Women Athletes Are On The Front Lines Of The Racial Justice Movement. Why Aren’t We Hearing About It?

Photo: Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images.
As the movement for Black lives gains mainstream attention and acceptance, more and more people have felt able or empowered to speak out. This includes high-profile athletes, who in the past have felt restrained from sharing their true feelings or experiences related to racial injustice. NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Enes Kanter have been on the front lines of protests. Major League Baseball players, who have perhaps been most hampered in their ability to speak freely about their experiences with racism — the sport has long prided itself on being "traditional" and is often called "a white man's game" — are sharing their stories more openly than ever before.
While male athletes attract much of the attention when it comes to their activism, women athletes are also on the front lines — as they have been for a very long time. Players from the WNBA, the NWSL, and even professional softball, are taking action and speaking up in the fight for Black liberation. But, as usual, the women who are doing the work are being overlooked in much of the media coverage.
In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against Black and brown people, he was ostracized by the NFL and criticized by fans and the media alike. Now, four years later, he still does not have a job in the league. Very few male athletes joined his protest and those who did, like NFL player Eric Reid or MLB player Bruce Maxwell, faced repercussions for their actions. At the time, NBA players agreed not to kneel during the anthem, though as early as 2014, some basketball players wore shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe” on them, then a reference to the killing of Eric Garner at the hands of the police.
In 2016, however, every single member of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever took a knee during the anthem to protest alongside Kaepernick. Three WNBA teams were fined that same season for violating the league’s uniform policy by wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. Four teams protested those fines with media blackouts, during which they only talked about the killings of Black people at the hands of the state during post-game interviews. The Washington Mystics’ media blackout was organized in part by Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (who is now on the Los Angeles Sparks), whose cousin was killed by a police officer. And yet, the actions of women athletes received much less fanfare and recognition.
WNBA players have continued to lead on issues of social justice. The Mystics’ Natasha Cloud, who has been advocating to end gun violence in her community, has risen to meet this moment. “America’s systems of power exist to lock in the white status quo,” Cloud wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune following the killing of George Floyd. “If you’re silent, I don’t fuck with you, period. Because I’m just out here trying to stay alive. And your knee is on my neck.”

The guard announced on Instagram that she would be sitting out the 2020 season to focus on continuing to organize for justice, after organizing a march on Juneteenth that was led by the Mystics and the NBA’s Washington Wizards. The Atlanta Dream’s Renee Montgomery will also sit out the season to be involved in the current movement; meanwhile, Minnesota Lynx player Maya Moore paused a Hall of Fame career to fight for criminal justice reform. Las Vegas Aces player Angel McCoughtry proposed allowing players to wear the names of victims of police violence on the back of their jersey, a proposal the NBA is now exploring. (McCoughtry just hopes the fact that a woman player proposed it doesn’t get lost when it comes time to give credit.)
While it’s perhaps unsurprising that the WNBA is active in this moment based on their history, women from other leagues are also stepping up and speaking out. The NWSL put its players in an impossible position by choosing to play the national anthem before two matches this past weekend. In the first game, every single one of the starting players on the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC took a knee to protest police brutality and racism, and issued a joint statement supporting the movement for Black lives.
This is starkly different from what happened in 2016, when Megan Rapinoe took a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick, making her the first white professional athlete to kneel during the anthem (though the Cleveland Browns’ Seth DeValve often gets the credit, again erasing women from the narrative). At the time, U.S. Soccer condemned Rapinoe’s protest, something for which they recently apologized.
During the second NWSL game this weekend, between the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars, many more players chose to stand during the anthem. Casey Short, who is Black, was visibly upset on the field. Images of her crying were then used as promotional material by the league.
“The incident had a clear impact on the mental well-being and performance of players in the match that followed,” Kim McCauley wrote at SB Nation, about the league’s decision to play the anthem before the game. “It created a hostile work environment, in which players were emotionally manipulated and teammates were pitted against each other.” McCauley also noted that there are no Black people in charge of the NWSL — “no one in NWSL with the title of commissioner, majority owner, CEO, general manager or head coach is Black,” which likely led to the dynamics and decision-making behind what unfolded. A new policy put in place after this weekend’s games will allow athletes to remain in the locker room during the anthem.
Meanwhile, in the world of professional softball, not usually known for its politically outspoken players, an entire team of players quit after their owner used a photo of them standing for the anthem as a political pawn. Scrap Yard Fast Pitch walked off the team en masse after the general manager tweeted at President Trump from the team’s account, bragging about players standing for the anthem and “respecting the flag.” The players formed their own team, independent of Scrap Yard, called This Is Us Softball, and took the field under their new name over the weekend. Following the game, they hosted a panel to talk about discrimination and racism in softball and beyond. "I just hope that Black girls feel like they are included, and that they always feel like they have someone in their corner,” Kiki Stokes, a Black This Is Us player, said.
Even the NWHL is joining in on conversations about racism in women’s hockey, which has long had a white feminism problem. During a recent Zoom call about anti-racism in hockey, Courtney Szto, PhD, a co-organizer of the online event and one of the co-authors of a policy paper on Anti-Racism In Hockey that was released earlier this year, encouraged women’s hockey players to use their privilege to uplift important issues, advising them to look to athletes from other sports like Cloud and Moore of the WNBA. "Don't just know [Black women leading the way], study them,” she advised.
That’s exactly what Cloud hopes will happen. In her Players’ Tribune piece, Cloud said that her wish is that seeing athletes speak out about injustice will inspire others to do the same. Elena Delle Donne, Cloud’s Mystics teammate, posted an Instagram story about Floyd’s killing and Cloud pointed out that “[Delle Donne is] the MVP of our league, one of the most famous white basketball players alive, and… even that ONE post on its own, it took just a little bit of the weight off my shoulders. It made me feel just a little less powerless in this world. It also laid down the gauntlet, I think, for other athletes. And if it didn’t? Then I hope this article does.”

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