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Welcome to the Suddenly Apolitical WNBA

The league has always been game to raise awareness on issues — what’s different now?

AP
AP

On Wednesday, the WNBA fined players from the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Indiana Fever for wearing black warmup shirts, some bearing the words #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5 in an attempt to draw attention to recent events. A day later, after a game between the Liberty and Fever, players refused to answer questions from reporters unless they pertained to Black Lives Matter and the protest. When New York’s Tina Charles was presented with the league’s Player of the Month award, she accepted it with her shirt turned inside out. “My teammates and I will continue to use our platform and raise awareness for the #BlackLivesMatter movement until the @wnba gives its support,” Charles wrote on Instagram later, “as it does for Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters.”

The notion that the league would try to punish players for attempting to make a statement — that it cares more about protocol than social justice — is baffling, to say the least. The WNBA has a long history of activism, something that has often been a source of pride for the league. After the massacre last month in Orlando, for instance, teams hosted blood drives and silent auctions; players across the league were given shirts with rainbow hearts and “#OrlandoUnited” printed on the front. When Seattle Storm center Breanna Stewart, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, wrote the names of the 49 victims of the shooting on her shoes before a game, the team posted a picture on Twitter with the hashtag #WeAreOrlando.

Fining players for this week’s T-shirt-based activism is not just at odds with the history of the WNBA: It’s a break from the league’s counterparts in the NBA. In 2014, after Eric Garner died in police custody in Staten Island, NBA stars including Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Garnett, and Deron Williams staged a nearly identical protest, donning black warmup shirts that read “I can’t breathe.” They were not penalized. Indeed, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who this week pulled the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte over concerns about North Carolina’s House Bill 2 — the so-called “bathroom bill” — praised the Minnesota Lynx, whose players also wore black shirts last week: “I actually think it demonstrates that these are multidimensional people,” he said. “They live in this society, and they have strong views about how things should be. So I’m very encouraging of that.”

The WNBA’s only explanation for the fines so far: The sanctity of uniforms is really important. “We are proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for nonviolent solutions to difficult social issues,” WNBA president Lisa Borders said in a statement, “but expect them to comply with the league’s uniform guidelines.”

It can seem like a slippery slope: Surely you can’t allow players to broadcast any extracurricular message they want from the court. Despite his praise, Silver said that he thought modifying uniforms was “a dangerous road for us to go down.” And, however much Twitter eggs crow, it is not a free-speech issue: The WNBA is a private entity, and its players have no particular legal right to bear their political opinions on their uniforms.

Except, except, except. The WNBA has created a space in which these matters can be addressed. They did so with Orlando. The only real difference this time around is that the Orlando shirt was printed by the league, and these weren’t. The passion and support for the lives lost is similar. Liberty forward Swin Cash summed it up Thursday: “I don’t think you can play basketball, have a platform that we have, and not be able to be a voice for people that are voiceless.” Players have already been given this stage to express themselves — is a shirt manufacturer really enough to draw a line?