WNBA withdraws fines in show of support for on-court activism

Women's voices are coming back to the fore in the Black Lives Matter movement, which was originally founded by women.

Mark Lennihan/File/AP
Members of the New York Liberty basketball team await the start of a game against the Atlanta Dream, in New York, in this Wednesday July 13, 2016 file photo.

Professional women basketball players will not be penalized for their on-the-court activism: The WNBA withdrew fines for teams and players who violated the league’s uniform policy to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reversing the penalties, WNBA President Lisa Borders announced Saturday that she wanted to show even more support for “players expressing themselves on matters important to them.” Earlier this week, the WNBA fined the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Indiana Fever for wearing black warm-up T-shirts with white lettering commemorating Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officers.

A movement launched by three women following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter has often been most poignantly and effectively expressed in female voices. Whether from the convention stage, the sports arena, or the concert hall, women are using their platforms to raise the profile of the deaths of African-Americans in police custody.

On Thursday night, players from Liberty and Fever held their own news conference to speak only on the issue of Black Lives matter following a game in Madison Square Garden – boycotting the obligatory postgame news conference to comment on social justice, rather than plays.

NBA players were not fined for wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts following the death of Eric Garner, who died after police put him in a chokehold in July 2014 – raising concerns about double standards for women using their platform as professional athletes for social activism.

"With men, they're allowed to speak up about issues as things are going on. And they're applauded for it," Devereaux Peters, a player on the Fever, told The Christian Science Monitor on 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 WNBA will use the next few weeks, when play is suspended for the Olympics, to work with players and their union to reach an agreement to reconcile players’ desire to address societal issues with league rules and uniform guidelines, president Lisa Borders said in a statement.

The reach of female basketball players isn't matched by that of their male counterparts. WNBA games averaged 202,000 viewers on ESPN and ESPN2 in its 2015 regular season, while the NBA averaged 1.67 million viewers, according to Sports Business Daily. 

But female Black Lives Matters activists will have a captive and politically minded audience Tuesday evening when the mothers of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin will address the crowd on the second night of the Democratic National Convention, following Bill Clinton, giving the Mothers of the Movement a national audience. The group began meeting with Hillary Clinton in November and many of the mothers have campaigned with her since then, particularly in the lead-up to the South Carolina primary.

The mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown appeared in the music video for Beyoncé's Lemonade holding photos of their sons. Beyoncé's visual album, a tribute to the strength of African-American women and support for the Black Lives Matter movement, plays a clip of Malcolm X saying, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman."

Beyoncé has been criticized for being "anti-cop" and several police unions called for police officers to refuse to work off-duty security for her concerts, following her politically charged Super Bowl performance, during which her dancers wore costumes similar to those of Black Panther Party members in the 1960s. Beyoncé's music video Formation also shows graffiti saying “stop killing us.”

Four off-duty Minneapolis police officers walked off the job as private security for the game after members of the Minnesota Lynx walked on to the court wearing T-shirts demanding change. The president of the police union supported the officers. 

The controversy hasn't halted Beyoncé who has more than 77 million Instagram followers, from posting messages about the shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights.

Despite high-profile cases of women activists, many of Black Lives Matter leading voices are male. According to a study by the Center for Media and Social Impact, nine out of 10 of the most influential communicators discussing police violence were men.

"If you look at the top 10 ... it's half activists ... some media folks," Deen Freelon, assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University, Washington, D.C., told NPR. "You'll notice that only one of them is a woman," he said, referring to Johnetta Elzie, @Nettaaaaaaaa on Twitter.

"It just goes to show that when you have a big movement," even one that's ostensibly committed to doing things differently, and better than in the past, "you might end up falling back on these old institutional biases," Freelon continued.

Athletics in particular has a history of raising marginalized voices.

”It forces people – white people to be specific – who are not on Twitter, who don’t engage with politics, and who in our deeply segregated society only actually 'see' and acknowledge black and brown people on television, to confront a distinctly different set of life experiences, “ Dave Zirin wrote for The Nation.

After Serena Williams won her seventh Wimbledon singles crown on July 9, she answered reporter questions about the shooting deaths of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and police officers in Dallas, and mourned all the lives lost, saying  to reporters, “But I think, in general, the entire situation is extremely sad, especially for someone like me.”

“I feel anyone in my color in particular is of concern. I do have nephews that I’m thinking, ‘do I have to call them and tell them, don’t go outside. If you get in your car, it might be the last time I see you?’” Williams said, according to Reuters.

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