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Social Justice in Sports: How the WNBA Was There First

By: Nathan Coffing


Over the past six months, the NBA has received praise for taking the lead on a number of social justice issues. The league shutdown on March 11, following a positive COVID-19 test from Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, began a domino effect eventually leading to a pause of the entire sporting world. After the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, multiple NBA players were on the front line of protests demanding justice for Mr. Floyd and drastic changes to police policies. Such players included Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.[1] [2]


When the league finally agreed to resume the season in their isolated environment in Orlando, there was one major caveat that the players demanded; they would be working together with the league to promote social justice.[3]


Once in the playoffs, the players became aware of yet another tragic incident involving police brutality – this time the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Bucks, who would be playing their games just 40 miles north of Kenosha, refused to play their games in protest, inspiring the NHL and the MLB to follow suit.[4] While the attention the NBA has received has been rightfully deserved, we often forget about their counterparts who have been more vocal and active in demanding social justice – the WNBA.


Just a bit southwest of where the NBA has resumed their season in Orlando, the WNBA has played their entire 2020 season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a season that they’ve dedicated to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name campaign.[5] All that has been said of the NBA, regarding their social justice campaigns and the issues they brought to light, can also be said of the WNBA and then some. As journalist Andrew Lawrence put it, “[t]he WNBA was doing it before it was cool.”[6]


In 2016, even before San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, entire WNBA teams took a knee, an act that was entirely unprecedented, especially in the world of sports.[7] After the Pulse nightclub shooting that took place in Orlando in 2016, many teams and players donated money and wore special warm-up shirts to support the LGBT community.[8] After the death of Philando Castille in Minneapolis in 2016, former MVP recipients, Tina Charles of the New York Liberty and Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever, organized a joint-team postgame press conference where they stated “[w]e’re only talking about Black Lives Matter.”[9] In 2017 after President Trump insulted NFL players, referring to them profanely and calling on their team owners to release any player that “disrespects the flag” at a political rally the Los Angeles Sparks walked off the court entirely before the anthem began playing – making a statement before Game 1 of the WNBA finals.[10] WNBA players have been vocal about fighting for change for quite some time now, and have never been afraid to voice their concerns.


In response, it is often said that they don’t have the viewership the NBA or NFL has, and they don’t get paid nearly as much as their NBA counterparts, meaning they have significantly less to lose. When questioned about this, Elizabeth Williams of the Atlanta Dream responded simply by stating “we’ve been doing this work, regardless of how much visibility we’ve had.”[11]


Regarding the claim about how their salaries compare to their counterparts in the NBA, you could argue that WNBA players are risking more by being vocal about relevant social issues than NBA players. Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James has never been quiet about social and racial injustice issues, yet he is still the fifth highest paid athlete in the world and the highest paid American athlete.[12] WNBA players don’t have the financial flexibility that NBA players do and are putting their salaries and entire careers on the line by speaking out. This also contributes to why WNBA players have been vocal during their actual games as opposed to off-court interviews. For example, LeBron James and then-Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant spoke strongly about social issues during an interview over the 2018 All-Star break, earning much criticism. The WNBA players have significantly smaller off-court platforms compared to NBA players. As a result, they have had to make their message clear during the game.


The praise the NBA has received over the past six months has been well deserved. They have been vocal, they have called for change, and they have taken realistic steps to bring about that change. To see progress, we need the leaders in our country to stand out against injustice. The NBA has earned the credit they have received for taking a solidified stance. It is time the WNBA enjoys that same recognition.




References


[1] Sopan Deb, As Protests Spur Posts From Athletes, N.B.A. Players Take to the Streets, New York Times (June 1, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/sports/basketball/george-floyd-nba-protests.html


[2] Blake Schuster, Bucks' Giannis Says 'We Want Justice' at March for Equality in Milwaukee, Bleacher Report (June 6, 2020) https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2895058-bucks-giannis-hands-out-water-to-protesters-marching-for-equality-in-milwaukee


[3] Justin Quinn, NBA, NBPA agree to use "bubble" restart to promote racial justice, USA Today (June 26, 2020), https://celticswire.usatoday.com/2020/06/26/nba-boston-celtics-racial-justice-orlando-disney-bubble-restart/


[4] Eryn Mathewson and Leah Asmelash, Fighting for social justice in the WNBA's DNA, CNN, (August 29, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/29/us/wnba-social-justice-spt-trnd/index.html


[5] Andrew Lawrence, Fighting for social justice in the WNBA's DNA, The Guardian (June 18, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/sep/22/donald-trump-nfl-national-anthem-protests


[6] Bryan Armen Graham,Donald Trump blasts NFL anthem protesters: 'Get that son of a bitch off the field', The Guardian (September 23, 2017)https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/sep/22/donald-trump-nfl-national-anthem-protests


[7] Kurt Badenhausen, Coronavirus Cuts Paydays For The Sporting Elite, Forbes (May 21, 2020) https://www.forbes.com/athletes/#4407e3d55ae5


[8] Hemal Jhaveri,As always, players of color are leading the way for the NHL, USA Today (August 27, 2020)https://ftw.usatoday.com/2020/08/nhl-strike-thursday-evander-kane-matt-dumba-stanley-cup-playoffs

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