In a year where professional sports have perhaps become more politicized than ever, with NBA strikes, renewed anthem protests and a burgeoning of politicized social media presences to name just a few, it seems that many of both the proudest defenders and harshest critics of the new wave of activism have forgotten where much of it began: the WNBA. Those in tune with sports news in any medium likely did not miss the league’s shirts worn in honor of Jacob Blake, which featured a graphic of seven bullet holes on the back in reference to the number of times the officer shot him, but they may have still missed the history behind professional women’s basketball’s unabashed approach to political issues.
To start, the league at its very core knows too well the state of discrimination in the nation. Not only are 68.5 percent of WNBA players Black or African-American according to ESPN (compared with 81.1 percent in the NBA, from Interbasket), but they also deal with intense discrimination not related to race. Sexism pervasively continues to keep women out of much sports coverage, in both print recapitulation and in live coverage, and homophobia too has a great effect in the WNBA in particular. While the WNBA does not publish any figures as to how much of the league comprises LGBTQ players, it has starred many openly gay figures throughout its existence, including current stars such as the Washington Mystic’s Elena Delle Donne and the Pheonix Mercury’s Brittney Griner.
For all of these reasons, the league has long used its platform to raise awareness surrounding social issues. In fact, 2014 had the WNBA as the first professional sports league to hold a pride campaign, doing so a year before the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case overturned all legislation in the U.S. forbidding same-sex marriage. The move came not too long after Griner herself came out to discuss her own sexuality, just after the Phoenix Mercury chose her as the first overall pick in the 2013 draft. To highlight the controversial nature of her choice at the time, the moment became a large scandal not affecting just the WNBA, which had endured many rumors and criticisms over the years despite not having an overwhelming amount of openly gay players, but also greatly affected Griner’s alma mater, Baylor, a Baptist university in Texas.
Regarding the issues currently dominating professional sports’ protests right now, namely police brutality and racial profiling, the WNBA led the charge there as well. In the summer of 2016, just preceding the first instance of Colin Kaepernick protesting during the anthem (at that time sitting rather than kneeling), many WNBA players began to protest what they saw as an unfair national criminal justice system. Not only did paraphernalia begin to appear across the league featuring the names of some of those who had died at the hands of police, including Philando Castile (whose death initiated the league’s protest), as well as material in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also players of the Minnesota Lynx held a press conference to discuss the issues openly — a move that resulted in a few resignations from arena security.
As the first protests of their kind, they helped to pave the road for Kaepernick, who in turn sparked much of the national controversy and discussion still felt today. However, the league’s administration itself did not always receive the actions well. When pre-game T-shirts depicting politically charged material became frequent occurrences, many participating players and condoning teams received fines for the behavior. Yet, the spirit of the WNBA prevailed, as the growing acceptance made the activism less of a point of contention for the financially-motivated interests of the league, as such was unfortunately the requirement, and the strong messages seen today became more commonplace and less often faced retribution.
In light of the history of the social awareness of the WNBA, the player strikes of the NBA may seem perhaps less radical, without losing any of their luster, of course, given that their sister league paved the path. As many professional sports leagues begin to take steps to allow players and coaches to address social issues, it becomes important to remember those who fought for the right to activism in sports. After all, despite the commendable actions of NBA players, the league has hesitated greatly in distributing any fines in retaliation this year, and the NFL and MLB both held almost exclusively league approved moments of support for social justice. While Kaepernick certainly merits a level of respect in sacrificing his career for the movement, a whole league of women began fighting earlier and united in their fight to make protest more embraceable in other leagues. Perhaps, then, one should try to find the time in the coming week to watch a Finals game or two from some of the greatest leaders of the modern sports movement for social justice.