Back on July 9th, in response to recent police shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, four members of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx showed up to a post-game presser with shirts with “Philando Castile”, “Alton Sterling”, and “Black Lives Matter” on the back and “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accontability” splashed across the front. In support of their fellow players, Tina Charles and members of the New York Liberty followed suit a day later with shirts bearing #BlackLivesMatter, #Dallas5 and #_________ to represent the inevitable hashtag that will arrive in tandem with another tragic shooting incident.
“This is a human issue & we need to speak up for change, together.” -Mayapic.twitter.com/tyfl65Ag81
While the gesture received attention at the time – four police officers worked as security guards walked off their jobs with the Lynx – it had mostly died down as the news cycled forward with other protests and national news. Then, on Thursday morning, the WNBA announced they would be fining all teams involved $5,000 and each player who took part $500 each. Surprisingly, neither the Lynx players nor the team itself was fined. Instead, the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Indiana Fever (all wearing the same hashtagged shirts) each received notice from the league and an undisclosed amount of players were penalized for violating the WNBA’s uniform guidelines, which states that uniforms cannot be altered in any way. Reports say The Dallas Wings were warned for their actions but not officially fined.
In response, players continued to don shirts deemed to be against league rules on Thursday night. In this case, many wore all black ensembles instead of their normal warmups. In addition, players for the Liberty and the Fever – who played each other in at Madison Square Garden on Thursday – declined to answer any questions at press availability that were not directly related to Black Lives Matter or the WNBA’s decision to levy fines. As seen in an Excelle Sports video from the locker room, Liberty players commented on their loss to the Fever and the season in general briefly before Tanisha Wright stepped up to say that the team would be using their platform as professional athletes to talk about the issues they feel are important. Wright goes on to say that it is “unfortunate that the WNBA has fined us and not supported its players.”
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Tamika Catchings and Tina Charles followed suit, refusing to answer questions and accepting a Player of the Month award in an all black track suit, respectively.
Tamika Catchings and other teams in the league discuss a media Blackout
Today, I decided to not be silent in the wake of the @wnba fines against @nyliberty, @indianafever & @phoenixmercury due to our support in the #BlackLivesMatter movement . Seventy percent of the @wnba players are African-American women and as a league collectively impacted. My teammates and I will continue to use our platform and raise awareness for the #BlackLivesMatter movement until the @wnba gives its support as it does for Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters.
See this Instagram photo by @tina31charles * 22 likes
According to ESPN, Fever player representative Briann January said,
What’s most upsetting is the way it was handled. You have a league that is 90 — if not above 90 — percent African-American and you have an issue that is directly affecting them and the people they know and you have a league that isn’t willing to side with them.
It’s not a race issue, not an anti-police issue, not a black or white issue. It’s a right or wrong issue.
In response to the controversy and the WNBA’s decision to come down on these players and teams for speaking out about political beliefs and current events in America, many stars from around the league spoke their minds on Twitter.
Don’t say we have a voice and then fine us because we use it. #notpuppets #cutthestrings
The WNBA is fining $5k per team + $500 per player = $33k. Excessive. For using this platform to speak out! Says a lot!
Worried about a cause that speaks to 70% of our league? Yes, we might lose a little. But ever think we might gain more… Respect? #WNBA
Geno Auriemma, whom both Maya Moore of the Lynx and Tina Charles of the Liberty played for at the University of Connecticut, chimed in as well saying he’s proud of the players “speaking their conscience” but simultaneously acknowledging it’s a delicate situation.
Olympic coach Geno Auriemma asked how @usabasketball handle team if continues #BlackLivesMatter support at #Rio2016:pic.twitter.com/Qce5chGlKM
The WNBA is now entering its month-long Olympic hiatus while some players head to Rio to compete, and according to Tina Charles she is not prepared to let the issue drop just yet. In comments to ESPN, Charles says
After seeing the African-American male shot three times after helping an autistic person out this morning in Florida, I knew I couldn’t be silent. Knowing the player I am representing this organization, if anybody was going to wear it, it had to be me. I have no problem wearing this shirt inside out for the rest of the season until we are able to have the WNBA support us.
Being able to see how they feel and what they want to do, coming collectively together. Seeing the other 11 WNBA teams, how we basically just did a media blackout, if they are up for doing the same thing.
Whether any action is actually taken by the Olympic team in Brazil or not, only time will tell. But it is clear that even without the WNBA in action for a few weeks this isn’t the end of the abrasiveness between the league and its teams. Publicly drawing attention to this issue is obviously very important to players around the league, and mere fines may not be enough to silence their opinions. There is a way to balance a political message of support with league rules, but that tenuous equilibrium will only come after further discussions and increased understanding of priorities between all parties.