WNBA: ‘We’re people first, players second’

Courtesy of Twitter “Vote Warnock” T-shirts on display: {1-r} Lynx Center Sylvia Fowles, Lynx Guard Crystal Dangerfield, Chicago Sky’s Gabby Williams

For many, this explains their vigorous activism

The WNBA for at least four years has been the unheralded leader in pro sport when it comes to advocating social justice. 

Seimone Augustus remembers well how it began: “When we wore those [anti-police brutality] shirts four years ago [in Minnesota], the [other] players started to kneel for the anthem and other things like that.”

As the NBA this summer has boldly etched Black Lives Matter on its “bubble” court, the W players all season long have honored deceased Black women, either on the backs of their jerseys or in pre-game tributes before their “wubble” games to highlight the fact that Black women are killed by police as well.

A different Black woman victim of police violence will be spotlighted as part of the “Say Her Name” campaign founded in 2014, along with keeping Breonna Taylor’s name out front, or in this case on the backs of the players’ jerseys. Taylor was killed in her apartment in March by police, and the case is still outstanding.

Last month the league and its players union jointly launched the new WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council and The Justice Movement. Last week WNBA players wore “Vote Warnock” t-shirts in support of the Georgia U.S. Senate candidate and against current Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), an Atlanta Dream co-owner and outspoken critic of the league’s Black Lives Matter focus. 

“Our voices are being heard,” Augustus noted.

During a pre-season media conference call, we asked WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert about her league’s season-long social justice focus. “I’ve been so proud of the WNBA players, who have always been at the forefront of social movements,” she responded.

“I quite frankly wasn’t that focused [before becoming commissioner last year] on how they were using their platforms to vigorously advocate for the things that matter most to them. It is bigger than basketball right now for them,” she said. 

“Our league has been proactive,” Minnesota guard Crystal Dangerfield told the MSR. All 12 WNBA teams this season are doing different things in their advocacy.

The Lynx players have been having Zoom meetings with Minneapolis officials, said Dangerfield. “We’re working behind the scenes.”

“Sky Takes Action is our initiative that we are doing this year,” Chicago Forward Gabby Williams told us. The players have pledged $10 a point, $100 a win, and $50 for each loss to five Chicago-based nonprofits, she pointed out. “Actually, a couple of them aren’t in Chicago,” she added, “but all are minority-led, Black-led, that are aligned with what we want to accomplish.”

Teammate Cheyenne Parker said, “We had a team meeting just to talk about what we were going to do. There’s a lot of symbolism. There’s a lot of, I don’t want to call it empty, but we wanted to make sure that we were being active in our approach and making sure that we were actually doing something.”

The tragic events of recent weeks, including George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, have impacted each player in some way or another. “We have been talking non-stop way before we got to the wubble,” admitted Dangerfield. “It was heartbreaking.” 

Williams added, “It’s exhausting to see people who look like you, people who do the same things as you, be murdered in cold blood, and then people turn back and tell you that your life just doesn’t matter. Or they try to distract you and say all lives matter or whatever it is. We’re just exhausted, and we’re sick and tired of it.

“We’re tired of seeing these images of people who look like us, look like our brothers, look like my little brother,” she said. For Williams and her fellow WNBAers, it’s become personal: “I’m a person before I’m a basketball player, and I think that’s how we all feel.”