Their message was clear: the women were seated on the sidelines. It was their game too. And they took their photo.
They were then – and are now – determined to command respect and forge a future for young girls and women who confirms: when we play the game, we win – on and off the field.
So today when I look at incredibly talented players like Renee Montgomery (Atlanta Dream) and Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm) not only advancing the game but leading conversations around social justice and equality, I know that ‘They bear witness to the strong heritage left behind by these original WNBA icons. Those of us who follow women’s basketball closely know that it was often the WNBA, not the NBA, that started conversations about justice and equality, prompting their male counterparts to speak out, although women received much less fanfare.
These women have gone too far to be silenced by people like Kelly Loeffler.
Ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, Loeffler, on Tuesday urged the league to cancel plans to allow players to wear jerseys with the words “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name”, a reference to Breonna Taylor and countless other women killed by the police or died in detention. Instead, Loeffler wrote in a letter to league commissioner Cathy Engelbert that she wants to see the American flag on all WNBA clothing.
“How is she still the owner? Bye Kelly. Keep that negative energy out of our league.”
“I am quite sad to see that my team’s property does not support the movement and all that it represents. I was already seated this season and this is an example of why I would like to have a conversation with you on the question if you are down? ”
Despite the criticism, it seems that Loeffler does not shy away from attention.
And ironically, or perhaps intentionally, the senator seems guilty of what she accuses the WNBA of doing – injecting politics into sport.
Loeffler does not back down. And although the league is clearly trying to distance itself from the owner of their Atlanta team, it remains to be seen what repercussions, if any, it will face from the league.
The fight for social justice is not new to the women of the WNBA.
I should know, I was there at the start.
In 1996, I was assistant editor of sports for the New York Daily News and responsible for covering the launch of the league. Like women in the field, the WNBA has given many women in sport a chance to finally prove themselves at work. In the media, it was by default – sports writers, mostly white men, laughed at the game, balked at covering women’s basketball.
Today’s league is steeped in a culture that has long talked about issues of social justice and equality for women, equal pay for all women, and mental health awareness of racial justice. and LGBTQ equality.
In 2009, when I was co-chair of the board of GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), we were invited to work with the WNBA to develop and host team and fan events for fans LGBTQ. Our goal was to help eliminate the toxic and homophobic attitudes that too often follow women in sport. The WNBA, guided by former NBA commissioner and civil rights champion David Stern and WNBA president Donna Orender, courageously led these initiatives, long before gay marriage and other LGBTQ rights were won at the federal level.
Today, watching the WNBA woman – in fact all young voices – demanding justice in the face of horrible racial hatred gives me hope for the future.
It’s like they’re playing for us to win.