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The Organizers: WNBA players and their unrelenting activism

WNBA players dedicated their 2020 bubble season to Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police earlier that year. (Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

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(Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Unrelenting

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.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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