Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
The way professional and even amateur sports organizations view activism has changed. The activism we’re talking about here, for reference, is a broadly defined one — basically anytime anyone in a position to be heard says, “Hey, this isn’t right/fair/safe/OK.”
After the Black Lives Matter movement sparked conversations about and protests of systemic racism in the sports world, the response to such activism ranged from enthusiasm from (some) fans to tepid, superficial tolerance combined with quiet retribution on the part of ownership and league officials to incessant, meaningless concern-trolling from Fox News personalities and those they have indoctrinated.
Last year, after the enormous protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, sports organizations started taking a markedly different tack. “Co-opting” would probably be the best word to use, as leagues suddenly “embraced” antiracism — as long as that antiracism didn’t interfere with their bottom lines (see: the quelled NBA strike in the middle of the 2020 NBA playoffs following the killing of Jacob Blake). Mostly, that looked like the NFL’s “End Racism” field adornments, the meaninglessness of which was underscored when it appeared next to “Kansas City Chiefs” in the end zone. Amid the superficial actions and promises, most of which were self-evident efforts to diffuse the establishment-busting momentum into empty platitudes, the WNBA stood out. That was, as it always has been, because of the players.
WNBA players led the wave of player protest in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Not the league. The league actively fought against it, just as it actively tried to mask its LGBTQ players. Within the past few years, league officials have had the belated realization that it is actually more profitable to accept and capitalize off of their players’ willingness to challenge the status quo than to combat it. Through efforts led by the players and WNBPA, they have worked to make tangible change, most notably by campaigning for Reverend Raphael Warnock as he ran for and won a Georgia U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Kelly Loeffler who co-owned the Atlanta Dream at the time.
With a victory like that, players could have rested on their laurels for a minute — especially since there wasn’t much rest in this year’s hotly contested playoff race, which couldn’t have had a more poetic ending with Candace Parker bringing her hometown its first title. But they didn’t. The Player’s Association — not the league — took out a full page ad in the New York Times last Sunday, which happened to be when a decisive Game 4 would be played. But they weren’t asking people to tune in, or celebrating another remarkable season.
“Abortion, birth control and fertility care are vital — not just for athletes that can get pregnant, but for all families and gender identities,” they wrote. “Reproductive rights are human rights. Family planning is freedom.” The ad was a protest against the abortion ban in Texas, which is being rapidly replicated across the country. Stephanie Dolson, who plays for the then-not-yet-champion Chicago Sky, wore a sweatshirt to Game 4 that bore the slogan, “Abortion Is Healthcare.”
They could have easily “stuck to sports.” But they decided, again, to take a stand instead — a stand about an issue that couldn’t be more vital or controversial, a stand that hinges on a word many people aren’t even comfortable saying. In a moment when the league was in the spotlight, they said it loudly and — to use a term that has become hackneyed but here feels accurate — unapologetically.
“We’re putting a stake in the ground,” Layshia Clarendon told The 19th. “This directly affects a lot of people in our league as a women’s league and a league of people with uteruses.” It is an inspiring decision, but they didn’t do it simply to inspire. They did it because any other choice would have been a compromise they weren’t willing to make, and that is an ethos we can all seek to emulate.