Activism in sports? WNBA says not so fast

The women's professional basketball league fined teams that wore black warm-up T-shirts in the wake of shootings by and against police officers.

Mark Lennihan/AP
The New York Liberty basketball team warms up before a game against the Atlanta Dream July 13. The Liberty and two other teams were fined by the league for wearing the black T-shirts in the wake of shootings by and against police officers.

Is there a place for activism in sports? Not if it violates the uniform guidelines of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).

Three teams and their players learned this the hard way Wednesday. The league fined the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Indiana Fever for wearing black warm-up T-shirts in the wake of shootings by and against police officers.

The penalties the league handed down come amid a renewed movement of activism among professional athletes. In fact, following the death of Eric Garner while he was in police custody in 2014, basketball stars, including Derrick Rose and LeBron James, wore black warm up T-shirts with the phrase, "I can't breathe." They were not fined by the National Basketball Association (NBA). Now, some question why their female counterparts received harsher treatment. 

"With men, they're allowed to speak up about issues as things are going on. And they're applauded for it," says Devereaux Peters, a player on the Fever, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor Thursday. "As a women, a lot of times, I think we're told to be quiet, stand in the background, and do our job. We have voices on these issues, too. They need to be known."    

The Fever and Mercury wore the plain black T-shirts Tuesday night, while the Liberty wore them four times, including Wednesday morning. Though the shirts were the Adidas brand (the official outfitter of the league), WNBA rules state that uniforms may not be altered in any way.

"We are proud of WNBA players' engagement and passionate advocacy for nonviolent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league's uniform guidelines," WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a statement the league provided the Associated Press.

The WNBA fined all three teams $5,000, and each player $500. 

The league reminded teams of its uniform policy earlier this week, after the Minnesota Lynx, Dallas Wings, and New York Liberty all wore black T-shirts in honor of Alton Sterling (killed by police in Baton Rouge, La., on July 5), Philando Castile (killed by police in Minnesota the day after), and the five Dallas police officers (killed in an attack July 7).

The Lynx tweeted an image of four of its players, including star Maya Moore, wearing the shirts. Printed on the front were "Change Starts with Us" and "Justice & Accountability." On the back were the names of Mr. Castile, Mr. Sterling, the Dallas Police emblem, and "Black Lives Matter."

Activism in sports has a storied history. In the 1960s, boxer Muhammad Ali famously protested the Vietnam War, NBA player Bill Russell spoke out against racial inequality, and sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, each raised a single, black-gloved fist in the air on the medal podium of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to signify "black power." Mr. Carlos and Mr. Smith were suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic village.

Though high-profile athletes such as basketball star Michael Jordan and golfing sensation Tiger Woods steered clear of politics in the the 1990s to protect their brands, activism in sports found new life with the Black Lives Matter movement. And when the NBA players wore the warm up T-shirts with the "I can't breathe" phrase in honor of Mr. Garner, in lieu of a fine, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a carefully worded statement, in which he praised players for "voicing their personal views on important issues," but added that his "preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules."

Like Fever player Ms. Peters, Fritz Polite, a professor at Shenandoah University, who specializes in the intersection of sports, society, and business, questions the double standard.

"The WNBA is flat out wrong," says Dr. Polite, in an interview with the Monitor. "Sport has always had a place in terms of addressing some of the issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. It always has. It would behoove those in a position of power to embrace the opportunity to impact and create change."

"I'm perplexed," he adds.  

In the wake of shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the league organized efforts to benefit the city, and encouraged its teams and players to do the same. It and its players held financial donations, blood drives, and silent auctions. In fact, on one Friday night that month, six teams wore warm-up shirts that read "#ORLANDO UNITED" under a rainbow-colored heart.

"We have a platform that is incredibly helpful in situations like this as sports is an international language.... Sports is a sector that brings people together in today's environment where there is so much polarization," said Ms. Borders, the president. "Our teams, all 12 of them, are doing wonderful things, from moments of silence to wearing shooting shirts. There is an array of activity across the league and country and we are very, very proud."

Peters, of the Fever, said it's frustrating the league has chosen which issues it will allow its players to support and which ones it won't.

"[Black Lives Matter] is something that we want to raise awareness about it, and they basically said no you can't ... which to me is a problem."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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