How the Most Socially Progressive Pro League Got That Way

From the beginning of their more than two decades on the court, the players in the W.N.B.A. have defied society’s expectations.

Sheryl Swoopes, a marquee founding member of the league, found out she was pregnant just before the league’s inaugural season in 1997 — and started playing six weeks after giving birth, setting a precedent for many female athletes who didn’t want to put their careers on hold to have children.

Then, in 2005, Swoopes became one of the highest-profile active athletes to that point to come out as a lesbian. She didn’t think the announcement was a big deal at the time. But, she said, “I still get messages from people saying, ‘You saved my life,’ from parents saying, ‘Thank you for helping me understand my child.’”

Today, challenging the status quo is a hallmark of the league’s players. They pushed the envelope long before it came into vogue among modern-day professional athletes, and led the way in protesting social injustice and racism.

The breadth of action among W.N.B.A. players is unparalleled among professional sports leagues.

They include singular efforts like Seimone Augustus’s opposition to a ballot measure in Minnesota aimed at amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, Maya Moore’s basketball sabbatical to focus on criminal justice reform and Natasha Cloud’s fight against gun violence.

Often they include unified undertakings, such as the league’s dedicating this season to Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was killed by the police, and the players’ collective stand against the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, Senator Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia, who had criticized their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

This off-season, many players have quickly transitioned from playing basketball to focusing on encouraging people to vote.

How the league in some cases pioneered or foreshadowed today’s wave of activism among professional athletes is not a story of deliberate joint action hatched in a secret meeting.

Rather, players see it as the natural outgrowth of who they are, a drive borne of necessity in a league dominated by Black women, many of them lesbians.

“We are a walking protest at all times as a W.N.B.A. athlete,” said Mistie Bass, who in 2016 took a knee during the national anthem while with the Phoenix Mercury. “If you think about it, we have so many different stigmas. We’re just constantly in the fight. I don’t think we have ever not been in a fight for equality, for justice.”

Over time the players have grown more emboldened and less fazed by the possibility of punishment by league officials, who have sanctioned them from time to time.

“The W is the movement,” said Layshia Clarendon, a guard for the Liberty. “It’s where this country is going. It’s where progressive and forward-thinking folks are looking to.”

The league is still seeking a broader following, but the increasing activism hasn’t diminished viewership, which is dwarfed by that of the N.B.A. but has shown gains recently. Ratings for the Seattle Storm’s title-clinching Game 3 win over the Las Vegas Aces this month, shown on ESPN, were up 27 percent from the final game a season ago.

Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State University specializing in race, sports and gender, said there was a disconnect at first between how the players saw themselves and how the league was envisioned by the N.B.A., its chief financial backer.

“There was a lot of this conversation that we’ve come to really understand in women’s sports: ‘How can we make it palatable? How can we make it something that we can sell? Shorten the shorts, right?’” Davis said. “That tension is something that was always there, but then you always had players pushing back on it.”

The W.N.B.A.’s players had little leverage to argue; they were constantly told that they should feel lucky to be paid to play basketball at all in the United States.

“We were so happy to be there, but there was this nervousness every morning whether the lights would be on so we could practice,” said Sue Wicks, a former center for the Liberty who was 30 when the W.N.B.A. launched.

By the end of the second season, though, the players were fed up with being paid average salaries of $30,000 and not receiving year-round health benefits or a portion of merchandise profits and revenue. Some players earned as little as $5,000 in the league’s first season, and their contracts could be terminated by teams at any time. They began organizing the first labor union of professional female athletes.

Although league officials resisted, a collective bargaining agreement was reached. It was modest, but included significant improvements: minimum veteran salaries, doubled to $30,000; year-round health care; retirement plans; paid maternity leave; and revenue sharing.

“They were basically starting with nothing,” said Pamela Wheeler, the first players’ union director. “So what the players said was, ‘Listen, we know that we’re not going to get rich doing this. But one day the W.N.B.A. is going to be wildly successful.’ Their goal and my mission was to establish a foundation upon which, one day, the players would be able to benefit.”

Another contentious round at the bargaining table occurred in 2003 over salaries, with the season imperiled at one point. The union sought a substantial increase in pay, and for the first time drew attention to the players’ fight as a proxy for the battle over equal pay that women face across industries. They received only marginal increases, but they had shown a willingness to fight for more.

“The women were very brave to step out as they did,” said Martha Burk, an activist who was, at the time, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations. “The W.N.B.A.,” she added, “was able to raise the profile of the dispute enough to get public support behind them.”

Public support didn’t always come from the people the league almost exclusively marketed to: families with parents who are straight and cisgender, whose sense of gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. L.G.B.T.Q. fans embraced the W.N.B.A. from its earliest seasons, though the league did not create a pride campaign until 2014.

Many players led openly gay lives off the court, but the league adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude in its early years, even arriving late to sports staples like kiss cams that might have forced acknowledgment of the significant presence of same-sex couples at games.

“Though it wasn’t yet acknowledged and celebrated the way it would be later, there was sort of a feeling of community,” said Rebecca Lobo, who played for the Liberty. “It was really cool knowing a segment of the population who doesn’t feel accepted elsewhere feels accepted here in Madison Square Garden, surrounded by 16,000 fans.”

Wicks, the former Liberty center, became the first openly gay active player in 2002 after a Time Out New York reporter asked about her sexuality and she said she was a lesbian.

“The majority of players that came up to me and said, ‘Wow, it’s really cool you did that,’ were straight,” she said. “The gay players were probably afraid I was going to out them next. There was no upside to it. There was no feedback saying, ‘This is a good idea.’”

Even in 2012, when Augustus — a four-time champion with the Minnesota Lynx — spoke publicly about her sexuality for the first time, it was still deemed newsworthy. Her decision was prompted in part by the surge in campaigns against same-sex marriage, including the Minnesota ballot measure that year seeking to define marriage as between a man and a woman. She spoke out early and frequently against the proposed amendment, which voters ultimately rejected.

“I’d been entertaining people, but not really having an impact on a community that I’ve been involved in my entire life,” Augustus said. “People have power and don’t know it, or if they do know it, they abuse it. I was one of the people that didn’t know how much power I had, and that experience showed me that I definitely want to make sure I use that power to create some type of change.”

Today, lesbian players and their families are embraced by the league and its fans, and the W.N.B.A. amplifies progressive conversations around gender and sexuality. After the Storm won the championship this season, ESPN showed Sue Bird, Seattle’s star point guard, hugging and kissing her girlfriend, the U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe.

Clarendon, who identifies as nonbinary, compelled an inclusive shift this summer when the ESPN play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco used the correct pronouns when describing Clarendon’s baskets and rebounds. For Clarendon, it’s a natural evolution of how basketball has always allowed them to challenge gender norms.

“As someone who’s realizing that I’ve always been nonbinary, it’s been hard to find the words and the language and the space to fully be that,” Clarendon said. “I realized how much basketball saved me, and gave me that without me necessarily realizing it. It allowed me to be so queer.”

The vibe of challenging norms blossomed in other ways.

Before Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem in 2016, members of the Lynx, then the reigning champions, sought to peacefully advocate social change.

Recent police killings weighed heavily on Augustus and her teammates.

Alton Sterling was killed by the police outside a Baton Rouge, La., convenience store Augustus frequented as a child. A police officer in suburban St. Paul, Minn., killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. While visiting her in Minnesota, Augustus’s father had been pulled over by the police. He could have been killed like Castile, she thought.

The team and coaching staff convened, deliberating how best to uniformly convey their feelings. They settled on wearing black warm-up shirts that read, “Change starts with us — Justice & Accountability” on the front. The back featured the Dallas police shield, in recognition of several police officers who had recently been killed; the names of Sterling and Castile; and the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

Four off-duty Minneapolis police officers working security at the arena walked off the job.

The moment also created a swell of unity throughout the league. Some players like Bass, following the lead of her Mercury teammate Kelsey Bone, began to kneel during the national anthem. The Mercury, Fever and Liberty wore similar shirts. The league initially fined the teams and players, then rescinded the penalties less than a week later after an outcry from players and fans.

“It could have just been the Minnesota Lynx doing this, and then we would have looked like the one bad apple in the league,” Augustus said. “But because of the rest of the teams’ following suit, it really made a bigger impact and brought us together a little bit stronger than we were before.”

With that current of activism, it wasn’t surprising that the league’s players would have a forceful reaction to the killings of George Floyd in May and Breonna Taylor in March.

“I knew we were not going to have a season this year if we don’t launch something special,” Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said.

Among several efforts, the W.N.B.A. has created a social justice council and is working with the Say Her Name Campaign, which focuses on police violence against Black women and girls.

“You find your way in it, in a way in which it speaks to your own authenticity as an individual,” said Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the W.N.B.A. players’ union. “But then also you find a lot of strength and we’re able to speak out collectively, as we demonstrated in the past few years and most notably this season.”

The recent surge in visible activism has yielded mixed feelings for Bass four years after she first knelt.

“Not much has changed since then in terms of social justice and making things better, which is why we were kneeling,” Bass said. “But to see now, not just not in the W.N.B.A., just over all, the full embracing of it has been difficult to watch, because you’re like, ‘Where were you four years ago?’”

N.B.A. teams began kneeling regularly at games this summer. Notable W.N.B.A. players like Cloud and Renee Montgomery opted out of the season to fully pursue social justice causes. Montgomery, a member of the Lynx team who wore the T-shirt four years ago, was moved to act after protesters arrived in her neighborhood in the Buckhead area of Atlanta in June to protest the police killing of Rayshard Brooks.

Then she watched as the sports world mostly came to a standstill after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in August.

“I’m sure everyone thought if sports stops, once they got back going, it was going to be due to the pandemic,” she said. “No one thought that sports would stop because of race.”

The N.B.A.’s Milwaukee Bucks walked out of a playoff game, and W.N.B.A. teams, and others in different sports league, joined them.

“We become a better league and more valuable because of the space we use to fight social justice,” said Dawn Staley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame after her W.N.B.A. career. “Everybody knows they’re leaders when it comes to that. If anything, it gives other professional leagues a space to say: ‘It’s OK to speak out. It’s OK to be unliked.’ Because we’ve been unliked for 23 years by mainstream America, you know what I’m saying? You can survive not being liked for saying something that’s right.”

Davis, the Penn State professor, said the social justice work of the W.N.B.A. is part of a historical trend of Black women leading the way.

“As often happens with Black women, they are at once hyper-visible and invisible,” Davis said. “Just because people won’t necessarily cite them or credit them or look over and acknowledge them, doesn’t mean they’re not watching them and building off their work.”

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