Leading up to the 1968 Olympics, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists and Wyomia Tyus protested by wearing dark shorts, the Olympic Project For Human Rights held meetings to discuss plans for a unified initiative advocating for human rights. The group organized a boycott of the Mexico City Games, but after several athletes backed out, the plan fell through.

Collective activism is hard to orchestrate. Getting groups of people to act in concert is challenging enough, even when participants aren’t asked to risk their livelihood. In the aftermath of the podium protest, Smith and Carlos lost everything.

One group of sportswomen have continued to overcome the challenges of collective action: members of the Women’s National Basketball Association. The predominantly Black and significantly queer sports league has repeatedly taken stands in political and cultural battles over gender pay equity, racism, policing, LGBTQIA rights, reproductive rights and voting rights.

In the final installment of our Black History Month series, Just Women’s Sports recognizes the women of the WNBA for their unified acts of resistance and unrelenting commitment to bettering the world around them.

The catalysts

Months before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, on July 9, 2016, four members of the Minnesota Lynx donned black T-shirts that read “Change Starts with Us: Justice and Accountability,” ushering in a wave of activism in professional sports. Their protest came days after Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., and Alton Sterling was killed by the police outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La.

The next day, New York Liberty players also wore black T-shirts, this time with the phrases “#Black Lives Matter,” “#Dallas5” (in honor of the five Dallas police officers shot during protests on July 7, 2016), and “#_____” (representing future deaths at the hands of police). Players on the Indiana Fever and the Phoenix Mercury joined in protest by wearing plain black tees during pregame warmups.

While NBA players may have more money to lose, WNBA players have more at risk when deciding to protest. These women knew they would likely face retaliation and condemnation by police, fans and the league, and they still decided to take a stand.

The women were right. In response to the Lynx’s actions, Minnesota police officers walked off their security posts during their game and the WNBA issued fines to the teams and players involved in the protest. Meanwhile, NBA players were being applauded for their activism at the ESPYs.

The women of the WNBA, however, “refused to be silent.” While accepting her award for Player of the Month, Tina Charles of the Liberty turned her warmup shirt inside out to protest the fines. Charles and others voiced their opposition to the fines on social media and initiated a media blackout, only answering questions related to police brutality and systemic racism. Due to the resulting media attention, the league rescinded the fines.

Activism continues

In August 2017, a white nationalist rally over the removal of a confederate statue, prefaced by a torchlit vigil, turned fatal in Charlottesville, Va. Shortly after, WNBA players took action. Five teams stood with their arms interlocked during the national anthem in a show of unity against bigotry, hate and racism. The Liberty also hosted a town hall to discuss community solutions to racism and policing.

The following month, after President Trump declared that NFL owners should fire athletes who take a knee and called protestors “sons of b—es,” the Lynx knelt and linked arms as the national anthem played during the 2017 WNBA Finals. Their opponent, the Los Angeles Sparks, walked off the court entirely, opting to stay in their locker room during the anthem in a show of protest.

Apex of activism

In 2020, COVID-19 hit. Sports ceased. George Floyd died under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. As multiple officers held Floyd down in the street, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.

When the WNBA commenced their condensed, 22-game season later that summer at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., players wore shirts bearing the name “Breonna Taylor” and played on courts adorned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Before opening tipoffs, a 26-second moment of silence was held in memory of Taylor, the 26-year-old certified EMT who was fatally shot by police on March 13, 2020 during a raid on her Louisville apartment. The players dedicated the season to Taylor, and in honor of the #SayHerName campaign, each week they shared the story of a Black woman who was killed by law enforcement.

​​That season, the league also formed a Social Justice Council that has since spearheaded initiatives around anti-transgender legislation, public health and voting rights.

Not all were happy with the league’s focus on social justice. Atlanta Dream co-owner and Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler vocally opposed the players’ dedication to advancing the Black Lives Matter movement and called for a depoliticization of sports. When calls for Loeffler to sell her shares of the team went unanswered, the players took an innovative approach. The entirety of the Atlanta Dream, along with players from other teams, sported “Vote Warnock” shirts in support of Loeffler’s Democratic challenger, Rev. Raphael Warnock, a campaign that proved to be instrumental in flipping the Georgia Senate seat.

Less than a month later, Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black father, was shot by Wisconsin police while his children watched from a nearby car. Players on four WNBA teams scheduled to play that night postponed their games, as did most professional sports teams nationwide. When the Mystics, Dream, Sparks and Lynx met on the court to kneel in solidarity later that evening, the Washington team appeared in shirts that spelled out Jacob Blake’s name, each with seven bullet holes, representing the number of shots fired at Blake from close range.

(Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)


While George Floyd’s death initiated protests across the globe and propelled a moment of racial reckoning unseen in American history, a year following his death, white support for the Black Lives Matter movement had waned significantly. The women of the WNBA, however, remained committed to social justice.

On the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder, the WNBA and WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) released statements honoring Floyd’s life. Teams and players from around the league advocated for continued criminal justice reform, encouraging the public to call on their senators to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics even declined to answer basketball-related questions during a postgame press conference, opting to raise awareness for the bill instead.

The WNBA players’ activism has never been contingent upon the public’s appetite or confined to one issue. Last October, WNBA players took out a full-page ad in The New York Times denouncing a Texas anti-abortion law. From the league’s inception, its players have fought for what they deemed important, starting with equality. The very presence of women, Black Americans, queer people and non-binary folks lining the court and insisting that they have the right to play and make a living is a political act in and of itself.

Mariah Lee is a professional athlete and freelance writer who specializes in the intersection of race and sports. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a M.S. from the Wake Forest School of Business. Follow her on Instagram @merdashewrote.

On Nov. 29, 2014, five days after a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Micheal Brown, Ariyana Smith became the first athlete to bring the #BlackLivesMatter movement into the sports landscape.

While Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James are commonly thought of as the torchbearers of sports activism, Just Women’s Sports knows Black women have always been at the forefront of driving change. In the first piece of our Black History Month series, we shared the stories of Rose Robinson and Wyomia Tyus, athletes who fought against injustice in the 1950s and ‘60s. Since then, a myriad of Black sportswomen have taken action, some recognized and some not.

Smith, a basketball player at Knox College, suited up to play against Fontbonne University in Clayton, Miss., mere minutes from Ferguson. When the national anthem began to play, Smith raised her hands in the now iconic “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture before laying on the ground. Officials tried to move Smith in an attempt to start the game, but she continued her demonstration for four and a half minutes, symbolic of the four and a half hours Mike Brown’s body lay in the street after he was killed.

While the #BlackLivesMatter movement has spurred a frenzy of demonstrations in sports, Black women have been championing a variety of topics before the age of kneeling began. In the past twenty years, issues of racism, sexism and equality have been thrust into the public discourse due to the actions of Black women in sports, committed to creating a more just world for those who come after them.

Toni Smith

More than a decade before Ariyana Smith took a stand, a different Smith protested the national anthem. In 2003, Toni Smith, a senior basketball player at Division III Manhattanville College, turned her back to the flag in protest against inequality and the country’s involvement in Iraq.

(Wayne Taylor/Getty Images)

Venus Williams

In 2006, Venus Williams penned an open letter in The Times in a push for equal pay. A year earlier, she had addressed the Grand Slam Board, advocating for an equal distribution of prize money at the French Open and Wimbledon. Williams’ voice brought attention to the pay discrepancies in the sport of tennis and led to the leveling of pay at Wimbledon. When she won her fourth Wimbledon trophy in 2007, Williams became the first woman to receive the same earnings as that of the men’s champion.

Seimone Augustus

Seimone Augustus, a four-time WNBA champion and one of the most decorated players in women’s basketball, advocated for gay marriage in 2012. The 2011 WNBA Finals MVP wanted to marry her wife in the state where she had won a championship the year prior. The Minnesota Lynx star spoke out against a ballot measure that would have made same-sex marriage illegal in the Minnesota state constitution.

Brittney Griner and Layshia Clarendon

In 2017, Brittney Griner and Layshia Clarendon co-wrote an op-ed in which they voiced their opposition to a Texas bill that would have barred transgender people from using restrooms and other public facilities of their choosing. The WNBA stars saw the bill as a danger to queer athletes who may have been forced to use a locker room that differed from their gender identity.

Maya Moore

Maya Moore, one of the most accomplished women’s basketball players in the history of the sport, stepped away from the game at the peak of her success to pursue criminal justice reform. Moore dedicated herself to freeing her now-husband Jonathan Irons, who had been falsely imprisoned for burglary and assault. With the help of Moore, a judge overturned Irons’ conviction after he spent 23 years of his life in prison.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams has been outspoken about gender and racial equality for most of her illustrious tennis career. She wrote an open letter in 2016 addressing equal pay, and another in 2017, on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, focusing on pay inequities unique to Black women. In 2018, Serena and Venus Williams joined the Billie Jean King Initiative to push for equal pay for women in all industries.

(Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Allyson Felix

Allyson Felix brought attention to Nike’s refusal to guarantee salary protections for pregnant athletes in a 2019 New York Times op-ed. Felix, the most decorated U.S. track athlete, said that Nike attempted to pay her 70 percent less after she became a mother. Shortly after Felix’s public appeal, the company expanded its pregnancy benefits for women athletes.

Allyson Felix and Serena Williams are also champions for Black maternal health. Both women experienced life-threatening complications during childbirth, common to Black women. Felix underwent an emergency C-section to save herself and her daughter after doctors discovered she had severe preeclampsia. Williams developed a pulmonary embolism and a hematoma shortly after she gave birth, resulting in a series of surgeries and weeks of recovery before regaining her health.

Williams’ story brought national attention to the Black maternal health crisis, and she invested $3 million in a Black-owned startup aimed at improving prenatal and postpartum care for new mothers. Felix testified before Congress to petition the government to address systemic biases that lead to disparities in maternal mortality.

Gwen Berry

Gwen Berry raised her fist during the national anthem after winning the hammer throw at the 2019 Pan American games. Berry, a thrower for the U.S. women’s track and field team, was protesting racial inequality and police brutality, and was subsequently put on a 12-month probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. As a result, Berry lost several sponsorship deals, totaling nearly $50,000. After the Olympic Committee reversed their stance on protests in 2020, Berry demonstrated again at the 2021 Olympic Trials, this time by turning away from the flag.

Naomi Osaka

Days after Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisc., Naomi Osaka refused to play the semifinals of the Western and Southern Open, forcing the tournament’s postponement. Less than a week later, she arrived at the 2020 U.S. Open with seven masks in her duffle bag, each embroidered with the name of a Black victim of police violence: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice. Osaka wore a different mask during each round of the tournament, winning her second U.S. Open title while drawing international attention to police brutality.

(Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Raven Saunders

At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, while standing on the podium, Raven Saunders raised her arms and crossed them into an “X.” The American made the Game’s first podium demonstration after winning silver in the shot put. As a gay, Black woman with a history of mental health struggles, Saunders’ crossed arms symbolized the intersection of her oppressed identities.

Simone Biles

On the eve of further cementing herself as the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles withdrew from the team final and women’s individual all-around final at the Tokyo Games. She cited mental exhaustion and physical health concerns after experiencing the “twisties,” a state of dissociation that inhibits a gymnast from completing a skill.

As arguably the face of the Tokyo Olympics, dealing with the pressure of breaking world records, Biles felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. In a sport that has long demanded obedience from its young athletes, the simple act of saying “no” sparked a moment of reckoning in sports. Biles, who announced in 2018 that she was sexually abused by Larry Nassar, a longtime doctor for USA Gymnastics, spurred conversations about mental health, abuse and exploitation with her decision. Biles, like so many other Black women athletes, continues to leverage her platform to drive societal change.

Mariah Lee is a professional athlete and freelance writer who specializes in the intersection of race and sports. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a M.S. from the Wake Forest School of Business. Follow her on Instagram @merdashewrote.

Before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and even before Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the Olympic podium, Rose Robinson refused to stand during the national anthem in 1959. Nine years later, Wyomia Tyus wore dark shorts in a protest for human rights at the 1968 Olympics.

Just Women’s Sports is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting the achievements of African-American women who not only excelled in their sport, but also changed the landscape of society. Male athletes are often remembered for historical and contemporary acts of activism, yet there is a long history of Black women taking a stand and using their platform for political and ideological protest.

While we remember iconic firsts — Black women who broke the color barrier — as symbolic acts that prompted societal change (for example, Althea Gibson, the first African-American to win a Grand Slam, and Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympiad), the stories of two courageous women who engaged in remarkable displays of activism have largely been forgotten.

Rose Robinson’s life of activism

Born in Chicago in 1925, high jumper Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson rose to prominence in the 1950s after achieving success on the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track circuit. Upon winning the 1958 AAU National Championship she was named to the U.S. Women’s Track and Field team.

Shortly thereafter, her predominantly Black team was invited to compete in the Soviet Union at a State Department track meet during the height of the Cold War. Robinson refused to attend, telling Jet Magazine: “I don’t want to be used as a political pawn.”

Robinson’s public refusal to promote U.S. foreign policy came at a time when Black athletes, musicians and other notable figures were paraded around the globe to counter the image Jim Crow cast on America.

This was not the first time Robinson had challenged injustice. As a leader in her local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Robinson led skate-ins throughout the 1950s to desegregate a popular roller skating rink in Cleveland.

In the summer of 1959, less than a year after she rejected the invitation to compete in Russia, Robinson attended the Pan American Games, where more than 2,000 athletes from 24 different nations came together to compete. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played at the opening ceremony, the crowd inside Soldier Field rose to their feet, but Rose Robinson defiantly remained in her seat.

Robinson is considered to be the first prominent American athlete to use such a tactic.

Her protest drew the attention of the media, as well as the federal government. Six months later, Robinson was arrested on charges of tax evasion. At her hearing, Robinson refused to pay her taxes due to her objection to American military practices.

“I have not entered my tax return for 1954-1958 because I know a large part of it goes to armaments,” she told Jet Magazine at the time. “The U.S. government is very active in atom bombs and fallout, which is destructive rather than constructive. If I pay income tax, I am participating in that destruction.”

Robinson was sentenced to a year and a day in jail over the amount of $386.

Imprisonment did not stop Robinson’s activism. While in jail, she staged a hunger strike, refusing all food and drink for three months. Robinson became so weak that officials had to carry her to court for her hearing. The judge offered to commute her sentence if she paid the fine, but still, Robinson refused to support the U.S. war machine.

Her protest drew national attention leading to Robinson’s early release, but the hunger strike weakened her body so much that her track career was effectively over. Robinson continued with her activism until she died in 1976.

Wyomia Tyus: A woman long overlooked

When Carl Lewis won his second consecutive gold medal in the 100m at the 1988 Olympics, he was celebrated as the first person to accomplish such a feat — 20 years after Wyomia Tyus had actually done it first.

In the summer of 1968, Wyomia Tyus set out to defend her 100m title at the Olympics in Mexico City. Tyus ran an 11.08, set a world record and became the first athlete, male or female, to win back-to-back 100m titles.

Tyus, the daughter of sharecroppers, ran her history-making race in dark blue shorts — the closest she could find to black — as opposed to the team-issued white shorts.

Two days before Tommie Smith and Jon Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in what would become an iconic image, Tyus protested, though news outlets did not make note of what she did. Tyus, who grew up in Jim Crow Georgia, was taking a stand against the treatment of Black people in America.

“The shorts were at the forefront of my whole being to bring attention to human rights, whether anybody picked that up or not,” Tyus told the New York Times last year while reflecting on her gesture.

Prior to the Olympics, the Olympic Project For Human Rights held meetings to discuss ways athletes could take a stand. Women, however, were not invited.

Thus, Tyus fashioned her own protest without telling anyone. She wore her dark shorts again in the 4x100m final. When she won, she briefly raised her fist on the victory podium and then dedicated her medal to Smith and Carlos, who were barred from the Olympics after their show of defiance.

It was until her memoir, “Tigerbelle,” was published in 2018 that the public became aware of Tyus’ long and courageous history of activism.

Mariah Lee is a professional athlete and freelance writer who specializes in the intersection of race and sports. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a M.S. from the Wake Forest School of Business. Follow her on Instagram @merdashewrote.