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The WNBA’s LGBTQ+ evolution

Brittney Griner drives on Amanda Zahui B. during a game between the Mercury and Sparks. (Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

When Sue Bird entered the WNBA in 2002, the league was just beginning to take small steps toward LGBTQ+ inclusivity. She remembers, for example, the New York Liberty introducing a “Kissing Cam” for gay women early in her career — only after a lesbian group protested the team’s treatment of LGBTQ+ fans by kissing during a televised game betwen the Liberty and the Miami Sol in 2002.

“What’s interesting is the league embracing its fan base, but then from a player’s standpoint, there really weren’t that many people who were open,” Bird says. “There weren’t that many players who were coming out. So it was kind of this interesting place because it was just this unspoken thing. Everybody knew it, but nobody really talked about it.”

It would take a decade for the culture to shift in a meaningful way, and almost two decades for the WNBA to become the most socially conscious and active professional sports league in the country.

In the years after the WNBA launched in 1997, it was clear the strategy was to market to certain demographics by portraying its athletes as family women and traditionally feminine. In 2000, the league issued a press release of a list of players who were recently married along with the names of their husbands. Queer athletes did not talk openly about their sexuality in the WNBA, just as it was largely taboo in society at the time.

The WNBA’s embrace of “family values,” as former Liberty player Sue Wicks explained in an October 2020 interview with Fanbyte’s Natalie Weiner, alienated its LGBTQ+ players and fans.

“That’s how it was promoted,” Wicks said, “and I wouldn’t say it was subtle because every advertisement featured families in the stands and that type of thing. They showcased the girls that had husbands or kids, or other family ties. And it certainly was a true representation — it’s one facet of the league, and it was the one that they were selling then.”

Wicks, whose career on the court is often overshadowed by the fact she was the first WNBA player to come out as gay and talk openly about her sexuality, was an outlier. Though she doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, her courage forged the path that so many WNBA players now walk.

“Everything changes as time goes on, and I think we’re just at a point in life where we shouldn’t see what a person likes, who a person likes, or anything like that,” says Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman. “I wish it could have been like that a long time ago, but I think it’s super important for everybody to just be who they are.”

***

In 2013, Brittney Griner sat at her first official press conference, ready to discuss the start of her WNBA career after being drafted first overall by the Phoenix Mercury. When Griner casually commented on her sexuality, it wasn’t considered a big deal. At that time, athletes who came out in professional women’s sports did so to little fanfare and media attention. It was a sign that society was becoming more accepting of queer women.

Griner’s authenticity had a ripple effect. Slowly but surely, other players came out, too — some outright, some in interviews, some never needing to make an announcement at all.

Elena Delle Donne, drafted second overall in 2013 and now a star with the Washington Mystics, believes the WNBA has always been a safe place for her to express herself, but she admits it took her some time to embrace that part of her identity.

“I came into the league and was not out, so over the years I was able to truly come into myself,” Delle Donne says. “I often felt like I was a robot at times because I wasn’t able to truly be myself until I was open and honest about my sexuality.”

In the spring of 2014, the NBA and NFL were having a reckoning of their own after Jason Collins and Michael Sam came out as gay. The WNBA went further, becoming the first professional sports league to launch a marketing campaign targeting the LGBTQ+ community. Starting that season, teams and players would participate in Pride events and there would be a nationally televised Pride-themed game.

The campaign marked progress on the surface, but internally the WNBA was still taking steps to feminize the players. Griner talked about how the league had proposed new, shorter and slim-cut uniforms for the upcoming 2014 season.

“They want more male attendance, and for us to change our uniforms to ‘sleek and sexy’ takes away from what we’re trying to do on the court,” Griner told Mother Jones at the time. “I want you to come watch my game, not the uniforms. If you wanna come just because we look sexy, then I really don’t want you there. I feel like we need to get away from that.”

While some old-fashioned, stereotypical beliefs remained, the players were no longer going to stay quiet about them. And today, their voices are stronger and louder than ever.

“Players are being more open and talking about this and using their platform to help others. That’s really where I’ve seen the biggest evolution,” Bird says, “Right now, I think we’re on a pretty amazing trajectory overall as a league, and I think if we continue on that path, that’s where I would like to see things go — just continuing to talk about things, speak about things and push it forward.”

That path includes a younger generation of bold and authentic players entering the league and challenging the status quo. Atlanta Dream guard Courtney Williams, for one, has always been unapologetic about who she is, though she says people have considered her more outspoken since she gained more exposure.

“The only difference, I guess, is the more clout, the more people dive into who you are,” Williams says. “I’ve kind of always been the same, you know? I just got a little bit more clout around my name. But man, I think it’s dope that the league is supportive. I mean, they should be. The majority of the league is gay, bi — whatever people want to call themselves.”

If the league weren’t supportive of players living their truth, Williams says, then it would be “super contradictory.”

“It’s important because I think it’s real. This is people’s truth. This is their everyday life,” she says. “It’s not one of them things where it’s like, you go home and things change or you step on the court and it changes. Like, this is who people are. People are gonna walk in their truth regardless.”

Layshia Clarendon of the Minnesota Lynx exemplifies Williams’ point. As the WNBA’s first out nonbinary athlete, they’ve often felt alienated even as the league increasingly embraces individual differences. An emotionally affirming step for Clarendon was the support she received from the WNBA when he decided to get top surgery earlier this year, which he described in a recent Sports Illustrated cover story by Britni de la Cretaz.

Clarendon is also a key voice of the WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council, whose top priorities this season are LGBTQ+ advocacy and trans rights along with health equity and civic engagement.

***

On June 10, the Indiana Fever’s Danielle Robinson and Victoria Vivians attended a Fever Pride event at Indiana Youth Group, a local organization that is working to solve LGBTQ+ homelessness.

“It’s important for there to be events during Pride Month,” Robinson says. “Our league is very inclusive and supportive of its players, so to be able to help so many people in our own markets and communities is an honor to have that platform and be able to give back in the way that we can.”

At the beginning of June, which is nationally recognized as Pride Month, the WNBA announced a handful of initiatives that “advocate for, support and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and its allies.” Teams changed the icons on their social media platforms to rainbow colors, held events in their communities and hosted Pride-themed games. Sparks center Amanda Zahui B. wrote an op-ed for the WNBA website about coming to terms with her own identity.

“The league is so supportive, whether it’s adding gear or changing team logos throughout the month. It shows they care about who we are and the decisions we make,” Robinson says. “That has certainly been a great change since I came into the league.”

For the Mercury’s seventh annual Pride night, the team honored former Suns, Mercury and Warriors president Rick Welts. Welts, who is gay, was part of the intial NBA group that helped launch the WNBA in 1997. He represents yet another historical throughline connecting the WNBA to the LGBTQ+ community.

Griner, who is now in her eighth season with the Mercury, sees events like Pride nights, parades and panels as significant markers of how far the league has come.

Diana Taurasi, Griner’s longtime teammate in Phoenix, never made a grand announcement about her sexuality. By the time she married former Mercury teammate Penny Taylor in 2017, there wasn’t an expectation for WNBA players to do so. Taurasi has observed the WNBA’s evolution from her veteran perch, having been in the league for 18 seasons. And she’s proud of what the league stands for today.

“I think it’s been an amazing transition to being able to come to WNBA games, whether you’re a fan, a player, a coach, a front office worker, and just be yourself,” she says. “I think that’s the whole purpose of life — to live life authentically and to be yourself. And I think the WNBA has given different sectors of life a safe haven to come and enjoy games and, at the same time, express themselves.”

Women’s Sports Win Big at 2024 ESPY Awards

Host Serena Williams speaks on stage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
Tennis icon Serena Williams hosted the 32nd annual ESPY Awards on Thursday night. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for W+P)

Thursday's 2024 ESPYs doubled as a celebration of the rising popularity of women's sports, as retired tennis superstar Serena Williams hosted the proceedings with ease.

"Get up, get off the TikTok, work hard, find out how capable you are. Be great. Be so great they don't want to believe in you and then be even greater," she told the next generation at the end of her opening monologue.

South Carolina Gamecocks accept the Best Team Award onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks took home the ESPY for Best Team. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Women's sports take center stage at ESPYs

Athletes in women's sports were big winners throughout last night's ceremony, reflecting a watershed year across the entire sporting landscape.

Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark took home both the Best College Athlete and Best Record Breaking Performance Awards for her historic NCAA career at Iowa.

USC star JuJu Watkins won Best Breakthrough Athlete after an exceptional freshman season with the Trojans.

Gymnast Simone Biles won Best Comeback Athlete, as the two-time Olympian prepares for her third Summer Games later this month.

Las Vegas Aces' all-time leading scorer A'ja Wilson came up big in both the Best Women's Sports Athlete and Best WNBA Player categories.

The undefeated 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks won the award for Best Team.

Dawn Staley accepts the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination." (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Dawn Staley honored with individual award

SC coach Staley picked up her own honor, receiving the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance for her continued contributions in the field of cancer research advocacy.

Named after NC State men's basketball coach Jim Valvando, the Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination."

"I must confess, I feel a little undeserving of this recognition," Staley said in her acceptance speech. "Past recipients of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award have faced incredible challenges and proven themselves as true warriors. I have merely been a spectator to such immense courage and resilience."

After opening up about her family's personal connection to the cause, Staley spoke about her greater journey as an advocate, both on and off the court.

"I try my best to do things in the right way, knowing that some little girl is out there watching me... maybe, she's one of the 13 pairs of eyes that see every little thing I do everyday and make sure to comment on it, that's my team," she said, motioning to her undefeated Gamecocks squad seated in the audience.

"How do I not fight pay disparity, when I do the same job and get paid less but win more?" she continued. "I can't ask them to stand up for themselves if I'm sitting down. Nor can I ask them to use their voice for change if I'm only willing to whisper."

Macario Withdraws from Olympics Ahead of USWNT Send-Off Games

uswnt forward catarina macario on the field against uzbekistan
Forward Catarina Macario has made 19 career appearances for the USWNT. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

USWNT manager Emma Hayes dropped a big piece of roster news on Friday, with Chelsea star forward Catarina Macario officially ruled out for the 2024 Paris Olympics due to "consistent irritation in her right knee."

The roster shakeup comes the day before the USWNT begins a series of two send-off friendlies leading up to the Olympics. In the wake of the injury, forward Lynn Williams will now be elevated from an alternate to a fully rostered player, with defender Emily Sams moving from training player to Olympic alternate.

Macario's original injury dates to 2022

In June 2022, Macario suffered an ACL tear in her left knee while playing for former club team Olympique Lyonnais.

Before the injury, the Stanford University standout featured on the USWNT's expanded Tokyo Olympics roster in 2021. She went on to win the 2022 Champions League title with Lyon before being sidelined the following month.

The 24-year-old continued to rehab the injury, sitting out the 2023 World Cup. She returned to the USWNT for the first time since 2022 this past April. After helping lead the US to victory at the 2024 SheBelieves Cup, Macario took the pitch again for the USWNT's June friendlies.

Looking to the future, Hayes called Macario's knee "not a long-term situation, just not going to recover in time for the Olympics" in Friday's announcement.

USWNT star Trinity Rodman plays against Mexico at the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup
The USWNT hasn't lost a game since falling to Mexico in February 2024. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images)

Pre-Olympic USWNT friendlies kick off

This Saturday, the newly formatted Olympic lineup with square off against Mexico in New Jersey.

It will be the first time the two teams have met since Mexico upset the US in the Concacaf W Gold Cup group stage earlier this year. Since then, the US hasn't lost a single match, going 5-0-2 and picking up trophies at the Gold Cup as well as SheBelieves Cup.

The USWNT's 18-player Olympic roster will take center stage this week, while alternates and training players joined the team at camp leading up to the friendlies. Training players Alyssa Thompson and Kate Wiesner will return to their NWSL squads prior to Saturday's USWNT friendly.

Many of the players on the US Olympic roster have just recently left their NWSL teams for the Olympic break, while three European club players — Lindsey Horan (Lyon), Korbin Albert (PSG), and Emily Fox (Arsenal) — have spent the last six weeks off the pitch.

USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher enters the field
USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has 104 international caps, including 62 clean sheets. (Hannah Peters/FIFA via Getty Images)

A new USWNT paves its Olympic path

The pre-Olympic series will likely see goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher return to the starting XI, after a hamstring injury kept her out of a pair of June friendlies.

The matches will also provide an initial glimpse of a USWNT without longtime star Alex Morgan, who was not selected to play in this year's Summer Games. Morgan's absence will impact the frontline, with Sophia Smith most likely to take over at center forward.

Speaking from USWNT training camp, Naeher expressed positivity about this year's Olympic team.

"I just feel an energy shift — I've just feel like a joy and excitement of from the group," she said. "I think that's really exciting to come back into after being gone from it for a camp."

The US will play a second friendly in Washington, DC on Tuesday against fellow Concacaf competitor Costa Rica. For a team looking to redeem their international standing after a disappointing World Cup run, these next two outings will serve as a chance to develop the chemistry necessary to hit the ground running in Paris later this month.

Seattle Reign Stars Barnes, Fishlock Back New USL W League Team

usl w league ballard vice president tiffany mallick holding an official usl w ball
Joining May 2025, Seattle’s USL W team will be the sixth in the league’s Northwest division. (Ballard FC/YouTube)

On Tuesday, 25 Seattle-based sports and business professionals announced their investment in a new USL W League team operated by popular semi-pro USL League Two men’s side Ballard FC.

Headlined by Lauren Barnes (Seattle Reign), Jess Fishlock (Seattle Reign), Olivia Van der Jagt (Seattle Reign), and Sam Hiatt (Gotham FC), alongside Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Glider and Jen Barnes, owner of the women's sports-focused Rough & Tumble Pub, the yet-to-be-named Ballard squad will enter the pre-professional league next May.

Current Ballard FC president Sam Zisette will oversee both the men’s and women’s clubs, while vice president and seasoned athletic trainer Tiffany Mallick will shift her focus on the women's team.

"Our goal is to create better opportunities for young women to develop their skills on and off the field," said Reign captain Lauren Barnes in a team press release. "The path to professional soccer didn’t exist on the same scale while I was growing up, and I’m thrilled to be part of changing that for future players."

"Introducing a USL W League team to Ballard is a monumental step in advancing our organization and soccer community," added Zisette. "Ballard is a special place with an immense sense of pride, passionate spirit, and love for soccer. We can’t wait to see the community embrace this new team!"

Tampa Bay United Soccer Club
Launched in 2022, the USL W League now fields 80 teams across four conferences. (USL W League)

What is the USL?

The United Soccer League (USL), which organizes multiple US leagues across all divisions, has recently upped its commitment to the women's game.

In addition to the developmental USL W League — which started in 2022 and now fields 80 teams across four conferences plus three 2025 expansion teams, including Ballard — USL is set to launch the fully professional USL Super League next month.

With eight inaugural clubs (and plans to expand to 20 teams by 2026), the USL Super League will join the NWSL as the only other Division 1 women’s league in the country. But unlike the NWSL, the USL Super League will mirror the European schedule, operating from fall through spring with its official kickoff slated for August 17th.

As with USL W Ballard, the Super League also has some star power behind it. In May, WNBA All-Star rookie Angel Reese joined the ownership group of Washington's forthcoming DC Power FC.

USL W League finalists South Georgia Tormenta FC v Minnesota Aurora FC
The 2024 USL W League's semifinals kick off on Saturday, July 13th. (Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

USL W League gears up for postseason action

But before the USL Super League takes the pitch, their pre-professional counterparts will finish up their 2024 postseason run.

On Saturday, the USL W's four conference champions will square off in the league semifinals on Saturday, July 13th, with NC Courage U23 hosting Tennessee SC and the Colorado Storm facing Detroit City FC in Michigan. Winners from those two matches will then battle it out at the USL W League final on July 20th.

All USL W postseason action can be streamed live on SportsEngine Play.

Wilson, Clark Put Up Record-Breaking Numbers in Midweek WNBA Action

WNBA Las Vegas Aces A'ja Wilson blocks Nneka Ogwumike of the Seattle Storm
Las Vegas's A'ja Wilson added to her lengthy stat sheet on Wednesday. (Scott Eklund/NBAE via Getty Images)

Around the WNBA, big-name players A'ja Wilson, Kahleah Copper, Caitlin Clark, and Angel Reese made good use of Wednesday's jam-packed five-game schedule, kicking off a pre-All-Star Weekend campaign that promises not to disappoint.

Aces' A'ja Wilson racks up a perfect 20/20

Two-time MVP A’ja Wilson was the star of the show yesterday, throwing down epic numbers in one of her most successful performances so far this season

Wilson registered a 24-point, 20-rebound double-double in the Aces’ 84-79 win over Seattle, marking the six-time All-Star's first-ever 20/20 game.

Storm guard Jewell Loyd’s 28 points led the game, but between Wilson’s numbers and fellow Ace Jackie Young’s 27 points, Vegas managed to leapfrog fifth-place Seattle to secure a fourth-place spot in the WNBA standings.

WNBA star Kahleah Copper of the Phoenix Mercury drives to the basket against the Dallas Wings
With 32 points, Mercury standout Kahleah Copper led the WNBA in scoring Wednesday. (Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images)

Top-ranked WNBA teams keep scoring

At the top of the table, the Liberty beat the Sun 71-68 to oust Connecticut from the pair's previous tie for first in the standings. 

2024 WNBA All-Star DeWanna Bonner’s 22 points led the Sun, while Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu sank 21 points alongside Breanna Stewart’s 18-point, 14-rebound double-double to extend New York's record to 18-4 on the season.

And in Phoenix, the Mercury dominated the last-place Wings 100-84 behind Kahleah Copper’s 32 points — the most drained by any player that day. Yet despite double-doubles from both Teaira McCowan and Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas fell to 5-18 on the season with the loss.

WNBA Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark shoots in a game against the Washington Mystics
WNBA rookie phenom Caitlin Clark dropped 29 points for Indiana on Wednesday. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rookies Clark, Reese, and Cardoso put up numbers

Fever star Caitlin Clark owned Indiana's stat sheet yesterday with 29 points and 13 assists, becoming the first player in WNBA or NBA history to drop 25+ points, five rebounds, 10+ assists, five steals, and three blocks in a single game.

Clark's effort wasn't enough to hold off the otherwise struggling Mystics, however, who stunned the Fever 89-84 behind a monster 26 points from Ariel Atkins

Chicago's rookies joined forces to lift the Sky over the Dream 78-69, as Kamilla Cardoso added her own double-double to teammate Angel Reese’s record-extending 14th

This season, Reese and Cardoso have combined to average just under 20 rebounds per game so far this season. If that metric holds, they’ll make WNBA history with the highest average for any duo in a single season.

A 2024 WNBA All-Star banner hangs outside the Footprint Center
Only 15 regular season games remain before WNBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

What happens next for WNBA teams

With All-Star Weekend tipping off one week from today, only 15 regular season games remain before the WNBA's scheduled Olympic break.

Whether they currently sit in first or last place, all 12 teams will want to hit the ground running when play resumes on August 15th.

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