, because until Black lives matter, all lives can’t matter.”

Cloud is part of a class of WNBA players who sacrificed their season for social reform. Maya Moore, who is one of the biggest players in the sport, has forgone playing basketball for the past two years to continue her efforts to fight for criminal justice reform. Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery also took time away from the WNBA to focus on voter registration rights.

The efforts of these individual women outside basketball matter, especially during an election cycle. And as America grapples with multiple social issues, the WNBA has set a standard that has made sports more powerful on the political front.

“I think there’s power in groups of people speaking up when you see something is wrong. With everything I’ve seen and the people I’ve spoken to, it has awakened something in me and made me want to get more involved and change the way things are,” says Colson.

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