An abridged history of WNBA player activism could be told in T-shirts. Wednesday night, before joining the Milwaukee Bucks in strike of their scheduled games, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics arrived on the court wearing shirts that together spelled the name of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. On the reverse side of the shirts were drawn seven bullet holes, limned in dark red. The protest was sapped of friction before any could be generated. The WNBA’s league office officially postponed the scheduled games. Addressing players at a candlelight vigil that night, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, “I just want to say how proud I am of all of you, what you’ve displayed over the course of a very difficult season, what you’ve displayed tonight.”
This did not go over so smoothly four years ago, when players on the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, and Phoenix Mercury wore unsanctioned warmup shirts responding to the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Their demonstration then was met with $500 per player fines and a league statement couched in icy euphemism: “We are proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league’s uniform guidelines.” (The fines were later rescinded.) Earlier that month, four off-duty police officers working arena security for the Minnesota Lynx walked off the job when Lynx players wore shirts to honor Castile, Sterling, and also the five Dallas police officers killed at a protest. Bob Kroll, the despotic head of Minneapolis’ police union, felt compelled to tell a reporter so few officers were needed at the arena that night “because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw.”
Everything is different and nothing has changed in the short time since. Brutal killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement continue unabated. Bob Kroll, still president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, could be heard most recently calling George Floyd a violent criminal and Black Lives Matter a terrorist movement. Meanwhile, the women of the WNBA have worked to stake their place as the moral center of basketball, and the league, as with the rest of corporate America, has come to understand quickly the commercial value in them doing so.
WNBA players have spoken lucidly and cohesively on the issues that matter most to them, everything from gun violence to abortion rights. The game’s greatest, Maya Moore, left the WNBA suddenly last year to work on behalf of a wrongly convicted man named Jonathan Irons, who walked free from a Missouri prison in July. The ongoing season, held in a Florida bubble, is being played in honor of Breonna Taylor, whose name is on every jersey. When the Republican senator and WNBA team owner Kelly Loeffler bemoaned this consciousness last month and cynically thrust players into the culture wars, they drew up a proportional strike: pregame shirts bearing the name of Loeffler’s opponent.
Like many of their counterparts in the NBA, WNBA players confessed to unease about playing basketball this summer. Several chose to sit the season, opting instead to focus on advocacy work. Even those who showed up were rattled. Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Phoenix Mercury told reporters she felt “conflicted” about being in the bubble; A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces mentioned “sleepless nights.” The bubble, after all, seemed to reify the myth WNBA players feel it is their calling to disprove: that sports and athletes might exist in remove from the tumult of current events. In the end, grief seeped through, and the bubble burst. For a few nights, the players of the WNBA wouldn’t bake the bread or put on the circuses.
A thorny truth: In the stark terms of dollars and cents, the women here wielded far less power than did the men. “When we talk about playing and not playing, the implications that has on a female basketball player [relative to] a male basketball player are dire,” Nneka Ogwumike, an All-Star forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBA’s players union, told ESPN when asked about the risks of the players’ decision.
Ogwumike is right to some degree. The WNBA’s financial circumstances—it is said to be heavily subsidized by the NBA—have always transmitted a kind of unspoken threat to the league’s players. Why rock the only boat that stands between you and drowning? But WNBA players do have quite a bit of leverage, if not the kind that shows up on a balance sheet. Their activism has earned their league and its parent company enormous goodwill. For years, they have dutifully played their parts as crown jewels of the NBA’s claim to progressivism. At any moment, they can call the NBA’s bluff in public spectacle. When they, say, agitate a member of the ownership class, the women of the WNBA can force a league to decide whether it will really live up to the marketing copy.
The WNBA is expected to resume play Friday. “Through ongoing conversations last night, in person and discussions through the morning via extensive text messages, we recommitted to the justice movement,” Ogwumike said in a statement Thursday. She mentioned, too, the players’ desire to “stand with our brethren” in the NBA, who Friday afternoon also agreed to resume playoff games and to begin work on a new set of social justice initiatives.
That commitment Ogwumike speaks of is a special one. Jared Kushner’s response to the stoppage evinced not only the contemporary right-wing project to cast Black athletes as pouty millionaires, but also a much older one, to atomize workers, to thwart any possibility of a common bond. “NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially,” Kushner said in a CNBC interview Thursday morning. “They have that luxury, which is great.”
Had the women of the WNBA shared Kushner’s illiteracy in matters of labor, they might have quickly dismissed the NBA strike as a bourgeois fad and kept playing. The WNBA’s labor peace is new and fragile; their salaries are a few orders of magnitude below the men’s. But these players, mostly Black women, know better than any other athletes that “fortune” and “luxury” are not such tidy concepts. They’ve learned that real privilege is to live a life undisturbed by the world, and that what’s truly difficult is to make known your pain, whether or not it will be rewarded.
Listen to a special episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen about the NBA strike below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.