Throughout 2020, professional sports leagues became the center of social justice protests. The Milwaukee Bucks refused to play Game 5 of a playoff series to protest Jacob Blake’s murder. Protests against Jacob Blake’s shooting also spread to Major League Baseball, the NHL, and the WNBA. On top of that, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths at the hands of police also sparked sports protests. However, one league has led the way in its players protesting for social justice and demanding change for marginalized groups: the WNBA.
The WNBA’s Legacy Of Speaking Out
The WBNA was founded in 1996 but began playing in 1997. That may not seem so long ago, but it’s long enough to seem almost unrecognizable compared to today’s environment. Movements for gay rights, transgender rights, racial equality, and gender equality have made massive gains since the late ‘90s. All these movements are and have been personal to WNBA players in one way or another. Many WNBA players are black, gay, and they’re obviously all women.
The WNBA’s history is full of athletes who’ve made waves in these movements. When Sheryl Swoopes came out as gay in 2005, it was a big moment. According to the New York Times, people still reach out thanking her for coming out and paving the way for others to safely come out even 16 years later. The WNBA has a legacy of players willing to speak out despite risks to their careers. So, WNBA teams kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and his protest against police brutality shouldn’t be so surprising.
Where That Outspoken Character Comes From
Historically, WNBA players have been discriminated against for their races, genders, and sexual orientations. Facing discrimination for all these things at once gives WNBA players a stake in multiple social justice fights. For example, Matthew Shepard was beaten and tied to a fence because he was gay in 1998. He died a few days after his attack in Fort Collins. The public’s consciousness about the pervasiveness of sexual violence is far higher after #MeToo than it was in the ‘90s. And of course, Black Lives Matter wouldn’t have been embraced in even the early 2010s like it is now.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense why WNBA players felt the need to protest so vocally about issues that matter to them. WNBA players may be star athletes on the court. But when they go back home, their stardom wouldn’t save them from discrimination. Verbal abuse from commentators is one thing. Death threats based on who they are would’ve been another matter entirely.
From WNBA Players Themselves
The WNBA isn’t the only professional sports league whose players face discrimination. The U.S. Women’s Soccer team just won a court judgment that will let them continue their fight for pay equity. But its legacy of outspoken players combined with the simultaneous discriminations has created a culture in the WNBA that compels players to use their voices. WNBA star, Mistie Bass, put it best in the New York Times:
“We are a walking protest at all times as [WNBA athletes].”
Athletes don’t stop being people when they step onto the court. Many athletes have causes that are important to them. But others are involved with causes that fight back against people and policies that question their humanity. WNBA players have become largely involved with the latter. The league’s players have never shied away from speaking out about critical issues or supporting players in other leagues.
The WNBA won’t be the only league that takes a lead in activism. Women’s Soccer is producing its share of high-profile activists. Both leagues are young and came up facing some of the same discriminatory issues. But the WNBA holds a special place in modern sports activism. If the other professional leagues feel comfortable protesting on the field or the court, they have the WNBA to thank for doing it first.