Back in 2016, the WNBA fined the Phoenix Mercury, Indiana Fever and New York Liberty for wearing black t-shirts during warmups. They wore the shirts to protest the injustice surrounding the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—both of whom were black men killed by police officers—as well as the death of five Dallas-area policemen at the hands of a maniac gunman. The players were on the front lines for social change and athlete activism early.
Chiney Ogwumike, the 2014 WNBA ROY and a current Vice President in the WNBA’s Players Association, has helped the W transition into a much more socially active league. Ogwumike and older sister Nneka, the 2016 WNBA MVP, are both Stanford graduates who have made full use of their platform. While she recovers from an Achilles injury, Chiney is currently working at ESPN and has popped up as an interviewer at multiple NBA events.
We caught up with Ogwumike, one of the W’s leading voices, to talk about Black History Month and why she and her colleagues have been on the forefront when it comes to athletes using their voice to draw awareness to social issues.
SLAM: Why has the WNBA been so active in pushing social awareness forward?
Chiney Ogwumike: The benefit of being a pro female athlete, especially basketball, is that you often times you graduate with your degree. You’re in college for three-plus years, might as well be four, before you can get to the WNBA—I guess it’s similar to the NFL in that regard, which is why I think they’ve had a very public recognition of race. The WNBA is full of many conscious, woke women that really are passionate. Not just about the game but they have a good pulse on everything going on in their community. You leave your college community and leave with your degree and you find a new community, a new home, and you make that home. I think everyone is very sympathetic to what’s going on in their specific lives. Deep down in our DNA, not just WNBA players, you always see athletes at the forefront of change because it’s in our DNA to be team players. Since we picked up a ball, you’re taught about team sports, to be good to the last person on the bench and to be a leader. Those type of qualities aren’t just for when you’re playing. They’re also for just being a citizen of this country. I think the WNBA is definitely at the forefront, and has been there, because we realize that as strong women we have to stand up for ourselves. Because no one else will.
SLAM: We know that you guys have been very active in the public. How much do you all speak internally about issues and what’s going on in the world?
CO: We have a group chat in the WNBPA—I’m the Vice President, Nneka’s the President—we have a group chat with every player in the league. We have a group chat with every team representative. And we have a group chat of our executive committee. In the groups, anytime someone sees something that we feel like we can bring light upon–whether it’s Tina Charles and her Hopey’s Heart Foundation, whether it’s Layshia Clarendon speaking up against sexual abuse–we put those issues in the chats and everyone in the WNBA is able to see them and also get educated on topics. So if the opportunity presents itself they can speak well about it, but then also they can contribute if they want to. I think we’re the most connected professional sports group because we care and we’ve held each other accountable. It was Tamika Catchings’ leadership and it’s being carried over to my sister’s. We’re really trying to create this awakening of players that can be very engaged in what we stand for. We realized that with the whole t-shirt controversy, the Black Lives Matter controversy in which certain players came out and wore black t-shirts, we realize that was our biggest moment. Not with our amazing WNBA Finals games. It was when we took a stand for a cause that mainstream society really rallied behind us.
SLAM: When did that group chat start?
CO: The executive committee has always had a group text. In this new group of leadership we have Terri Jackson, who’s our Director. She’s really pushed us to get everyone on those group chats. If someone has an issue with their health insurance, bam. One person knows about it and says ‘I have that same issue.’ We realize that hey, this is something we can address and help other people. It started, the official group chat that all the WNBA players are involved in, started with this new leadership.
SLAM: How do you continue to further the conversation on equality?
CO: You can talk about it but you have to be about it. And in the WNBA we’re definitely active. We’re about it. We’re actively finding ways to help our community, however we can. A lot of players have their own personal foundations. I think the NBA does an excellent job with NBA Cares, but what we’re doing right now is we’re tailoring our interests to team activities. Dialogues between police and children of color, that’s something people are really passionate about. I’m talking with my team this year to have a night where we all donate clothing and I’ll take it back to Nigeria. We all find these creative ways to not just talk about it, but to be about it.
SLAM: What does Black History Month mean to you?
CO: It’s more so about all races celebrating what makes them inherently special. I think right now in this social-political climate, it’s always about whose lives matter more instead of all lives matter the same. Black History Month, to me, is also a month to celebrate people within the African-American culture that have been great examples of strength. Whether it’s Maya Angelou, whether it’s Martin Luther King. You can even put sports figures in there, like LeBron James. And it goes all the way back to Muhammad Ali. It’s a great reminder and an educational teaching point to know that African-Americans’ contributions should not go unnoticed.