In a year where sports were present in the national protests and conversation over racial equality and police violence, the WNBA boldly took a leading role in this national conversation.
It’s no accident, really. The WNBA has a consistent, continuous track record of focused, league-wide activism.
At the core of this are Black women, who make up about 80 percent of the players in the league.
Mainstream reporting still tries to sell the WNBA’s efforts as the “sidekick” when recent history shows that the WNBA had been active in these movements long before this particular moment. The constant belittlement of the WNBA’s place in the history of sports as a vehicle for social progress is galling to me.
Yet, as bad as such omissions are, erasure is much worse. An American institution in sports journalism engaged in erasure this week.
Sports Illustrated announced their 2020 Sportspersons of the Year Sunday. This focus was on what the magazine termed “The Activist Athlete”. They chose a group of five who stood above and beyond in this difficult year.
Seattle Storm all-star Breanna Stewart was among this group. The 2020 WNBA Finals MVP came back from an achilles injury the previous year to help pace the Storm to a championship. Off the court, her voice was consistently among those speaking out on issues such as police brutality and racism. Case in point, when you see “Black Lives Matter” splashed on a playing floor, you are seeing an example of how she used her position as one of the top players, maybe even the league’s best right now, to push for positive change.
I love me some Stewie, but I think Sports Illustrated made the wrong call here. A white player and a white voice being placed at the center in this situation looks like a sports version of “The White Savior Trope”. This move diminishes the frontline work and sacrifice on the part of many of the league’s Black players, and I’m not alone in this assessment.
the blackest league we have, at the forefront, sports-wise, of the BLM movement and they chose-— Karens In Paris (@NekiasNBA) December 6, 2020
I don't get how @SInow has named Breanna Stewart one of their "Athlete Activists" of the year. The @WNBA has so many Black women that have been far more involved & living it, but yet SI chose a white woman to represent this. Black women have once AGAIN been overlooked #ToneDeaf— STL (@stlntdot) December 6, 2020
Like I said, this isn't taking anything away from Stewie, but there's a level of tone deafness behind it, given what's going on in the world. This isn't a championship award. She got her well-deserved ring. This is about more than that. Love you both dearly. [3/3]— Arielle (Ari) Chambers (@ariivory) December 7, 2020
The Bleacher Report host and creative force behind highlightHER, Arielle Chambers, and cadres of Black women who report on sports rightly called this out. In calling this out, let's be crystal clear: This is not on Breanna Stewart. This is squarely on the people at SI who made this decision.
Television college basketball and WNBA analyst LaChina Robinson, in a July interview the Just Not Sports podcast, explained a critical force that influences a decision like this. “Because systemic racism still exists in the world the way it does, many media entities still feel more comfortable with the white woman, with the white man being the voice on any topic,” Robinson said. “It's on the media to do our homework and to be willing to go to that next layer. We’re an 80 percent Black league so I don’t see how the prominent voices in our league aren’t African-American women.”
What happened to you, Sports Illustrated? Was it the mass layoffs and “gravitas with scale” philosophy of the new owners of the brand? In the past, Sports Illustrated often the set the tone for a nuanced discussion. I look behind the curtain now and I see a lot of missed homework. SI’s decision looks like the situation Sue Bird discussed with CNN in regard to some perceptions about the WNBA:
Women’s soccer players generally are cute little White girls while WNBA players, we are all shapes and sizes... a lot of Black, gay, tall women... there is maybe an intimidation factor and people are quick to judge it and put it down.”
The optics here point to some lazy journalism. The action taken by the WNBA and its players was a key piece of one of the dominant stories of 2020. Let’s consider what SI missed in their deliberations:
Why not Angel McCoughtry?
Like Stewart, she came back from injury. She added veteran heft to a young, talented Las Vegas Aces squad that ended up in the WNBA Finals. She also made what I see as a “Play Of The Year”. You know how “Breonna Taylor” and “#SayHerName” got on jerseys in the WNBA and the NBA? That was McCoughtry’s idea.
Why not McCoughtry’s teammate and 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson?
She was the runaway choice for league most valuable player on the court, and was also one of the emerging leaders of the WNBA’s younger players off the court.
How did you skip over Nneka Ogwumike?
The head of the WNBA Players Association has been a steady hand on the tiller. Her leadership in this movement, her leadership in helping the “Wubble” season happen, and her leadership in crafting perhaps the most forward-thinking collective bargaining agreement in sports to me is the type of hands-on thinking and activism-in-action we need in our society as whole.
How about Players Association vice president, Layshia Clarendon?
The mainstream sport media largely don’t know the name, but they are an essential spark plug. Within the joint league-union Social Justice Council, Clarendon was a driving force.
They were a leader in planning the methods and the message. Remember the anthem protest on the league’s opening weekend? They organized it.
Both of them said this greater movement was more important than the season. Each sat out this year to get more involved.
Now some may look at this and say that because they didn’t play, they shouldn’t be considered. I say, they would be wrong in this case, and certainly would be wrong in the case of Maya Moore.
You want a face of what the movement for justice, equity, and accountability is about? You’re looking at it. One of the best in the league, Moore spent two seasons in her prime away from the sport to fight for the freedom of Jonathan Irons, who was wrongfully imprisoned in Moore’s home state of Missouri.
The successful effort was largely underreported. Only one reporter for a national news source, Katie Barnes of ESPNW, steadfastly and consistently covered this story to the level that it demands.
Moore’s work to free Irons has expanded into an effort for widespread criminal justice reform. She’s also pivoted into work on securing and expanding voting rights as well.
What this boils down to is the myopia that Black women consistently deal with across American life from the workplace, to our body politic, our media outlets, and in sports. The Black players in the WNBA carried a great deal of the load in building message about the cause and rallying for the league. Too often, these efforts are thankless and, at times, castigated.
They are conscious of what the stakes for them are, directly, in both of those arenas. When the WNBA gets targeted by online clickbaiters shrieking, “get woke, go broke,” Black women take the brunt of it. Too often anti-WNBA misogyny shows itself in the form of misogynoir.
This season, many of us who just got “woke” learned how the WNBA has never slept on these issues. Author and academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the founders of the #SayHerName campaign in 2014, said the WNBA’s involvement from the beginning struck a special chord.
“To have other Black women, saying, ‘No, Sis, we’re not going to forget about you. We are going to bring you into the spotlight,’” Crenshaw told The New York Times, “that is the game-changing moment for Black women in this century that we’ve been waiting for,”
Sports Illustrated had the ball in their hand, with an open look to honor this vital legacy and give due commendation to its leaders.