While the 2020 WNBA season kicked off amidst a global pandemic, national attention on the fight for racial justice peaked as protests against police brutality erupted across the country. Millions marched in the fight for social justice as the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed, Black Americans drew national scrutiny.
For WNBA players, social activism is nothing new. National news outlets even say the fight for social justice is “in the WNBA’s DNA”. This season, which was dedicated to Breonna Taylor, saw social justice become the top priority for the entire women’s basketball community.
“Everybody knew this [season] was bigger than basketball, especially the W. We’re not new to this fight” Sparks forward and WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike said. “Our movement has found its moment. This is who we are.”
In addition to the WNBA’s implementation of a new social justice platform called The Justice Movement, which included a social justice council featuring Sparks guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and President and COO Danita Johnson, the Los Angeles Sparks launched their own social justice pillar, starting with a campaign called Change Has No Offseason.
“I’m really proud to be representing the Sparks because we’ve added that pillar, Change Has No Offseason,” Candace Parker said, Sparks forward and 2020 defensive player of the year. “We’ve added voting and social justice and all those things to our list of things that we want to accomplish.”
The L.A. Sparks post-game highlights recognized the Say Her Name campaign, including an updated count of the days since Breonna Taylor’s murder. Week-to-week, the highlights honored additional female victims of police brutality like Sandra Bland and Michelle Cusseaux.
Across the league, players dedicated their seasons to different causes surrounding the movement, using every opportunity to shine a light on injustices in the U.S. With Breonna Taylor’s name on the backs of their jerseys, players were also committed to social change on the court, which read in bold letters “Black Lives Matter”.
Sparks guard Chelsea Gray, who was regularly seen sporting “vote” on her clothing, has become an ambassador for Hoopers Vote, a new partnership between Rock the Vote and the professional basketball community. During the season, Gray also teamed up with Rock the Vote and Equality California to launch the “Chelsea Gray Assist for Equality” initiative, where the L.A. Sparks and Gray would donate $100 to Rock the Vote and Equality California for every assist she accumulates in the 2020 season. Gray finished the season with 116 assists, donating about $12,000 total to the organizations with the Sparks matching her contribution.
“Being in this bubble and coming here, we had a bigger, greater purpose,” Gray said. “You had a responsibility to inform the public and inform people around us to be able to leave a legacy and leave this place better than we found it for the younger generations.”
In the last week of August, sports were at a standstill, as the WNBA and other major sports leagues chose not to play their scheduled games in an effort to bring awareness and call for justice for Jacob Blake, a Black man in Wisconsin who was shot by police.
“The platforms we have need to be used to affect change in our community,” Ogwumike said. “As athletes, we would be discrediting our essence if we didn’t use our platform for good, and for change.”
Ogwumike, who characterized the stoppage of games as day of reflection, spoke on CBS News This Morning before returning to regular season play to emphasize the importance of unity and affirm that the league-wide strike is not political.
“At the end of the day, these are all human issues, we have to see these issues as humanity being affected, rather than us trying to pick sides,” Ogwumike said. “This bubble is an extreme metaphor of how we can still band together while playing against each other on the court.”
After the game following the day of reflection, head coach Derek Fisher was impressed by the Sparks resilience and strong character
“We’re fortunate to be able to work with great basketball players, but we’re looking for great women, great leaders, people that want to make a difference and have an impact,” Fisher said. “We have a locker room full of those types of people.”
Although the 2020 season may be over for the L.A. Sparks, the players’ dedication and commitment to enact social change will continue.