Updated: Dec 10, 2020
By Paige Creason
In August 2020, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Milwaukee Bucks refused to participate in their play-off game against the Orlando Magic in an attempt to protest police brutality. The Milwaukee Bucks’ boycott, held in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake of Kenosha, Wisconsin, instantaneously led the rest of the NBA to follow suit. Eventually, the boycott inspired other sports teams across the country to protest in solidarity. While people on the courts, fields, and in broadcast booths took a stand, a larger, nationwide conversation was simultaneously emerging.
I eagerly engaged in these conversations about athlete activism, curiously seeking out the thoughts and opinions of others. However, I noticed that a central idea to athlete activism was continuously left out- you can’t have these conversations without acknowledging the historic role that the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has had in raising awareness for social issues. Black female athletes of the WNBA lie at the core of collective athlete activism. These courageous women are the driving forces behind the action and change you see in leagues like the NBA today. They are the unsung heroes of this movement.
The WNBA joined the NBA in protesting police brutality this past August. Together they garnered national attention towards systemic racism, police brutality, and overall racial injustice occurring in America. While the WNBA was the second sports organization to cancel their games, the women of the WNBA are no strangers to collectively advocating for social issues. Black female athletes of the WNBA have been some of the most vocal and persistent athlete activists of our time. For decades now, WNBA players have continuously used their platform to advocate for social change.
Black female athletes of the WNBA have played an enormous role in integrating political and ideological protests into the sports arena since the founding of the league in 1996. Sheryl Swoopes, a founding member of the league, found out she was pregnant just before the league’s inaugural season in 1997. She started playing only six weeks after giving birth, setting a precedent for female athletes who were primed to believe it was impossible to be both a mother and a professional athlete. In 2005, Swoopes also came out as lesbian, becoming a symbol of intersectional representation in the athletic world.
Sheryl Swoopes ultimately paved the way for the next generation of WNBA athlete activism. In 2016, the Minnesota Lynx wore custom shirts that read “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability,” to protest the senseless deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of law enforcement. At a press conference following the game, the Minnesota Lynx refused to discuss basketball, instead only addressing police brutality. In 2019, the WNBA’s Maya Moore, one of the most accomplished athletes in the history of sports, decided to leave the WNBA at the peak of her career in order to focus on criminal justice reform. Recently, Moore successfully helped overturn a wrongfully convicted man’s 50 year prison sentence. This season, Washington Mystics player Natasha Cloud opted out of playing in order to center her attention on mobilizing for racial justice. Cloud is one of the many WNBA players who model what it looks like to put it all on the line for change, despite posing great risks to their careers. Before the start of this year’s season, the players of the WNBA formed a Social Justice Council and partnered with the #SayHerName campaign to dedicate their season to Breonna Taylor. Activist trailblazers such as Sheryl Swoopes helped to permeate the Black female athlete’s voice. Given the history of WNBA athlete activism, there is an unprecedented commitment to justice and equality led not only by individuals, but as teams and as an entire league. The WNBA’s exemplary activism has served as the ultimate blueprint for other collective actions we're seeing today amongst the NBA.
Female athletes have long held the moral center of basketball. They have continuously pushed boundaries and shattered barriers, despite attracting small audiences and little to no media attention. While the Milkwauke Bucks’ strike quickly became a topic of conversation at both a national and global level, the WNBA’s immense impact remained more or less unacknowledged. Black athletes of the WNBA ultimately paved the way for unprecedented acts of protests within other male dominated leagues. They are the voices that made today’s very conversations possible. Although some argue that the WNBA has been more politically outspoken than the NBA in years past, the league still continuously struggles to garner public attention. It is important to acknowledge the different treatments of these two leagues in order to push for the much needed inclusion of female athlete voices within mainstream coverage.
This begs the question, why do the men of the NBA provoke more attention than the women of the WNBA? One may say the answer itself lies within the very nature of this question. Male sports leagues have always consumed popular culture and mainstream media- people are seemingly uninterested in watching female sports. In adherence to patriarchal-based gender norms, many people to this day still don’t respect the reality of women competing within the professional sports world, nor do they see it as something to be taken seriously. Thus, it’s difficult to prompt the same level of viewership that male sports generates. Moreover, fighting for recognition becomes increasingly difficult when the size of your platform is constantly restrained by lack of visibility, unequal opportunity, and immense underfunding.
Female athletes’ voices are often overlooked, minimized, or deemed insignificant compared to their male counterparts. Over two-thirds of the WNBA are Black women, directly reflecting the significance and presence of Black female athletes within the league. Black female athletes are forced to reckon with not only gender stereotypes and sexualization in sports, but racial stereotypes as well. Whether it be the fight for pay equity or racial justice, they are both issues that Black female athletes uniquely and personally identify with. Especially within the sports world, Black female athletes are repeatedly reminded of their intersectional identities through society’s constant placed assumptions and stigmatizations: “Too Black.” ‘Too athletic.” “Not athletic enough.” “Too queer.” “Too aggressive.” “Too femine.” “Not femine enough.” On top of grappling with the reality of being an athlete on a team, Black female athletes tirelessly fight to combat perceived stereotypes of their race and gender in order to rewrite the narrative of the Black female athlete.
I will never pretend to understand the Black female athlete experience on and off the court. Yet, as an ally, I simply aim to shed light on how the WNBA has always been gritty by necessity and nature. The inherent realities attached to being a Black female athlete in America drive the league to be outspoken allies. By being on the court and demanding the equal right to play, the WNBA has always been an advocate for social change and progress from the start. As fearless competitors, they have inevitably always been the original action-seekers and change-makers.
Black female athletes of the WNBA lead the charge for a better tomorrow. These women have been collectively paving the way for social change and equal opportunity for decades. Despite low ratings, low pay, and little visibility, the players of the WNBA refuse to sit idly by. They won’t accept silence. They will continue to not just take a knee, but to walk off the courts protest in the streets to elicit change on a grand scale. They are willing to risk their careers in order to fight and stand for something bigger than their sport. We must start listening. We must start broadening the conversation and rewriting the narratives surrounding athlete activism. We must continue this momentum of solidarity. And most importantly, we must understand the power of the Black female athlete’s voice.