Made for the fight, WNBA players used their platform for anti-racism activism in 2020

On Sunday, November 8, U.S. media outlets called the 2020 presidential election for Democrat Joe Biden to mark the unofficial end of the chaotic term of Donald Trump, a playboy real estate mogul-turned reality TV host-turned polarizing politician. 

Moments after the call, WNBA superstar Sue Bird posted to Instagram a video from a month earlier of herself in ski goggles, draped in remnants of the basketball net, spraying Moet & Chandon champagne on teammates after clinching her third league championship. The caption read: “I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS!!!!#BidenHarris2020 LETS GOOOO @joebiden @kamalaharris”

The 40-year-old basketball legend had struggled to find her political voice early in her career, infamously remaining silent when same-sex marriage was on the ballot in the state of Washington in 2012, for example. But, Bird’s voice was loud and clear in 2020. She embraced a major role in leading the WNBA Players’ Association to the forefront of the activist stage in 2020. 

That stage, however, had many leading cast members. Before the season began, the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud and Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream opted out to focus on the fight for social justice. Cloud was no stranger to political activism. The season before, she staged a media “blackout,” refusing to talk about any other topic than gun violence. In 2019, the Mystics won the WNBA championship. Cloud signed an endorsement deal with Converse and prepared to defend the title. Then, the video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of black man surfaced. The images of a Minneapolis cop killing George Floyd were too much for her.

She wrote in a May 30 Players’ Tribune essay: “Because right now……. there’s only one thing that’s on my mind. Right now, if we’re being really real? As a black person in America, there’s only one thing that could possibly BE on my mind. And that’s fearing for my life. It’s fearing for my life, and for the life of every other person who is guilty of nothing more than belonging to a race that this country has been built on oppressing. It’s wanting to stay alive — in a time where the reality for a lot of people is that my staying alive doesn’t matter.” Montgomery joined NBA superstar LeBron James’ More Than A Vote campaign, focusing her efforts largely on getting out the vote at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). 

When COVID-19 pushed the WNBA season and its players into an isolated “bubble” in Bradenton, Florida in 2020, basketball took a backseat to vigils, strikes, t-shirts, public campaigns, endorsements, and strong words from the league’s most prolific athletes. Before the opening jump of the virus-delayed season, Bird’s Storm and the New York Liberty took a knee for the national anthem and recognized a 26-second silence in honor of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police officers during a botched search. All season long, Taylor’s name was stitched under the players’ names on their jerseys. 

On Aug. 26, players for the Dream, Mystics, Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks kneeled together in solidarity on the court as they refused to play in the evening’s scheduled games to protest the Milwaukee police shooting of Jacob Blake. Mystics players wore white t-shirts spelling out Blake’s name on the front with seven bullet holes printed on the back. (Police shot Blake seven times in the back.) That night, the entire league gathered for a candlelight vigil organized by WNBPA members. ESPN reporter Holly Rowe reported via Tweet from the vigil: “After games were boycotted Wednesday night, the entire @wnba bubble organized and participated in a candlelight vigil. People were encouraged to speak their heart. They are in this together.”

The activism didn’t stop after the Storm swept the Las Vegas Aces for the championship, either. On Oct. 21, the Storm franchise collectively endorsed Biden over Trump. The Connecticut Sun, whose season slogan was “Change Can’t Wait” and included many educational and political actions, used Instagram to post 10 GOTV posts the week before the election. Individual players endorsed Biden, as well as Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat running against Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, in the U.S. Senate race. 

The demographic composition of the WNBPA is 100% women, 83% identifying as people of color, and a “substantial proportion” identifying as LBGTQ+. In other words, it’s a league of people whose very existence in the professional arena and whose very presence in the athletic world have been a fight to achieve. It was a no-brainer that the fight would continue beyond the out-of-bounds lines. And, as Bird revealed in her post, it was something to celebrate.