Gabby Williams gets fired up when our conversation shifts to whether politics belong in sports or whether they will serve as a “distraction” in the upcoming WNBA season. “It’s ridiculous to me,” the Chicago Sky forward tells me over the phone. The WNBA’s 22-game season begins on July 25, amid a global pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Players like Williams want to do their part to affect meaningful change. “We’re on to something much greater. I think, more recently than ever, athletes realize that we can have such impact with our platforms,” she says. “It’s almost a crime not to use them.”
As players look for ways to participate in—and advance—the national conversation about racism, the WNBA also has an opportunity when its games tip off at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The women’s season aligns with the restart of the 2019-20 NBA season, giving the WNBA the chance to showcase itself in front of an eager, captive audience. The WNBA hopes it can capitalize by playing alongside the NBA. “It’s going to get so much more exposure, TV opportunities for us [as fans] to escape, but also so people can really see women play during the peaks of their careers,” Dawn Staley, WNBA legend and the head coach of both USA women’s basketball and the University of South Carolina, tells me. Staley says that many Americans are “starving” for sports. I ask her whether she’s concerned about the safety of the players. “Somebody’s got to be the martyrs in getting sports back,” Staley says. “Whether or not the WNBA has the resources or deep pockets, I think they’re going to do the best they can to not put any player, coach, or staff member in harm’s way.”
In its 24th season, the WNBA is still trying to find a foothold in American sports. The players agreed to a new labor deal in January that raises the salary cap, among other benefits, but current and former players say more investment is needed to grow the league. “The quicker we put money into the WNBA, the quicker we get a return on the investment,” Staley adds. “I know there’s a space for professional women’s basketball for decades to come. It’s just taking a little longer than what everybody wants.” This season could be the stepping stone to show that the WNBA is on her way.
As for the political landscape, the league’s players are prepared. Advocacy and activism have been part of the WNBA’s history since the league’s first season in 1997, through its ongoing fight for equal pay as well as its stances on LGBTQ+ inclusion, reproductive rights, and racial injustice. In July 2016, Minnesota Lynx players wore “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability” warm-up T-shirts after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two Black men shot by police officers. Later that season, the entire Indiana Fever team linked arms and kneeled during the national anthem; before Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals, the Sparks stayed in the locker room during the anthem. Maya Moore, a four-time league champion, MVP winner, and two-time Olympic gold medalist has been on a two-season sabbatical to advocate for criminal justice reform; her efforts recently helped overturn a 50-year prison sentence for Jonathan Irons, a 40-year-old Georgia man who had served 23 years of his sentence after a conviction for burglary and assault with a gun.
“The WNBA and its players never shy away from speaking out on social injustices,” Staley says. “They’re utilizing the same stamina, persistence, and perseverance that they’ve used to allow the WNBA to be in existence for 24 years.”
Tamika Catchings agrees. The former Indiana Fever star and the team’s current general manager and vice president of basketball operations knelt alongside her teammates in 2016. She understands the importance of players having a united front when games resume. “We know it’s going to be a challenge,” Catchings said on a Zoom conference call earlier this month, “but the 144 players that will be down in Florida will be ready and excited and not only use their platform on the court but also use the platform that they’ve developed off the court.”
For the 144 WNBA players and 12 teams that are in the “wubble,” rosters will look a little different. Over 25 players have decided to opt out of the season. Sun center Jonquel Jones said she didn’t feel comfortable competing in an environment with “the resurgence and unknown aspects of COVID-19”; international players like Australian Liz Cambage, who believed she had coronavirus in December, didn’t want to make the trip from overseas; and second-year Liberty standout Asia Durr decided to opt out because of a “complicated and arduous” recovery process after testing positive for coronavirus over a month ago. The reigning MVP, Elena Delle Donne, said she would not play for the Washington Mystics, citing health concerns. Delle Donne has spoken publicly about her ongoing battle with Lyme disease and felt that going to play in the bubble would put her compromised immune system at risk. After her petition requesting a medical exemption was denied, Delle Donne wrote an open letter in The Players’ Tribune detailing her treatment, which includes a daily regimen of 64 pills. (Despite the exemption denial, the Mystics announced they would pay Delle Donne’s full salary for this season.)
Other players opted against playing because they felt their time and focus was better spent addressing issues related to systemic racism and police brutality. Atlanta Dream point guard Renee Montgomery was one of the first to opt out of the 2020 season for this reason, tweeting, “There’s work to be done off the court in so many areas in our community. Social justice reform isn’t going to happen overnight but I do feel that now is the time and Moments equal Momentum.” She told my Ringer colleague Paolo Uggetti that she felt like her heart wasn’t in playing and that she’d be doing a disservice to her team if she traveled to Florida. “When I was so busy planning everything I wanted to do for social reform that I realized I wasn’t working out or I wasn’t making time for the sport. I think that was the moment where I was like, ‘You know what? It’s probably better that I don’t go.’” Moore expressed a similar sentiment in February 2019 when she announced she was stepping away from the game.
Minnesota Lynx head coach and GM Cheryl Reeve, who has coached both Moore and Montgomery, believes that players are putting the focus on things bigger than basketball. “I think right now, people are finally seeing a much clearer focus on what Maya Moore’s work has been about. Maya has been doing this for a long time and I think now we are all going, ‘Ah, now I understand,’” Reeve said on a call with the media. “We think it’s really important, whether it’s Maya or Renee Montgomery, this is what’s on the forefront of our minds. Playing basketball is what we do, but a bigger part of us is wanting to make the world a better place for everyone.”
There’s another side to this coin, though: one where players get to still play the game they love and utilize their platform to shine it on the other virus that America is trying to cure.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” says Angel McCoughtry, the Las Vegas Aces guard, when I asked why she decided to play this season. The 11-year vet took the 2017 season off for rest, missed time in 2018 after injuring her left knee, took 2019 off to rehab, and now, in 2020, there’s a pandemic. “I’m getting older in my career, and I know I don’t have that much longer left, so I don’t want to take anything for granted. I want to be out there as much as I can,” she tells me. But as much as she wants to be back on the court and compete with the best, donning the Aces’ black and red for the first time, she still wants to participate in the conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. McCoughtry and her business partner, Reynaud Jefferson, came up with an idea for WNBA players to continue to “say her name” throughout the season by placing the names of women killed by police on their jerseys. McCoughtry, who played at the University of Louisville and is the program’s all-time leading scorer, says she wants to advocate for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old who was gunned down by police in her Louisville home in March. No arrests have been made in Taylor’s death. When McCoughtry posted her idea on Instagram and Twitter, along with a petition asking for support, the mock Aces jersey went viral. “The main thing was to fight for a cause while playing. I wanted the girls to pick a name and then create a relationship with those families,” she says.
The WNBA will also paint “Black Lives Matter” or “Say Their Names” on the basketball court, an idea originally thought of by WNBA player Breanna Stewart. McCoughtry says the intention behind the moves is to continue the conversation and bridge the gap between the WNBA players and the movement. “The main idea is to bring back that togetherness. America is missing that togetherness, and that sense of community,” McCoughtry says.
McCoughtry was proud to learn that the NBA will follow suit with similar initiatives—the league approved 29 statements for players to choose from to wear on the back of their jerseys to replace their last names—but she wishes she and her WNBA colleagues had gotten more credit for originating the idea. “It’s another pandemic with women equality. Our voices need to be heard, and when we come up with ideas, you need to shout us out, just as much as you do when the men come up with ideas,” she explains.
The WNBA recently approved Breonna Taylor’s name to be placed on jerseys as part of its larger initiative to center the opening weekend completely around the Black Lives Matter movement. Each game thereafter, players will have the option to continue to have Breonna Taylor’s name under their own. “People say, ‘Well, what does putting a name on a jersey going to do?’ It does a lot,” McCoughtry says. “We’re planting the seed. We’re representing that person. We’re keeping their legacy alive.”
There has been resistance to the idea. Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream—the franchise that drafted McCoughtry and where she played for the first 11 years of her career—said in a statement that she was “incredibly disappointed to read about efforts to insert a political platform into the league.” I spoke to McCoughtry before Loeffler’s comments, but her response to my question about criticism that her efforts were politicizing the game might as well have been aimed directly at the senator.
“First of all, social injustice is not politics,” McCoughtry says. “Social injustice has been around for a long time and people have still been playing basketball. This isn’t something that just came up this year. You fight social injustice wherever you go. You fight it on the court, you fight it if you’re not playing. You fight it when you’re walking down the street. So, how can it be a distraction if you’re playing a sport? We were playing this whole time that social injustices have been around. You weren’t saying anything back then.”
The WNBA distanced itself from Loeffler’s comments, saying in a statement that Loeffler has not served as the governor of the Atlanta Dream since October 2019 and is no longer a part of the day-to-day operations of the franchise. But players were outraged and called for her to sell her shares of the Dream. “As a Black woman, as a queer woman playing in sports ... my existence is political,” Layshia Clarendon said on ABC News. The New York Liberty guard is the first vice president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and one of the leaders of the league’s inaugural Social Justice Council, which brings together league officials and union representatives to collaborate on issues pertaining to race, voting rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy, gun control, and other important societal issues, per a joint statement. “We are the movement,” Clarendon adds. “We are those women.”
For many players, sitting out the season is simply not financially viable. Williams told me that her decision to play this season centered on missing the game and her teammates, but it was also financially motivated. “To be honest,” she says, “it would be nice to finally get out my rookie contract.” Most WNBA players do not have the luxury to forego a season’s salary. Per the new collective bargaining agreement, players will not receive their salary if they opt out for reasons other than being injured or if they are considered high risk for the coronavirus. If a player contracts the virus while in Florida and misses the season, they would be paid in full.
For some players, their WNBA salary isn’t even the highest source of income. After a tough 36-game WNBA season, many players hop on a plane to tend to their more lucrative overseas contracts. (For reference, Breanna Stewart made $900,000 in Russia compared to the $56,000 she made in her entire 2018 championship-MVP season in the United States.) Prior to heading to Florida, Williams was quarantined in Palavas-les-Flots, France, because her other job—playing for the Basket Lattes Montpellier Agglomération club—was suspended early due to COVID. If they’re lucky, players can also rely on endorsement deals. The Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud, who decided to forego the season in favor of her activism, recently became the first women’s basketball player to ink a shoe deal with Converse, and the brand will cover her entire season’s salary. “At the end of the day people still want to work and make money for their families,” McCoughtry adds. “They want to eat. ... I just want these women to be taken care of financially.”
Under the CBA, the league began paying its players starting June 1. Because of this, the WNBA’s 12 teams had to get their rosters down to a max of 12 players by May 26 to abide by the $1.3 million salary cap per team. There was one problem, though: The original training camp date was canceled due to health concerns. The majority of the women who got the boot were rookies. After the league’s unconventional yet successful remote draft in April, rookies didn’t have an opportunity to show what they could bring to the team without in-person play. Because of players opting out, however, there’s been a newfound chance for first-years; there are roughly 22 rookies in the league this season, which might be a new record.
Te’a Cooper was on the plane headed to the Big 12 tournament when her Baylor Bears were told their season was over because of COVID. She was crushed. “This was our last year and this was the only chance we had to win a national championship or Big 12 championship. And it got cut short because of a virus,” Cooper says. She ended up being drafted to Phoenix in the second round, but didn’t make final cuts and was waived. Then, after Kristi Toliver decided to sit out this year, the Sparks called up the rookie to fill a point guard position. “Even though it’s at IMG, we still have a season and [the WNBA] still made it possible for women to play the sport of basketball. I think that’s amazing,” she tells me. “I mean, we get to play. I get to be in the WNBA, I’m considered a professional. I get to get a jersey.”
When the bright lights of IMG Academy switch on for the first game of the WNBA season, it’ll look a little different. It’ll feel different, too. Beyond the countless roster switches that free agency produced, the league will have a different tone. But what won’t be different is a league dripping in advocacy; players putting their careers on the line in order to give a voice to the voiceless. The phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” will frame the baselines as a reminder that even though the players aren’t actively involved in the summer of protests in the streets of their home cities, they’ve found a new way to take part. Breonna Taylor’s name will be on the jerseys of a diverse and powerful league as a continued fight for justice. “What kind of first impression are we going to make? What kind of message are we going to send? Are people going to look at us and know that Black Lives Matter is a part of our identity as a league?” Williams asks. “We hold a lot of power this summer.”