Coming off hype surrounding this year’s women’s March Madness final as well as Brittney Griner’s triumphal return to basketball, the highlight reel of the WNBA’s 27th season opening weekend was packed with moments that suggest this year may surpass even 2022’s record highs. And once again, many of the league’s out LGBTQ players took center stage.
The Washington Mystic’s opener against the New York Liberty was played before a sold-out arena, and the DC crowd was not let down as six-time All Star Elena Delle Donne was back in frighteningly healthy form, sparking an 80-64 upset. Not to be outdone, Breanna Stewart made history for the Liberty the next night, with a career- and franchise- record-breaking record 45 points in the team’s 90-73 home opening win against the Indiana Fever.
In Los Angeles, the Sparks played host to the Phoenix Mercury and the long-anticipated moment when Griner officially made her return to the WNBA after a traumatic 2022. The game was attended by a number of VIPs including Vice President Kamala Harris, Billie Jean King, Dawn Staley and Magic Johnson. According to ESPN, it was also the most-viewed regular season WNBA game on cable in 24 years, drawing in a peak audience of 1 million viewers despite starting at 11 p.m. ET.
Back in Phoenix for the Mercury’s home opener, the crowd was equally raucous celebrating their star player’s comeback after spending 300 days in a Russian prison last year. Griner scored 27 points, including the opening basket, and said afterwards, “The moment was very special. It took me back to my last season playing. It just felt really good, honestly.”
Brittney Griner was introduced before her first home game in 585 days.— ESPN (@espn) May 21, 2023
What a moment. pic.twitter.com/WWTgWmgBjm
Brittney Griner and her wife, Cherelle, after her first home game back ❤️ pic.twitter.com/29XQfzR7Tj— espnW (@espnW) May 21, 2023
Beyond the on-court highlights, the WNBA’s return will play an important role in the ongoing fight to shape the future of the league. This year is a chance for the players to lay the groundwork for a possible renegotiation of their collective bargaining agreement in 2024, and for the WNBPA to assert its priorities as commissioner Cathy Engelbert remains cagey on where and when any expansion into new cities might take place.
The Las Vegas Aces, coming off a championship season under coach Becky Hammon, and their reaction to the league’s investigation into Hammon’s treatment of then-Aces player Dearica Hamby’s pregnancy, are a testament to the complicated issues the players union will need to remain assertive on.
The league found in favor of Hamby, who claimed that she was treated unfairly and traded from the team because of her pregnancy, and Hammon was suspended the first two games of the season while the Aces lost their 2025 first-round draft pick. However, many — including the players union — are questioning whether the punishment was severe enough given that since Hamby’s claims have been found to have merit.
Defector’s Diana Moskovitz draws a comparison between Hamby’s plight and MLB great Curt Flood’s case against being traded from his longtime professional home in St. Louis to Philadelphia, which set the stage for future legal protections and empowerment of players not only in baseball but across sports.
As precedent plays such an important role in shaping the outcomes of future cases such as this, it’s imperative that the WNBPA and fans of the W alike continue putting pressure on the league to protect the rights of its players, particularly here in the U.S., where more and more legal protections around women and LGBTQ+ people in sport are facing an uncertain future.
According to transathlete.com’s comprehensive cataloguing of legal threats to trans and nonbinary athletes in sport, eight WNBA teams play in states that have passed or introduced bills targeting the participation of trans athletes in school sports, to say nothing of the impact of countless other proposed laws across the country that threaten to infringe on the day to day rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ people.
While this doesn’t necessarily directly correlate to the kinds of issues that players might face as part of their professional life within the WNBA, it underscores the importance of athletes not ceding an inch to any infractions on their bodily autonomy as workers within a league that has been so pioneering on queer and trans acceptance in sport.