The 2016 WNBA season was supposed to be a celebration of the players and moments that helped the league grow over its first 20 years of existence. As it turned out, it was the players’ unified protests that came to define that summer.
In response to several fatal shootings by and of police officers that July, members of the Minnesota Lynx wore black warmup shirts with the message: “Change Starts With Us—Justice and Accountability.”
On the back were the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two black men who were killed by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana that week. Beneath the names was the Dallas Police Department shield, recognizing the five officers who had been gunned down during a recent Black Lives Matter protest.
In a pregame press conference, Lynx star Maya Moore explained why the team decided to take a stand.
“It’s time that we take a deep look at our ability to be compassionate and empathetic for those suffering from the problems that are deep within our society,” Moore said.
“But we do not in any way condone violence against the men and women who serve on our police force,” she continued. “Senseless violence and retaliation will not bring us peace.”
"This is a human issue & we need to speak up for change, together." -Maya pic.twitter.com/tyfl65Ag81
— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 9, 2016
When the team took the floor for warmups, four Minnesota off-duty police officers working security staged a walk-off. For those officers, the support of Black Lives Matter appeared to imply that the players were anti-police.
The following day, the New York Liberty added their own statement, wearing black warmup shirts with #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5 on the front and a foreboding #___________ on the back.
“Being on the platform we have, [we should] definitely use our voice,” Liberty star Tina Charles said. “We have family, we have close friends, relatives that are affected by everything that is going on, and we relate to it as well.”
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) July 10, 2016
With the protests picking up steam and dominating mainstream media, the WNBA sent a memo reminding teams that, per the league’s uniform policy, warmup shirts may not be altered in any way.
On July 20, the league fined the Fever, Liberty and Mercury $5,000 each, and players lost $500 from their paycheck.
After dolling out the penalties, WNBA President Lisa Borders released a seemingly contradictory statement, saying that the league was “proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues.”
Borders’ statement drew the consternation of WNBA players, who called out the league for issuing Pride t-shirts after the Orlando nightclub massacre, but not allowing players to make a stand against police violence.
When the shooting in Orlando happened the WNBA immediately sent shirts for us to wear to show support..
— Kelsey Bone (@kelseybone3) July 20, 2016
Why support one cause that effects our country and not another?
— Kelsey Bone (@kelseybone3) July 20, 2016
— Mistie Bass (@A_Phoenix_Born) July 21, 2016
An outpouring of support—including that of the socially conscious Carmelo Anthony—stoked the fire. “I don’t see no reason to fine them. If anything you should want to support them,” Melo said before an Olympic team practice at UNLV.
In response to the fines, Liberty and Fever players initiated a league-wide media blackout during their game at Madison Square Garden.
In a moment indicative of the players’ solidarity, Charles, wearing an inside-out black warmup shirt, accepted the WNBA’s Player of the Month award.
“My teammates and I will continue to use our platform and raise awareness for the #BlackLivesMatter movement until the WNBA gives its support as it does for Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters,” Charles wrote in an Instagram post.
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Today, I decided to not be silent in the wake of the @wnba fines against @nyliberty, @indianafever & @phoenixmercury due to our support in the #BlackLivesMatter movement . Seventy percent of the @wnba players are African-American women and as a league collectively impacted. My teammates and I will continue to use our platform and raise awareness for the #BlackLivesMatter movement until the @wnba gives its support as it does for Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters.
Following the game, Fever star Tamika Catchings, then-president of the WNBA Players Union, refused to answer basketball-related questions, choosing only to speak about the players’ stance against police violence.
“I just feel like as a league, we kind of dropped the ball on being able to support something that the players are passionate about,” Catchings said. “And now you see different players and different teams stepping out and standing out for what they believe in. And yet even still, it’s looked down upon.”
The media blackout continued the following day, when the Washington Mystics and Seattle Storm wore black warmup shirts in the locker room and refused to answer basketball-related questions.
— Sue Bird (@S10Bird) July 22, 2016
Then something remarkable happened: Borders issued a statement revealing that the fines would be rescinded.
“Appreciate our players expressing themselves on matters important to them,” Borders wrote in a tweet. “Rescinding imposed fines to show them even more support.”
Amid the playoffs later that year, the entire Fever team and Mercury reserves Mistie Bass and Kelsey Bone continued the protests by taking a knee during the national anthem.
“When people talk about the summer, you can’t talk about [Colin] Kaepernick and all these things without talking about the unity of the WNBA,” said Liberty forward Swin Cash, then-vice president of the Players’ Union. “Our diversity and what we stood for and what we continue to stand for, I think it’s bigger than what any league has done.”
Ryne Nelson is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @slaman10.
Photos via Getty.