This month, the WNBA has become the site of one of the most united, persistent political statements in sports history. In recent weeks, entire teams and their owners have come out in support of the Black Lives Matters movement, and their sustained protest effort has forced the league to back off the fines it charged players who used their warm-up outfits to stake ground against racism and police brutality.
It started on July 9, when members of the Minnesota Lynx showed up at a game in warm-up shirts printed with “Black Lives Matter,” the phrases “Change Starts With Us” and “Justice and Accountability,” an image of the Dallas police shield, and the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, black men killed by police officers that week. (Castile lived, worked, went to college, and died in Minnesota.)
The next day, during warm-ups before a game, the New York Liberty wore black T-shirts that said “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#Dallas5.” In the following weeks, players on the Liberty, the Indiana Fever, and the Phoenix Mercury wore plain black shirts by Adidas, the WNBA’s attire sponsor, for several game warm-ups in an attempt to continue their political statement without violating a rule that require player to wear standard warm-up outfits that bear their teams’ logos.
The WNBA wasn’t having it. Last week, the league fined the Fever, Liberty, and Mercury $5,000 each and fined each player on those teams $500 for wearing the black shirts. Since the Lynx players stopped wearing their shirts after the July 9 game, when the WNBA sent them a memo warning them of an impending fine, they were spared. ESPN reports that a standard uniform violation fine is $200.
Since the fines were announced, the players’ protests have gathered steam and deeper consequence. On Thursday, the Liberty’s Tina Charles accepted a Player of the Month award with her warm-up outfit inside out. In an Instagram post, she castigated the league for supporting “Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters” while attempting to silence players in a majority-black league on issues related to racism. The Liberty, Fever, and the Washington Mystics have all refused to answer reporters’ post-game questions unless they relate to the Black Lives Matter movement or other social issues. On Friday, players from the Lynx and the Seattle Storm tweeted photos of the teams in black shirts, though they refrained from wearing them on-court to avoid a fine. The Mystics wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts in the locker room after their Friday game.
Mystics guard Natasha Cloud told USA Today that the team’s media blackout would last “until we get support” from the WNBA. “We definitely wanted to show our support for those teams that did get fined for wearing just plain black Adidas shirts,” she said. “We’re allowed to wear whatever we want to the games, to and from the games, so if they’re going to take away our right and our voice to advocate for something so important to 70 percent of the league which is African American, we’ll find other ways to do it and other ways to do it.”
“We want to be able to use our platforms; we want to be able to use our voices,” said Liberty guard Tanisha Wright to reporters after Thursday’s game. “We don’t want to let anybody silence us.” (Wright spoke more about the league’s protests on this week’s episode of Hang Up and Listen.)
The teams’ protests had swift impact. WNBA President Lisa Borders announced on Saturday that the she would cancel the fines the league had imposed on the players and teams. “Appreciate our players expressing themselves on matters important to them,” she tweeted. “Rescinding imposed fines to show them even more support.”
But the WNBA’s actions are remarkable and commendable for more than just their immediate effects. Rarely have so many players and teams in a league stood together across racial lines on a matter of social import. Several NBA players, including the entire L.A. Lakers team, wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in memory of Eric Garner in 2014, but it never spread to half the league, as the WNBA’s stand for racial justice has. (For what it’s worth, the NBA did not fine those players for their actions.)
Many contemporary athletes have spoken to the history of social activism in professional sports. At this month’s ESPY awards, NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James located their support for the Black Lives Matter movement within the tradition of forebears like Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. “It’s not about being a role model,” said James. “Let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence, and renounce all violence. And most importantly go back to our communities. Invest our time, our resources. Help rebuild them. Help strengthen them.”
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins believes that, since racism keeps most people of color out of the upper echelons of power, those who make it to the top of one of the only majority-minority industries—pro sports—have a special privilege and responsibility. Hawkins has been speaking about racial justice since at least 2014, when he wore a T-shirt onto the field promoting “justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III.” “I think it’s something bigger than sports,” he recently told Slate. “These athletes are some of the only people of color that are given this platform that can really truly raise awareness.”
In the case of the WNBA, players risked professional and financial backlash to make their statement. When the Lynx wore their shirts at the July 9 game, four off-duty cops who were hired as arena security personnel left their posts. “I commend [the cops] for it,” the president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the officers’ union, told the Star Tribune. “If [the players] are going to keep their stance, all officers may refuse to work there.” He added, “They only have four officers working the event because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw.” The league’s protests might have stopped there. Instead, players of all races let criticism and the threat of fines fuel their determination to display a united front. As athletes, they’re setting a new standard for what sports figures can do to support political movements. As activists, though the movement continues, they’ve already won.