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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.”

‘UNINTERRUPTED’s Top Class Tennis’ Debuts on Prime 

Still from tennis docuseries UNINTERRUPTED'S Top Class Tennis
'UNINTERRUPTED'S Top Class Tennis' follows four junior players as they prep for the Orange Bowl. (Amazon MGM Studios)

Prime Video is hitting the tennis court with Thursday's streaming premiere of UNINTERRUPTED's Top Class Tennis.

After four seasons of the men's high school basketball-focused Top Class: The Life and Times of The Sierra Canyon Trailblazers, athlete empowerment brand UNINTERRUPTED is expanding its purview to tennis with a new four-episode mixed-gender docuseries.

Junior tennis stars take centerstage

Behind the concept is 2017 US Open champion and world No. 45 pro Sloane Stephens, who co-executive produced the series alongside LeBron James and Maverick Carter, co-founders of UNINTERRUPTED and its production and entertainment development arm, The SpringHill Company.

Top Class Tennis follows four players on their journeys to the Orange Bowl, arguably the junior circuit’s Grand Slam equivalent. The Florida-based international tournament was established in 1947 and has crowned a long list of future pros as champions, from retired great Steffi Graf to current star Coco Gauff.

Stealing the spotlight this season is rising Harvard sophomore and 2022-23 USA Today Girls Tennis Player of the Year Stephanie Yakoff, as well as five-time junior title winner and incoming Texas freshman Ariana Anazagasty-Pursoo. Both already have WTA creds, with Yakoff featuring at the 2023 BNP Paribas Open while Anazagasty-Pursoo competed on three Grand Slam courts.

Kamilla Cardoso, Kiki Rice, Caitlin Clark, Holly Rowe and Kristen Lappas at the ESPN+ 'Full Court Press' premiere
ESPN+'s Full Court Press is one of several women's sports docs hitting the screen this year. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Women's sports storms the big screen

Top Class Tennis is just the latest in what's shaping up to be a women’s sports documentary boom.

From Max's LFG about the USWNT's fight for equal pay and Netflix's Under Pressure chronicling the 2023 World Cup to ESPN+’s 2023-24 NCAA basketball series Full Court Press, athletes in women’s sports have taken streamers by storm.

UNINTERRUPTED's Top Class Tennis is available for streaming now on Prime Video

JWS Launches ‘The Gold Standard’ Hosted by Olympians Kelley O’Hara & Lisa Leslie

the gold standard logo
'The Gold Standard' is just one of three new JWS shows tackling the Summer Olympics.

Just Women's Sports announced three new digital series on Thursday, headlined by The Gold Standard, a new studio show hosted by Olympic gold medalists and women's sports icons Kelley O'Hara and Lisa Leslie.

USWNT and NWSL great O'Hara, a two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold and bronze medalist, is teaming up with three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie, herself a four-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA, to bring viewers inside the world of Olympic women's sports. The pair will record each episode in-studio, with a series of special guests joining them throughout the show's run.

An insider's view of the Summer Games

The Gold Standard will debut on July 27th and cover the biggest women's sports stories from the Paris Olympics, giving fans a unique perspective by tapping into the insights and opinions of two legendary Olympians. 

"I know first-hand just how exciting and intense the Olympic Games can be," Leslie told JWS. "This show gives us a chance as athletes to bring fans closer to the experience, by sharing our unique insights into the Games. And with all the momentum we're seeing in women's sports, now is the perfect time to have a show dedicated to the biggest women's sports moments at the Olympic Games." 

"I can still remember watching the '96 Olympics and knowing that I wanted to be on that stage one day," says O'Hara. "Having the chance to compete in the Olympics and win gold was one of the highlights of my career. I'm looking forward to being a fan this time around and getting the chance to share my own perspective on the Games' biggest stories. Having teamed with Just Women's Sports before, I know this will be content that resonates with fans." 

The Gold Standard will live on Just Women's Sports' YouTube page, with select social cuts distributed across JWS digital platforms. The six-episode show will run through August 13th.

uswnt stars kelley o'hara and jaedyn shaw on jws digital series 1v1
1v1 with Kelley O'Hara will focus on USWNT players as they prep for the 2024 Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

Additional series focus on USWNT's Olympic run

The Gold Standard is just one of three upcoming JWS series designed to invite fans to experience the Summer Games from an Olympian's point of view, with additional series zeroing in on the USWNT's 2024 Olympic run.

Ahead of the opening ceremony, JWS will launch the latest edition of 1v1, with host Kelley O'Hara interviewing three of her USWNT teammates: Emily Sonnett, Jaedyn Shaw, and Rose Lavelle. These peer-to-peer interviews provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the USWNT's preparation for their first major tournament under new manager Emma Hayes.

To round things out, JWS is also bringing back its award-winning series, The 91st. This tournament's edition will be hosted by retired USWNT star and World Cup champion Jessica McDonald alongside noted soccer personalities Jordan Angeli and Duda Pavão. The 91st will follow the USWNT as it looks to go for gold against a stacked international field at the Paris Olympics — including reigning World Cup winners Spain.

Each new digital series leans on the expertise of its accomplished hosts and special guest stars, providing fans with candid, personality-driven commentary surrounding this summer's biggest event.

Costa Rica Holds USWNT to 0-0 Draw in Frustrating Olympic Send-Off

USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan dribbles the ball by Costa Rica forward Melissa Herrera and midfielder Gloriana Villalobos
The USWNT had 12 shots on goal on Tuesday despite failing to find the back of the net. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The USWNT didn't quite get the going away party they were hoping for, settling for a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday in their final tune-up match before the 2024 Olympics kick off next week.

The US produced 26 shots — 12 on target — alongside 67 touches in the box, the most in any match where they failed to convert a single goal since at least 2015, per Opta. Yet they also faced a heroic performance from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermúdez, who tallied 12 saves on the night.

USWNT starters remained mostly intact

After Saturday's win over Mexico, USWNT manager Emma Hayes opted for a very similar starting XI, only swapping Crystal Dunn in for Jenna Nighswonger due to load management.

Named starter Rose Lavelle was a late scratch from the lineup after team warmups, with US Soccer attributing her last-minute absence to "leg tightness." Lavelle was replaced by midfielder Korbin Albert, giving the US a slightly less aggressive attacking edge throughout the match.

Casey Krueger, Lynn Williams, Jaedyn Shaw, Emily Sonnett, and rookie Croix Bethune all got minutes in the second half, coming off the bench to contend with Washington, DC's brutally hot conditions.

USWNT forward Sophia Smith and Costa Rica midfielder Gloriana Villalobos battle for the ball
Costa Rica managed to fend off the USWNT with a strong defensive low-block. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY)

Costa Rica's low-block spelled trouble

"Listen, if you play a game of percentages or law of averages, we're creating more and more high-quality chances, and we're getting numbers into key areas — we're getting touches in the key areas," Hayes told reporters after the match, calling attention to Costa Rica's strong defensive low-block.

"The last part's the hardest part. And I'm really patient, because I've coached teams that have to break blocks down, and it's the hardest thing to do in coaching," she continued.

Hayes also noted the team's lack of training time under her management: The decorated coach officially joined the US in early June after finishing the WSL season with her previous club, league champs Chelsea FC.

USWNT pose for a picture after their send-off friendly against costa rica at Audi Field
The USWNT's Olympic group stage run kicks off on July 25th. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Where to watch the USWNT's Olympic games

Tuesday's draw is just the second time the USWNT has entered a major tournament off a non-win. Back in 2015, the US embarked on their legendary World Cup campaign after a 0-0 send-off draw with South Korea.

The next time the USWNT takes the pitch will be at the Paris Olympics, where they'll play Zambia on Thursday, July 25th at 3 PM ET. The match will be broadcast live on USA, with streaming options available on Peacock.

The Late Sub Podcast: This Is Sophia Smith’s USWNT Attack Now

Sophia Smith dribbles during the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico on Saturday.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico last Saturday. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins breaks down the days leading up to the first USWNT Olympic send-off friendly, discussing player performances, things that worked well on the pitch, and what still needs developing as coach Emma Hayes's team moves towards a crucial Olympic competition set to will dictate the future of the team.

She then sets her sights on the WNBA, previewing WNBA All-Star Weekend and chatting with Gatorade Women’s Basketball Player of the Year Joyce Edwards alongside Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally.

Subscribe to The Late Sub to never miss an episode.

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