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The WNBA: bravery, and solidarity come to the fore

Atlanta Dream v Washington Mystics Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

When you’re in a position where you have little to no power, you have to move a bit more carefully. You’re at greater risk of facing severe penalties, don’t have as many resources to back yourself up, and may wind up losing the battle in the court of public opinion against your more privileged opponents. However, that’s a risk someone is willing to take when they know they are standing up for what is right. For the players in the WNBA, it’s a concept they’ve grown used to.

Since the summer of 2016, players in the WNBA have become a lot more vocal about issues affecting them and their communities. Whether it’s Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics staging a media blackout in order to bring attention to the gun violence crisis in Washington, D.C., players from the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever, and Phoenix Mercury standing tall and incurring fines (that were eventually rescinded) for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts during pregame warmups in 2016, Minnesota Lynx players withstanding criticism from the local police union following their protests in 2016, players speaking out in favor of reproductive rights after a wave of anti-abortion laws were passed in the South, etc.

(And the wife of Liberty owner Joe Tsai, Clara Wu Tsai, has joined with Meek Mill and Jay-Z, among others, in the Reform Alliance, which will lobby to change state probation and parole laws around the country.)

Even when it comes to the league they work for, players have spoken truthfully and honestly about what they've gone through. Here's Phoenix Mercury forward and future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi speaking to ESPN's Josh Weinfuss about the league and her issues with it:

And it’s just shocking to me, as we have the NBA as the best model ever. But the WNBA always finds a way to mess it up. I just don’t get it. I’m so disillusioned with it all ... not because of what I had to go through, but for the younger kids. When you’re in it, when you’re playing and you’re young, you don’t worry about these things. You’re just so worried about proving yourself and getting to the playoffs, being a better basketball player.

But when you get older, like Sue [Bird] and I, we start thinking about these things, like it’s been 15 years. I think Sue said it best. In the last 11 years, I think we’ve had a 1.5% increase in our pay salary. I mean, who doesn’t leave that job? It’s like [Lionel] Messi. You play for Barcelona, and then you go back to Argentina and play in a YMCA league because you love the game. And you know what? We come back every single summer because we love the game. It’s pathetic.

2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup Quarterfinals - USA v Nigeria Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE via Getty Images

The players have helped bring attention to a variety of complex issues and have shown a level of knowledge and care that has helped bring clarity and understanding to the issues at hand. For people in their position, it would be safer and less stressful if they didn’t call out bias and injustice. However, these players have shown incredible amounts of bravery as they’ve challenged various inequalities in the United States. It’s one of the reasons why they have been able to be very relatable to the fans.

Earlier this month, basketball legend, Seattle Storm guard, and WNBPA Vice President Sue Bird wrote a wide ranging article for The Players Tribune. Bird mainly discussed how her partner, US Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe, had been excelling at the World Cup despite being on the receiving end of attacks from President Trump, and her own feelings watching Rapinoe play among other things. Later in the article, Bird discussed the push for better pay in the WNBA and made this observation:

In reading Bird’s comment, I couldn’t help but think about all of the praise NBA players have received for speaking up about various issues, especially in comparison to the National Football League. NBA players have: called out the bigotry emanating from the White House, spoken out against police brutality, advocated for transgender rights, and even built schools for underserved children. For all the good NBA players have done for the community at large, I think it’s fair to wonder if they can use their platforms more to advocate for their WNBA colleagues as they fight certain battles.

AT&T WNBA All-Star Game 2019 Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

So what can NBA players do to help their WNBA peers? One simple thing they can do is use their platforms to advocate for better travel conditions. NBA players know better than most how important it is to travel across the country in good conditions as it helps their performance on game night. Throughout the season, we’ve seen teams struggle with substandard travel conditions, to the point where Los Angeles Sparks head coach and former NBA player Derek Fisher took to Instagram to call out the league.

To make matters more complicated, with WNBA players coming back to the United States after competing in Eurobasket, their travel issues take on even more importance as it directly has an effect on the team’s performance. For NBA players, if they can share their platforms and amplify the voices of WNBA players that have been speaking about their conditions, it would go a long way in generating support for the players as they fight more a more fair collective bargaining agreement.

With the CBA up for renegotiation after the season, the WNBA players will be looking for as much support as possible as they go for a greater slice of league revenue among other changes. And Los Angeles Sparks forward and President of the WNPBA Nneka Ogwumike will have to forcefully make the case for why players deserve more and what changes the WNBA should make to accommodate their 144 players. Last year, Ogwumike spoke about what new Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and NBPA President Chris Paul told her about this process:

“…when I asked him if he had any wise words for me, as I helped lead our PA through this vote and the vision for the future…. well, he didn’t give me any advice on our decision. He knew that was ours alone to make. But he did say one thing about being in a leadership position that really stuck with me.

He said, “Nneka, just remember this — it’s alright if you don’t know.”

For NBA stars like Paul, sharing resources, offering occasional bits of advice if needed, and most importantly, standing with WNBA players in public as they take the lead in CBA negotiations is the most important. NBA players have shouted out WNBA players on social media and discussed how important the game is, and if they can lend their voices here, it would help shape public opinion as well as add to the discussion of fair pay in the United States.

As the WNBA has continued to grow, so has the stature of its players. Players have been able to speak out on various societal issues even as they face great risk to their careers. Their advocacy has extended into their own livelihoods as they look to change the CBA, improve conditions in the league, and in international competition. As they battle their league for fair conditions, having NBA players standing with and supporting them will go a long way in helping them achieve their goals. It’ll be fascinating to see how it plays out from here.