When they tell you sport and politics don’t mix, what they mean to say is the politics I don’t agree with do not mix with the sport I love. While in recent times yellow ribbons have been compared to swastikas and kneeling during an anthem treated as a heinous crime, it’s important to remember, this International Women’s Day, the activism and championing being done by women’s teams.
The Minnesota Lynx are probably the most vocal group of women I have seen in sport.
They can almost be compared to the Golden State Warriors in terms of creating dynasties in the WNBA. On July 9th, 2016, there was a rumbling as four Lynx players – Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, and Rebekkah Brunson – wore black shirts with the phrase "Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability" during a press conference. In response, four members of the Minnesota police force due to work at that game walked out. The Lynx players watched on. In their mind, the ball was now in society's court. While the move was condemned by Minnesota police chief Janeé Harteau, it was defended by Lieut Bob Kroll, the president of the Minneapolis police federation.
The following day, league rivals the New York Liberty declared they had had enough. They donned T-shirts with the slogan Black Lives Matter and honoured the five police officers killed in Dallas earlier that week. Players and other teams followed suit, wearing black T-shirts during the warm-ups before every game.
The game was set. The result, however, was not going to be decided in four quarters. Instead, this game was going to see a fight between players, associations, police federations and US society itself. Add Donald Trump into the mix and it writes like a political movie script set in the 1800s.
After fines were issued, Liberty player Tina Charles did what LeBron James would be praised for later. She took a stand. While accepting her player of the month trophy, she was photographed wearing an black T-shirt with a deadpan expression. Charles said afterwards she would not rest until Black Lives Matter was given the same status as Breast Cancer Awareness and Pride. Then there was kneeling . . . then there was outrage . . . then the same vicious cycle repeated itself. Meanwhile, the male basketball players also got involved with one of the most infamous tweets of 2017. Two simple words: “u bum”, from James directed at Trump. And thus, a whole saga was born.
While James took the limelight, it's important to remember the WNBA teams. Players in the league have made considerable contributions to the various movements against racial inequality, often with higher obstacles. Players from the NFL, NBA and WNBA have experienced opposition from owners, authorities and fan backlash, but WNBA players are doing so with much lower salaries and marketing potential. They'll say that nobody cares, but four police officers cared enough to walk out of their jobs. NFL and NBA players might have more to lose; WNBA players have less of a safety net.
On International Women’s Day, it is important to showcase and highlight women making a difference. The disregard of women’s contributions to social movements historically has already been proved. On top of that, the disparity in terms of coverage of black women athletes has showcased the whitewashing of history again. The WNBA incorporates players who are already ostracised within the sports world for being women, black, gay, or some combination. Yet, for more than 18 months these players have refused to choose between their race and their gender. They continue to protest for racial justice alongside the likes of James, Colin Kaepernick and Steph Curry, fighting for the memories of African-Americans killed by police brutality. In turn, what they have shown us is that while Black Lives Matter, it’s crucial for us to also Say Her Name.
The protests that we’ve seen in the WNBA have been unique in their togetherness, range, and organisation. So, as we wait with bated breath to see what comes next, let’s remember the long-standing fight by the WNBA. Let’s throw out any belief that these women are only now joining these protests. If anything, the remainder of the sports world has finally caught up.