The WNBA players are the undisputed leaders in racial and social justice advocacy among pro athletes, but too often they are overshadowed by their male counterparts who have lagged behind in this effort in recent years.
The WNBA Justice Movement established last season after the George Floyd murder and other police-related deaths of Blacks, remains in place as players work in their respective communities to combat racial and gender inequality. “I said last year [it was] not a one-and-done,” said League Commissioner Cathy Engelbert last month.
“This year I think what you’ll be seeing is the players are going to be focused on health equity and civic engagement and voting rights—especially impacting communities of color on both of those topics,” Engelbert said.
“To play for an organization that encourages its players to speak out on social and criminal justice issues…it makes it way easier to get your point across,” said Minnesota Lynx’s Sylvia Fowles. “When you know the organization’s got your back, you feel more free.”
When a reporter last week asked her about the Chauvin verdict, the veteran center said, “We pay very, very close attention to things that’s going on. “We [as players] actually have a little organization within our team where we keep each other posted on things.”
The WNBA for much of its 25-year existence has been out in front on racial and social justice issues, more so than any other pro sport, and long before it suddenly became fashionable among many of today’s Black athletes.
“I do think the social justice platform of the WNBA players has helped bring a different level of fan into our game that doesn’t watch the men’s game or doesn’t watch different sports,” said Engelbert. “They know what the WNBA players accomplished last year.”
And unlike other leagues, the W players are backed by the league. “Ultimately the players want to be about change, and they want to have their hand in that change. I think we’re in a better position to make sure our players feel that they’re continuing with their strong voice, with their strong platform,” declared Engelbert.
“And much like last season, we’re still seeing injustices. We’ve seen what’s been happening in Minneapolis, the [Daunte Wright] shooting in [Brooklyn Center]. We’ve seen the Derek Chauvin] trial. We’ve seen the Asian American and Pacific Islanders hate crimes. All of this is still going on.
“I think if you looked at what the players accomplished last year when faced with multiple crises at one time,” recalled the commissioner, “this is a heavy burden on the players to carry their messaging and their powerful statements that they’ve had about being women and women professional athletes and being even beyond the sports landscape.”
“I think last year was a real pivotal time for the league,” added Lindsay Whalen, retired WNBA player and now Minnesota WBB coach. “We’ve always taken stands. [Last] year was just another example where the whole league was unified and had some real strong messages.”
The latest ESPN Films documentary “144” that premiered May 13 explored how the players dedicated the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor and other police-related shootings.
Los Angeles forward Chiney Ogwumike was executive producer. “Chiney did an amazing job on capturing how our lives were inside the bubble,” teammate Amanda Zahui B told us. “It was emotional to watch.”