Joanne O’Riordan: Player power turned WNBA into leading light of the Black Lives Matter protest

League changed its stance and got behind the movement after initially fining clubs and players

US president Barack Obama holds a jersey while posing for a picture during an event to honour the Minnesota Lynx team for its 2015 WNBA championship victory, in the East Room at the White House in June , 2016. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

US president Barack Obama holds a jersey while posing for a picture during an event to honour the Minnesota Lynx team for its 2015 WNBA championship victory, in the East Room at the White House in June , 2016. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 

Four years ago, that’s a long time. In apocalyptic crises that’s undoubtedly about 12 crises ago. But four years ago, one athlete decided he was going to stand, or kneel, and peacefully protest what was going on across America. Racism was now widespread, it was being supported by effectively the most powerful man on earth, president Trump. Police brutality towards black men, women and children had reached, what we thought, a breaking point.

Colin Kaepernick felt enough was enough. “Ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realise what’s really going on in this country,” Kaepernick said at the time. “There are people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable.”

Black athletes, both men and women, had had enough. The WNBA had seen a wave of protests. On the July 6th 2016, the Minnesota Lynx united and wore T-shirts during their warm-up that said “Black Lives Matter”, “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.

The following day, in the pre-game warm-up, the New York Liberty wore black T-shirts that said “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#Dallas5”. Over the next few weeks, players on the Liberty, the Indiana Fever, and the Phoenix Mercury wore plain black shirts by Adidas, the WNBA’s sponsor, for several more warm-ups in an attempt to continue their political statement without violating a rule that requires players to wear standard pre-game outfits showcasing team logos.

The WNBA were tough on their crackdown, initially fining the Fever, Liberty, and Mercury $5,000 each and fined each player on those teams $500 for wearing the black T-shirts. The players weren’t done yet.

New York Liberty’s Tina Charles accepted a player of the month award with her warm-up outfit inside out, later posting on Instagram how hypocritical the WNBA were. The WNBA had publicly endorsed Pride Month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month and other political statements they knew wouldn’t dirty the brand or cause any bit of a storm. But yet, in a league that is predominantly played by black women, crushing the Black Lives Matter protest felt sour and put everyone in an unnecessarily awkward position.

Flowers are left near a makeshift memorial to George Floyd near the spot where he died while in police custody in Minneapolis. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP
Flowers are left near a makeshift memorial to George Floyd near the spot where he died while in police custody in Minneapolis. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP

Under severe pressure, the league cancelled the fines and made WNBA a safe place to protest. While the Minnesota police force tried to boycott the games (according to the president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the officers’ union, “They only have four officers working the event because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw.”)

Never has there been such a universal collective agreement across a league to let players protest on an issue that matters most to them. Those players saw how it could be a brother, father, uncle, sister, mother, or even themselves that could face potential police brutality.

The WNBA not only facilitated the players’ protest, players of all races put on a united front that is rarely seen across sport. In fact, the more uphill and tougher the repercussions were from the outside, the more united the players were. Not only did they commit themselves to potential job losses or financial instability, but they also committed themselves to be role models and activists bettering the future for the upcoming generation.

Like everything, the same feeling of sentiment isn’t across the board. While the NBA are now more open to protests, other leagues and teams are lagging behind. While Leeds United and Manchester United tweeted their solidarity for George Floyd, it’s hard to take the sentiment seriously. Leeds United never apologised to Jonathan Leko after he was racially abused by Kiko Casilla.

As for Manchester United, like numerous NFL owners and wealthy white individuals involved in sport, the Glazers were generous with their cash when Donald Trump needed to be elected, despite showing the world clearly he was incredibly racist and pouring gasoline over a fire that hadn’t quenched in the first place.

While Colin Kaepernick was inevitably proved right, the protests and fight for equality rolls on. Kaepernick, who was chastised for protesting peacefully, is still an unsigned free agent. While those who are against what’s going on in America, one must only point to Kaepernick’s treatment. Despite protesting peacefully, it and he was seen as too big of a distraction.

George Floyd was just going to the shop. Eric Garner had broken up a fight. Philando Castile was driving home with his girlfriend from dinner. Alton Sterling was selling piracy CDs. Ezell Ford was walking in his neighbourhood. Sandra Bland was just driving her car before being pulled over. Natasha McKenna was in the middle of a schizophrenic episode when she was electro-shocked. Michael Brown said, “hands up, don’t shoot”. Freddie Gray had his neck broken while being arrested.

A decade of watching black people die. No justice, no peace.

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