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The WNBA Has Been Fighting for Equality Long Before They Wore Bullet-Marked Shirts for Jacob Blake — A Look Inside the Players’ Activism

On Wednesday night, WNBA teams went on strike following the recent police attack of yet another Black man in America. Players from the Mystics, Dream, Lynx, Sun, Mercury and Sparks took a knee and locked arms on the court inside the bubble in Florida in protest of the shooting. The Washington Mystics could been seen in shirts that spelled out Jacob Blake’s name, the Black man who was shot seven times in the back by a white policeman in Kenosha, Wis., this week. And in another powerful statement, seven bloody bullet holes were depicted on the back of their shirts.

“This isn’t just about basketball — we aren’t just basketball players,” Ariel Atkins of the Washington Mystics told ESPN on why they decided not to play. “When most of us go home, we still are black. People need to understand we aren’t just basketball players and if you think we are, then don’t watch us. We are so much more than that. We are going to say what we need to say and people need to hear that.”

August 26, 2020, Bradenton, Florida, USA - A screen grab from the ESPN2 coverage of the decision made by the six WNBA teams not to play tonight in the wake of the shooting of yet another Black man in America. The Washington Mystics donned t shirts spelling out the name of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back by a white Kenosha, Wisconsin policeman. Seven holes were cut out of the backs of their shirts, depictions of the seven bullet holes in Mr. Blake's back. All of tonight's NBA playoff games were also postponed.(Credit Image: © Courtesy Espn2/ZUMA Wire) (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
Inside the WNBA Florida bubble where WNBA teams protested the shooting of Jacob Blake.
CREDIT: AP

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After boycotting their games as a form of protest, all members of the WNBA bubble organized and participated in a candlelight vigil.

“I just want to say how proud I am of all you. What you’ve displayed over the course of a very difficult season, what you displayed tonight,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert addressed the crowd during the vigil. “On behalf of the league we are here to listen to your fears, listen to your frustrations, listen to your hopes and goals and your dreams and be supportive of that.”

This isn’t the first time members of the WNBA have used their platform to create change. The league and its players have long rallied for causes that matter outside of the sport, including for women’s equality as well as racial justice.

In 2017, for instance, Minnesota Lynx players held a press conference and wore black shirts with the phrase “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability” in response to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by policemen. Members of the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever also followed suit which led to the players and organizations being fined for violating uniform rules. (The WNBA rescinded the fines following backlash.)

This year, as the police killing of George Floyd reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, the WNBA responded in kind, refocusing its efforts on calling attention to the need for marked change in the treatment of Black men and women in America.

In July, the WNBA dedicated the season to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name movement, which raises awareness for Black female victims of police violence. The 26-year-old, Black medical worker was fatally shot eight times in her Louisville, Ky., apartment in March by officers who what has been widely considered a botched raid. Since then, calls for justice have reverberated across the country with protests demanding the arrests of the officers who killed Taylor. Players in the WNBA have worn a “Justice For Breonna Taylor” T-shirt, which was created in partnership with the Breonna Taylor Foundation and lifestyle brand Phenomenal.

Earlier this month, WNBA stars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi joined forces with Flight Club to use their own sneakers to push towards racial justice. Bird, of the Seattle Storm, and Taurasi, of the Phoenix Mercury, auctioned off game-worn pairs in collaboration with Flight Club through an Instagram bid to benefit the Breonna Taylor Foundation.

Other players have made activism their priority off the court, too. Washington Mystics and Converse-ambassador Natasha Cloud put her basketball career on hold to focus on social reform.

“This has been one of the toughest decisions of my career. But, I will be foregoing the 2020 WNBA season. There’s a lot of factors that led to this decision, but the biggest being that I am more than an athlete,” she announced on Instagram in June. “I have a responsibility to myself, to my community, and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than myself and the game of basketball. I will instead, continue the fight on the front lines for social reform, because until black lives matter, all lives can’t matter.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - JUNE 19: Players of the NBA Washington Wizards and WNBA Washington Mystics led by John Wall and Bradley Beal and Natasha Cloud of the Mystics march down the streets of DC to the MLK Memorial during a Black Lives Matter March on June 19, 2020 In Washington D.C. Credit: mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX
On June 19, players of the NBA Washington Wizards and WNBA Washington Mystics (led by John Wall, Bradley Beal and Natasha Cloud of the Mystics) marched down the streets of Washington D.C. during a Black Lives Matter march.
CREDIT: AP

Maya Moore has also taken time away from basketball to dedicate herself to the fight for racial equality and legal justice. This year, she sat out out her second consecutive WNBA season as she focused on freeing from prison Jonathan Irons, a Black man whom she and many others believed was wrongly convicted of a crime. And in July, Moore accomplished her goal as Irons walked free after spending 23 years in Missouri state maximum-security prison.

The WNBA is part of a growing list of brands and sports teams who are speaking out against systemic racism against the Black community, including the NBA and MLB leagues, whose teams also boycotted their Wednesday games.

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