2016 in Review: WNBA Players raise their voices for Black Lives Matter campaign

The 144 women in the WNBA took a stand, and even organized a media blackout, to discuss an important topic: the killing of people of color at the hands of law enforcement. Below is my episode for Do It Anyway and my article for Excelle Sports

WNBA players continue to raise their voices for social justice

When the WNBA announced players would be fined for wearing warm-up shirts in response to the violent killings of black men and police officers during the month of July, a Mercury fan by the name of Kristin Powell began a GoFundMe campaign for the Phoenix players.

“My initial reaction (to the fines) was shock, and then anger. I’ve always viewed the WNBA as a progressive entity … in the past few years it has been getting much better at tackling hot topic issues,” stated Powell via e-mail.

She and other members of the X-Factor, a supporters group of the Phoenix Mercury, decided to rally behind the players, “The idea to send them money was my first thought, after a few minutes of speaking with a few other X-Factor members, we decided the best way to do this was with a GoFundMe (campaign), since so many of us live around the country and not just in Phoenix.”

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In two days, the GoFundMe site raised $1,400 toward the fines. Kristin and Phoenix Mercury forward Mistie Bass communicated throughout the entire process. Prior to the league rescinding the fines, the two agreed to donate the funds either to the Black Lives Matter organization, or a local charity.

On July 23rd, in a statement issued by WNBA President Lisa Borders, all “recently-imposed fines” were rescinded.  Kristin shared that all donations would be gifted to Heart for the City, Arizona at Mistie’s request. “Once the fines were dropped, we actually donated it to a local charity that specifically works for younger boys,” Bass told Excelle Sports on Saturday.

Heart for the City (HFTC) is a non-profit organization committed to the physical, emotional and spiritual well being of the children and poor families of the inner city communities. Through job preparation, mentoring, community service and more, HFTC aims to enhance and develop personal, family and business relationships.  Powell covered the administrative fees associated with the campaign; all of the money raised went directly to HFTC.

Common Message

WNBA players agree the unity among the women in the league, and for the greater community, are very special. “The beautiful thing about the WNBA was everybody was on board,” said Bass, “when you get 144 athletes that feel exact the same way about the injustices … that are happening in this country, it is great for us to make a stand and for it to make the waves that it did.”

Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings said, “When you have 144 WNBA athletes and all 144 players support it, what we did, every single team supported it.  I think when you look at … the power of AfricanAmerican women and being able to step up and join causes and support our brothers, that’s what it’s all about.” Since the WNBA collectively used their platform to raise awareness, other athletes have done the same.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has decided to kneel during the National Anthem and US Women’s National Team midfielder Megan Rapinoe has pledged to do the same in support.  Both players hope their actions will start a conversation about the treatment of people of color in America.

Dealing with Backlash

Today’s America is conflicted when dealing with criticism of law enforcement and the armed forces, especially if those issues involve race.  In Minnesota, four officers working security at a WNBA game walked off the job in response to the Lynx warm-up shirts that included the statement, “Change starts with us. Justice & Accountability” on the front, and the names Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the Dallas Police shield on the back.

Lieutenant Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, commended the officers who walked off the job. He also insinuated more officers might take similar actions if the Lynx continued to use their platform to address the Black Lives Matter movement.  Kroll shared with the Star Tribune that the Lynx shirts and preceding press conference perpetuated  “false narratives”.  The Minnesota team issued a statement affirming the officers’ right to express their beliefs, and called for “constructive discussion about the issues raised by these tragedies.”  The Lynx opted not to wear shirts for the next home game.

Kaepernick’s actions have stirred similar conversations of a police boycott for 49ers games. NBA Bay Area reported the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association believes Kaepernick’s actions to “show an incredible lack of knowledge regarding our profession and officer-involved shootings”, as well as “a naivety and total lack of sensitivity toward police officers.”

Prior to Wednesday’s match against Megan Rapinoe and the Seattle Reign, Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch released a statement to the media calling Rapinoe’s planned action a method of “hijacking” the game for a “personal – albeit worthy – cause”. The Washington organization played the National Anthem prior to players arriving on the field in order to protect spectators from the “disrespect we feel such an act (taking a knee) would represent.”

Forging Ahead

Bass and other members of the WNBA continue to explore ways to use their platform to have important conversations.  During the Olympic Break, members of the Men’s and Women’s National Team invited the Boys and Girls Clubs of Los Angeles, the Brotherhood Crusade, the L.A. Police Department and other community leaders to a forum held in Los Angeles.

On July 25th, Team USA players participated in listening sessions, “We came together as one big group first,” stated Carmelo Anthony in a press conference following the forum, “We discussed some things, and then we broke down into small groups, eight small groups, and each group had athletes, officers, (and) community leaders.  What we did was we just talked about the issues that are going on out there today, and we talked about solutions.”

Tamika Catchings felt all parties were asking for more respect, “being able to come here and listen to the young ladies and the men, we’re all struggling, and they’re all hurting, and they’re all feeling disrespected to a certain extent.  But I think what comes out of today … is being educated and being able to hear the story from the cops’ side and them being able to hear from the youth side.”  Catchings also felt the event was a step forward, “now it’s about putting things into action and making sure that together we keep that conversation alive and that we put forth the action behind that.”

On Saturday, Mistie Bass and Tanisha Wright of the New York Liberty shared plans for continued conversation, education and action.  Mercury players will sit down with the Phoenix Police Department this week. The forum is open to all Mercury players, and the Phoenix Police Department will have personnel, including officers present.  Bass is hopeful that participants will ask difficult questions and seek solutions to the existing violence, saying “Without communication, we can’t find a common ground, and we can’t find where the issues truly lay.”

The New York players also continue to seek solutions, “(the issue) is still very heavy on our hearts,” said Liberty guard Tanisha Wright. When asked if the team planned to reach out to local police officers or other community members in a similar fashion to the Mercury, Wright stated, “We’re also in the same boat, trying to plan some things, maybe a town hall listening session.  (We’re) just (gathering) community leaders around here and having a conversation, and trying to effect change.”

For one player, Liberty forward Swin Cash, what the WNBA players have done is extremely special. On Wednesday night, the New York Liberty held a post-game ceremony honoring Cash, who has announced her retirement after the 2016 season.

The 15-year WNBA veteran shared, she is often asked to recall a favorite moment in her career (so far).  At the end of her remarks Wednesday night, Cash cited the recent protests.

Swin Cash ends her retirement ceremony by acknowledging the unity of the WNBA players in July and August. Credit: Erica L. Ayala

“Thank you all so much!”, Cash said. “And one of the proudest moments, if you want to know, one of the proudest moments for me in the WNBA is the fact that over the month of July into August, 144 women stood and said we have a voice. We want to talk about issues … the WNBA has a platform and we’re going to use it.  And if you want to know my proudest moment, that’s my proudest moment … we’re gonna make you see us, we’re not invisible.”

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