Activism and the WNBA

As we eulogize contemporary legend Toni Morrison, we look to her body of work for hope and inspiration. While teaching a class, she once remarked, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

For WNBA players, it is in success that a new responsibility emerges. There’s been a surge in popularity, as television ratings have been on the rise and NBA 2K20 has announced that it will feature the W in next month’s game.

Across the league, women are thrust into the spotlight as role models, and many players (as well as teams) are answering this call to action.

Imani McGee-Stafford

Imani McGee-Stafford of the Dallas Wings is a strong mental health advocate, long outspoken about her own history with mental illness and sexual abuse. In an interview with The Athletic’s Dorothy Gentry, McGee-Stafford talked about the goals of her non-profit, the Hoops & Hope Foundation. “My platform,” she explained, “is about providing hope and life for people who don’t necessarily have that in their lives.”

On August 4th, the foundation held its first community event, a “Back to School Bonanza” that handed out free backpacks, school supplies and Wingstop food, alongside a meet-and-greet with Stafford-McGee.

McGee-Stafford is an engaging Twitter follow, bringing the same energy to the platform as she does to the hardwood. Her bio describes her succinctly: Poet//Longhorn//WNBA Center//6’7” Unicorn.

On display are all the elements that comprise McGee-Stafford: a pinned tweet about mental health awareness, support for other WNBA colleagues, inspirational quotes from influential women, goofy glimpses into her day-to-day life. She’s unfiltered, uncensored in her beliefs about breaking down societal shames put upon mental health, about the treatment of African-Americans in our country, about assault rifles.

Her spirit, captured holistically throughout her range of tweets, offers the type of access only possible to a 21st century athlete.

Natasha Cloud

LOS ANGELES, CA – JULY 07: Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud (9) bring the ball down court during a WNBA game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Washington Mystics on July 07, 2018 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire)

Natasha Cloud is posting career highs in minutes played, points and assists for the Washington Mystics but has arguably been even more impactful off the court this season.

After three shootings in a month hit Hendley Elementary School in D.C., she organized a media blackout to draw attention to the violence. When Councilmember Trayon White said, “Don’t tweet join us,” Cloud did not back down. W

ith the support of the Mystics front office, Cloud and her teammates instituted the blackout, talking only about gun violence to reporters, rather than their matchup with the Seattle Storm on Friday, June 14.

Cloud has been outspoken about her beliefs in the past, unafraid to share her views about reproduction rights and activism. Her recent Twitter activity boasts a series of retweets, as she uses her platform to share information about last week’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, citing racial responses, the current standing of gun laws and the stigmatization of mental health.

Breanna Stewart

UNCASVILLE, CT – JULY 20: Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart (30) defended by Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) during a WNBA game between Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun on July 20, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Seattle defeated Connecticut 78-65. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

Last year’s MVP, Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm looks to be an example as much off the court as she is on it. Stewart is coming off an MVP season but tore her Achilles while playing overseas in the offseason because these players don’t make salaries commensurate with their talent.

Even though she’s on the injured list, Stewart’s advocacy is still going strong: during the opening week of the season, a pro-choice shirt completed her sideline attire.

In 2017, she penned her own experience with sexual assault in Me Too,” an article for The Players’ Tribune.

In it, she says the following: “In sharing, I know that no matter how uncomfortable I typically am making things about myself, as a public survivor, I now assume a certain responsibility.”

As a prominent athlete, she’s a beacon of light to women and girls afraid to tell their truth, afraid of being defined by and reliving their trauma they’ve suffered. Stewart and the Storm partnered with RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), selling merchandise and auctioning gear to help survivors.

Liz Cambage

Jul 27, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team Wilson forward Liz Cambage celebrates after Team Wilson defeated Team Delle Donne in the WNBA All Star Game at Mandalay Bay Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

All-Star center Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces published an editorial of her own for The Players’ Tribune on Sunday. In DNP-Mental Health,” she discussed her most recent battle with anxiety and depression.

Cambage has always been transparent about both her struggles and needs for a proper environment to thrive. This is just her fourth WNBA season: She played for the Tulsa Shock in 2011 and 2013 and the Dallas Wings in 2018 before going to Vegas in an offseason trade.

For her, it was important to be near the west coast, so she wouldn’t be as far from her family in Australia. 

“I took a DNP-Rest,” Cambage writes, “but here’s the truth of what it should have said: DNP-Mental Health.”

It’s so incredibly necessary, so important to pull away all the negative language that promotes antiquated stigmas. In recent years, NBA players like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have also discussed their struggles, and the hope is that these conversations, buoyed by their large platforms, grow in scope and continue to be further normalized.

Unity in the W

Players are not activists on an island. Just as the NBA sets the advocacy standard for men’s sports, the W supports the stances of their players and communities.

On Sunday, August 11, the New York Liberty held their third annual Unity Game, a tradition during which the team uses its platform to raise awareness for a societal issue.

The first year, the game was held just days after the events in Charlottesville and highlighted racial justice. Last year expanded to a weekend, with a panel on how allyship and sports could aid in race relations.

On Thursday, August 8, I attended this year’s discussion, Forgotten Behind Bars: Women’s Health Care, Family and Representation.”

Current players Tina Charles and Tanisha Wright opened the night, before ceding the floor for a discussion between panelists comprised of formerly incarcerated women, relatives of women that had been imprisoned, and experts in the field. The conversation was both heartbreaking and hopeful, and the platform allowed firsthand voices, often marginalized, to share their experiences and facts about our currently broken system. 

Initiatives like this take place around the league, which is accessible on the community level and progressive in ways many other sports are not.

Every team celebrated its own Pride Night, and both current and former players marched in the NYC Pride Parade. Planned Parenthood booths populate arena walkways. The league-wide Take a Seat, Take a Stand campaign helps bring young women to games. The Mystics held a Girl Scout Takeover Day with a patch giveaway. The Phoenix Mercury have an annual Rock the Pink promotion to raise awareness for breast cancer. The Chicago Sky puts on a Diversity and Inclusion Hiring Expo every year. 

Rampant misogyny is a blight that still slithers into seemingly every social media post, every highlight, every call for fair play. These incredible human beings have reached the pinnacle of athletic achievement, yet are faced with more negativity than their male counterparts.

Still, they persevere, because the number of men, women and children they inspire with their positive influence far outweighs the venomous vitriol from “keyboard-tough” Twitter trolls. As the league continues its ascension, the platform will only continue expanding both for teams and players like Imani McGee-Stafford, Natasha Cloud. Breanna Stewart and Liz Cambage.