Speaking out, standing up, sitting in, taking a knee: This is speech, the vocabulary of activism, as embraced by athletes of all stripes expressed since the dawn of televised sports. Tonight, when viewers tune in for the tip-off of the 2023 WNBA season, they’ll see a league with activism deeply woven into its DNA—using the full range of this vocabulary to remind us what patriotic protest, at its best, is all about.
The WNBA has come to be defined by its players’ ability to lead through the challenges of the moment. It’s a league of women who have expressed their voices and exercised their power in ways that have set the standard for collective action. Negotiating a landmark collective bargaining agreement; dedicating the 2020 season to social justice, declaring that Black Lives Matter, and emblazoning Breonna Taylor’s name on their jerseys; standing strong with teammate and sister Brittney Griner, while galvanizing the Biden Administration to help bring Brittney home from a horrific 10-month detention in Russia—these are the hallmarks of an engaged, passionate community that is fluent in the language of social justice and savvy about shaping the national discourse.
Last year, most WNBA teams chose to remain in their locker rooms during the national anthem, in a gesture of unified protest against the incongruity between the values the anthem signifies and the realities for Black people in America. This year, as so much remains unchanged, some teams or players may do the same. Others may sit or kneel. Still others, including Brittney Griner, plan to stand up—physically for the anthem itself and symbolically for the rights of their peers to make themselves heard and express dissent loudly and boldly, and in accordance with the proudest traditions of this country, however they see fit.
All of the above is sure to be misinterpreted—in some cases willfully—by the same “shut-up-and-dribble” voices that reflexively attack and distort every principled expression of athlete dissent, from Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam, to Dr. John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s raised fists at the 1968 Olympic Games, to the Minnesota Lynx players’ wearing Black Lives Matter shirts in 2016, to Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee. But sports do not exist in a vacuum; like art, politics, music, and every other thread that make up our culture, sport is woven inextricably into the life of this nation. Which means our national life always bleeds into the sports pages—especially when the basic rights, and even the lives, of athletes and their families are what’s on the line.
As a league led by Black and brown women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and allies, activism has been a fact of life and a condition of survival since the WNBA’s inception. By daring to exist, let alone excel, in spaces that were never intended for them, women athletes are doing something inherently revolutionary every time they take the court. Which is why, despite the acute shock and horror felt by every member of the WNBA family—from players and coaches to agents and fans—at the news of Brittney’s detention last year, this activist league knew exactly how to respond. Brittney had been playing in Russia due to pay inequity rooted in racism, sexism, and homophobia. The reality that those same forces are what made her an ideal political pawn for Russian President Vladimir Putin kept every WNBA player exceptionally focused and unified—and rallied others, from members of the public to journalists who heeded warnings about Brittney’s safety in an effort to aid her return.
Having been put in a literal cage, too small for her frame, stripped of her essential American freedoms, and deprived of even her most basic rights during a sham trial and unjust sentencing, Brittney, supported by many other players, will make a statement this WNBA season by standing tall for those uniquely American freedoms—the most important of which being the absolute and inviolable and constitutionally protected freedom to stand, sit, kneel, praise, protest, and otherwise make your voice heard.
In their acceptance and celebration of one another’s liberty to choose different ways to express themselves, WNBA athletes are celebrating what it means to be a patriot. They are transforming the sadistic stunt of BG’s detention, intended by Putin to serve as a racial and political wedge, into a reminder of the vibrancy, the diversity, and the strength of everything that America’s adversaries hoped to defeat. Not least, every single one of them is standing in unmistakable solidarity with Brittney—even if they happen to be making their stand by taking a knee.
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