On May 14, the WNBA will enter its 25th season, a historic milestone for the league. While the 2021 season will be special because of the return to a seminormal schedule amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this year also stands to celebrate and acknowledge the resilience and great achievements of the league itself after 25 years. The most important of those achievements is the WNBA’s outspoken and relentless advocacy for social justice.
As one of the longest-running sports leagues for women in the United States, the WNBA has faced prejudice since its establishment in 1996. In 2019, more than 80% of the league’s players identified as people of color, and around one-third of the players openly identified as gay, leaving the league susceptible to not only sexism, but also racism and homophobia.
In addition, the league has faced challenges accumulating revenue and recognition in the sports world, especially compared to its male counterparts in the NBA. For example, two of the biggest stars of the two leagues, Sue Bird and Lebron James, have played in around the same number of seasons and have both won four championships. However, Bird only earned $215,000 in 2020, with an $11,000 bonus for winning the championship, a meager salary compared to James’ $39.2 million and $370,000 bonus.
Still, all of these challenges have not fazed the WNBA, as it is standing strong in 2021. In fact, the league has risen above many other athletic organizations to become a voice for those whose voices often go unheard.
Many teams and leagues around the world have begun to recognize their potential humanitarian impact by reaching beyond the roles of conventional sports competitions. The WNBA was a catalyst for this athletic advocacy, as it was one of the earliest leagues to form a public, united front against police brutality and systemic racism in 2016.
One striking example of this occurred after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, who the police shot and killed in 2016. Before their game, the defending champions Minnesota Lynx held a pregame news conference to bring awareness to the deaths of these men. They also wore T-shirts that said “Black Lives Matter, Change starts with us — Justice & Accountability.” Although they faced backlash, as four police officers working at their game that night walked out, the players said they were proud of their efforts and vowed to do their part in spreading awareness and calling for change in the treatment of Black Americans.
Looking toward today, the momentum and passion that shone through in actions like those of the Lynx in 2016 are even brighter now. 2020 was an especially powerful year for the WNBA, as it dedicated its season to social justice and created a new platform, entitled “The Justice Movement,” dedicated to opening and continuing conversations about important social issues.
In addition, during the 2020 season, players wore warm-up T-shirts that had the words “Black Lives Matter” printed on them. The players also sported the words “Say Her Name” on their actual uniforms, a nod to the campaign started in 2014 that works to raise awareness of Black women who are disproportionately affected by violence and police brutality, such as Breonna Taylor, a medical worker residing in Louisville, Ky., who was murdered by police in March 2020.
In one especially touching and saddening display of advocacy through their clothing, the Washington Mystics wore shirts with bullet holes drawn on the back before their game Aug. 26 to honor Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who had been shot days before by the police in Wisconsin.
Perhaps most impactful has been the WNBA’s work during the off-season as players used their time off to speak out against voter suppression and to urge communities to vote for candidates with social justice platforms. No effort was as powerful as the Atlanta Dream’s work to change the course of the January 2021 runoff election in Georgia and turn momentum toward Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Early on, Warnock was a long shot for winning the election, as he was running in a traditionally Republican-leaning state and was ranked No. 4 in the polls. However, after sitting Republican senator and co-owner of the Dream Kelly Loeffler stated her opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, tried to have American flags sewn into the uniforms instead of the honorary phrases the players chose, and advocated for fewer politics in sports, the players of the Dream decided to stand against their team’s owner.
The team came together as one unit and decided to outwardly support Warnock, Loeffler’s opponent, wearing shirts that said “Vote Warnock” and encouraging communities to vote through social media. Eventually, their hard work paid off, as Warnock won the race and became the first Black senator from Georgia. Loeffler was later ousted from the Dream’s ownership.
The WNBA’s leadership in social justice has been incredibly impactful despite the league’s own struggles with viewership and treatment. As the league celebrates its 25th year of play, it must also be recognized for the outstanding efforts its players and executives have made to stand for social justice.
Hopefully, the WNBA will have many more years to come of exciting athletic competition, as well as successful social justice reform for the world beyond sports.
Julia Cannamela is a first-year in the College. Women’s World of Sports appears online every other week.