WNBA Set the Standard for League-Wide Activism in 2016

Before 2020, when professional sports leagues of all shapes and sizes took league-wide stances against police brutality and racial injustice, there was 2016. This was pre-Colin Kaepernick. That year, the WNBA became the first professional league as a whole to protest peacefully against those issues. 

It’s not like we hadn’t seen protests before from teams and individual players. In 2012, the Miami Heat donned black hoodies to show solidarity for Trayvon Martin.

In 2014, players around the league wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during pregame in recognition of Eric Garner.

LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony opened the 2016 ESPYs with a powerful speech condemning police brutality. 

But never before had we seen a league-wide protest like the WNBA’s in 2016.

You cannot discuss the 2016 WNBA season without mentioning those protests. 

It all started on July 9, when the Minnesota Lynx wore black t-shirts with “Change Starts With Us” labeled across the front and the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and the Dallas police badge on the back. 

Sterling was shot dead in front of a convenience store in Louisiana on July 5. Just a day later, Castile was gunned down in his car. Neither resisted arrest, and Castile even told the police officer that he had a weapon in his car but never reached for it. Castile’s murder was streamed live on Facebook by his partner, and her four-year daughter was in the back of the car. 

No charges were filed in Sterling’s case and the officer who killed Castile was found not guilty. 

On July 7, five Dallas police officers were killed at the end of a protest against the killings of Sterling and Castile. 

The shirts worn by the Lynx caused four off-duty Minneapolis police officers, who were working security at the Target Center for that night’s game, to walk off the job for the night. Minneapolis police union chief Bob Kroll said of the Lynx, “They’re wading into waters that they shouldn’t, to begin with. They’re professional athletes. Stick with playing ball.”

The Lynx felt they needed to take a stand, especially with Castile’s murder happening right at their doorstep. As noted in a June 15 article from The Athletic‘s Jon Krawczynski, Lynx star Seimone Augustus was from the same town that Sterling was killed in. 

Count in the fact that the WNBA is a primarily African-American league, and they felt they needed to take a stand. Little did they know it was just the tip of the iceberg. 

On July 10, the New York Liberty wore black t-shirts during pregame that said “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#Dallas5” on the front. The Liberty, along with the Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury, began to wear plain black t-shirts made by Adidas during pregame to continue their protest.

The league ended up fining those three teams $5,000 each and each player $500 for wearing those shirts instead of the standard team warmup shirts. That only ignited the players’ voices more. 

Tina Charles, who played for the Liberty at the time, accepted a Player of the Month award while wearing her warm-up outfit inside out. In an Instagram post, she condemned the league supporting other causes such as Breast Cancer Awareness and Pride while silencing players when it came to issues involving race.

The Liberty, Fever, Washington Mystics, and Seattle Storm refused to answer any questions from the media regarding basketball. They only answered questions that had to do with the players’ protests. 

The Mystics and Storm wore plain black t-shirts for warmups for their next game to show their support for the movement and the teams that were fined by the league. Because of the league-wide backlash, then-WNBA president Lisa Borders rescinded the uniform fines. 

The protests continued into the playoffs, as the entirety of the Fever roster knelt for the national anthem. Their opponents during that series, the Mercury, had two of their own players kneel during the same game. 

Before Game 1 of that year’s WNBA Finals, the Los Angeles Sparks opted to stay in the locker room for the national anthem. The Lynx were on the court standing arm-in-arm with each other. 

For Lynx star Maya Moore, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, basketball has taken a backseat to her work on criminal justice reform. She hasn’t played in the last two WNBA seasons to work on the case of Jonathan Irons, a man wrongfully convicted of burglary and assault who was sentenced to 50 years in prison. The verdict was overturned in March. 

The WNBA set the standard for activism amongst sports leagues. These days, more teams and leagues are immersing themselves into social justice issues and reform, thus going against the words of the president and fans everywhere. The idea that you can disconnect politics and sports is absurd, as sports has a profound impact on our minds and the attention they are given. 

It’s important to note the impact of the WNBA protests as the league itself hasn’t given nearly as much attention as men’s leagues and the salaries are significantly lower. And while their protests weren’t given the airtime that the protests in the NBA and NFL were given, those leagues followed suit. 

Players in the WNBA risked more professional and financial backlash to make their statements than their male counterparts, yet still managed to make a statement that they won’t stand for the injustices in society. 

Those 2016 protests only lit the fire for what we’re seeing now in 2020. Several WNBA players, along with players in the MLB and NBA, have decided to opt-out of their season’s restarts for reasons relating to social justice reform, along with the pandemic. Many players feel that they would rather spend their time trying to deliver significant change. 

The rest of professional sports caught up to the WNBA, and we’re just now seeing the impact their words can have. 

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